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Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism

A Report of the U.S. National Academies

Lewis M. Branscomb

Harvard University

This discussion is derived from the study by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of how science and technology might assist in countering catastrophic terrorism.1 This study was initiated by the presidents of the three branches of the Academy shortly after initial discussion with a large group of experts on September 25, 2001. The project was carried out by a committee of 24, with Lewis Branscomb and Richard Klausner as cochairs. The committee was supported by a set of more specialized expert working groups, numbering 119.2 The work of the committee and its panels was then subjected to 46 independent expert reviewers. To avoid any delay in the project, the work was entirely financed out of the Academies’ own funds. The resulting 400-page report was presented to the Congress, White House, and public on June 25, 2002. It was released in book form by the National Academies Press on August 2, 2002. The discussion below, now one and one-half years after the event that triggered the need for the study, includes a number of extensions of material and ideas in the original report. For these the author takes personal responsibility.

The study set out to answer three primary questions:

  1. How can science and engineering contribute to making the nation safer against the threat of catastrophic terrorism?

  2. What key actions can be undertaken now, based on knowledge and technologies in hand? What are the key opportunities for reducing current and future risks even further through longer-term research and development activities?



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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism— A Report of the U.S. National Academies Lewis M. Branscomb Harvard University This discussion is derived from the study by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of how science and technology might assist in countering catastrophic terrorism.1 This study was initiated by the presidents of the three branches of the Academy shortly after initial discussion with a large group of experts on September 25, 2001. The project was carried out by a committee of 24, with Lewis Branscomb and Richard Klausner as cochairs. The committee was supported by a set of more specialized expert working groups, numbering 119.2 The work of the committee and its panels was then subjected to 46 independent expert reviewers. To avoid any delay in the project, the work was entirely financed out of the Academies’ own funds. The resulting 400-page report was presented to the Congress, White House, and public on June 25, 2002. It was released in book form by the National Academies Press on August 2, 2002. The discussion below, now one and one-half years after the event that triggered the need for the study, includes a number of extensions of material and ideas in the original report. For these the author takes personal responsibility. The study set out to answer three primary questions: How can science and engineering contribute to making the nation safer against the threat of catastrophic terrorism? What key actions can be undertaken now, based on knowledge and technologies in hand? What are the key opportunities for reducing current and future risks even further through longer-term research and development activities?

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings How can government and society make good decisions about science and technology homeland security programs and activities? How can the government manage the necessary science and technology programs? To understand how science and technology might contribute to countering terrorism, we must evaluate the nature of the threat, the vulnerabilities of targets in civil society, and the availability of technical solutions to the vulnerabilities that are most likely to be exploited by terrorists. TERRORISTS’ ADVANTAGES The terrorists possess some advantages, despite their small numbers (relative to the security forces of a modern industrial nation). First, their actions are unpredictable, since their objectives are, at least those of ideological terrorists such as al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, largely idiosyncratic and obscure.3 Second, we must assume that the terrorist group has some part of their number in covert residence within the society they plan to attack. There may also be domestic terrorists who are citizens of the target society. Third, terrorists may be very patient; they have the initiative in deciding when an attack may occur. As a result, those defending against terrorism must be alert at all times; the terrorists need be prepared only when they choose to strike. Finally, terrorists may have international bases of operations, and quite possibly enjoy the sponsorship and assistance of a rogue state. This combination of stateless terrorists who infiltrate target societies, supported by the resources of an irresponsible government, is a particularly dangerous combination. The U.S. government was obviously concerned that the Baathist government of Iraq might represent such a state, although evidence indicating a link to the September 11, 2001, attack is substantively outweighed by data to the contrary.4 ADVANTAGES OF INDUSTRIAL SOCIETIES THREATENED BY TERRORISTS Modern industrial societies have some offsetting advantages to terrorism. Their global intelligence and military presence, especially when they cooperate with one another, may keep the terror networks off balance and may be able to damage some of them. Military action, or the threat of it, may discourage rogue states from supporting the terrorists. Through the application of available or new technologies, states can make targets less vulnerable, thus less attractive. They can limit the damage that may result from an attack, increase the speed of recovery, and provide forensic tools to identify the perpetrators.

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings U.S. GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE AND HOMELAND SECURITY The U.S. federal government is organized for cold war, not for dealing with a serious threat of catastrophic domestic terrorism. Issues are compartmented into separate departments for military concerns and for civil justice, for domestic or foreign affairs, and for public or private responsibilities. Although the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) comprises most of the agencies concerned with protecting the nation’s borders and its imports and is intended to provide support for the police, fire, and medical first responders, almost all the science and technology experience and capability in the federal government lie in departments and agencies outside the DHS and in the private sector. Managing the organizational challenges facing the U.S. government will be a formidable task. THREE MAIN CATEGORIES OF PUBLIC POLICY APPROACHES TO COUNTERING TERRORISM First, foreign policies may, over time and if designed for the purpose, reduce poverty, injustice, authoritarian rule, and religious zealotry. This is a very long-term task, and there is certainly no guarantee of success. Second, there are the tools of domestic policing through which the government attempts to identify and root out hidden terrorists. Creation of a domestic intelligence service to further this aim has been discussed by politicians, but these approaches may threaten the very civil liberties and constitutional rights the government is sworn to protect. The third type of policy engages technology and management to harden domestic targets, reduce the damage, and enhance recovery. This is the focus of the Academies report, which found that science and technology can contribute substantially to making the nation safer but cannot assure that catastrophic attacks will not succeed. TARGETS OF AND WEAPONS FOR TERRORIST ATTACKS In the Academies report the targets of terrorist attacks are organized into the following eight categories: nuclear and radiological attacks human health and food systems toxic chemicals and flammable or explosive materials communications and information services energy systems (power plants and distribution) transportation systems (air, sea, and land) cities and fixed infrastructure (buildings, water supply, tunnels, and bridges)

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings people (including their confidence in public institutions) The terrorists’ weapons include fissile nuclear and radiological materials biological organisms used against human and agricultural health systems military-type chemical weapons inflammable, toxic, and explosive chemicals and materials cyber- and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks on electronic targets, such as telecoms, data, or controls transportation and industrial materials systems used as weapons explosives derived from, for example, fuel oil and nitrogen fertilizer It is important to appreciate that this list is much larger than what in U.S. law are called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons designed initially for military use and restricted (but not eliminated) by a series of treaties. It is essential that those concerned with counterterrorism bear in mind that while weapons of mass destruction are perhaps the most lethal, they also tend to be the most inaccessible to a terror organization, at least if it is not assisted by a technically competent government. The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, certainly created mass destruction, but the weapon used (a fully fueled airliner used as a manned cruise missile) was technically not a WMD—that is, it did not arise from a military system designed for mass destruction.5 ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS: COMMERCIAL EFFICIENCY CREATES VULNERABILITIES The vulnerabilities of modern industrial societies result not only from the possible escape from government control of military WMDs but also from the possible use of products of commercial and industrial operations that may be used as weapons by terrorists. In the latter category are the use of agricultural fertilizer and fuel oil to make explosives, the possible release of toxic chemicals from railroad tank cars during shipment, interference with or modification of electronic messages used to control critical processes, and so forth. There is a larger source of vulnerability of civil society, however, arising from the very efficiency of its competitive economic system. The competitive drive for commercial efficiency creates linkages and vulnerabilities in what are called critical infrastructure industries—industries governing energy, transportation, communications, food production and distribution, public health, and financial transactions. The mechanisms through which the quest for industrial efficiency may threaten the industry’s resilience to catastrophic terrorism include

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings single-point failures, where costs are high and risks from small perturbations are low, for example, ultra-high-voltage transformers in electric power distribution insufficient stockpiles of spare parts to permit rapid restoration of services, especially where component costs are high and replacement times are long. excessive concentration in the quest for scale economies, for example, the concentration of chicken meat processing and distribution in several large firms or the aggregation of fuel in passenger liners in the largest commercial air transports coupling to other critical infrastructure systems to leverage their scale economies, for example, the dependence of transportation safety on the availability of electric power and secure computer networks Thus, a competitive economy creates new vulnerabilities, which only government policy and industrial cooperation can reduce. The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology estimates that 85 percent of U.S. infrastructure systems are owned and run by private firms, not the government. If industry is to bear the cost of these investments, it must make public good investments without any reliable means of evaluating risk, and thus the justification for spending the capital. So, who will pay to make infrastructure more secure? What incentives will the federal government offer to the private sector? WHO WILL PAY TO HARDEN CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE? There are a variety of possible policies to motivate private investments in the hardening of critical infrastructure. Some of them are compulsion through regulation (which may require congressional legislation) subsidies of research and development to design hardening strategies through public-private research and development partnerships (This still leaves industry with the capital expense for implementing the strategy.) voluntary commitments with antitrust exemption (The chemical industry in the United States has an excellent record of voluntary standards for plant safety that might become a model for protections from terrorism.) reinsurance as an inducement to set a sliding scale of rates for terrorism loss insurance, reflecting the extent to which client firms have adopted hardening measures DUAL-USE STRATEGIES FOR HARDENING INDUSTRY In a limited number of cases, firms may be able to devise hardening strategies that also reduce costs or improve product or service value so that the total

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings costs are minimized or are even negative. The experience of the way many firms responded to the Y2K threat offers some encouragement for this notion. The dual-use strategy is needed for at least three reasons: to increase the likelihood that industry will invest in hardening critical infrastructure to create a more sustainable public commitment to the costs and inconveniences of national efforts against terrorist threats to integrate homeland security research and development with the rest of the societal research and engineering base to ensure that a fully national effort of high quality results Because the targets and many of the weapons are imbedded in the civil economy, security issues cannot be neatly separated from the daily life of the civil population. Thus, the strategy for gradually restructuring many of our physical facilities, production processes, means for providing food distribution, and the like will have to reflect a complex balance of public good investments for which government will have to take the initiative and commercial investments aimed at competitive success. The political economy of the United States is not designed to make this marriage of conflicting interests and responsibilities very easy; European nations are more accustomed to this balance in their economies. EXAMPLES OF THE ACADEMIES’ RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DEALING WITH A VARIETY OF THREATS A few examples of specific threats and the science and technology recommendations (selected from the 134 recommendations in the report) are summarized here. Nuclear and Radiological Threats If terrorists, with a minimal level of scientific knowledge, can acquire enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), they may be able to assemble an inefficient but effective nuclear weapon in a major city. Thus, the United States and Russia are cooperating in safeguarding fissile material and blending down stocks of HEU. Even more dangerous is the possible availability of finished nuclear weapons provided by rogue states with nuclear weapons capability if global cooperation for nonproliferation fails. The U.S. public must be educated on the nature of radiological threats, both from “dirty bombs” and from damaged nuclear electrical power plants. Public ignorance about radiation hazards may induce a level of panic much more destructive than the radiation from which people may be fleeing.

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings Biological Threats to People and Their Food Supply Research on pathogenesis of infectious agents, and particularly on means for early detection of the presence of such pathogens before their symptomatic appearance, is important. Nations will stockpile vaccines against known diseases, but the threat of genetic modification—while perhaps beyond the capability of most terrorists (but not of rogue states)—requires a vigorous research effort to find solutions for detection, evaluation, and response. Although in the United States the Centers for Disease Control provides a robust capability in epidemiology, there is no equivalent capability for possible biological attacks on agriculture and farm animals. Thus, measures to protect the food supply and provide decontamination after an attack must have high priority. Toxic Chemicals, Explosives, and Flammable Materials Some highly lethal chemicals, such as those made for military applications, are relatively easy to make. There is even greater risk from industrial chemicals, which are widely accessible as they move in commerce. Dangerous chemicals in transit should be tracked electronically. To ensure that only first responders, and not terrorists, know what the tank cars contain, the rail cars should be equipped with encrypted electronic identification. Sensor networks are required to detect and characterize dangerous materials, particularly when they are airborne. Self-analyzing filter systems for modern office buildings whose windows cannot be opened must not only protect the inhabitants but also detect and report the first presence of those materials (such as aerosols) that may be trapped in improved filters. An example of quite long-range basic research that could prove rewarding would be the discovery of olfactory biosensors than can reach levels of sensitivity dogs already possess. Energy Systems The hazards associated with fossil fuel storage, shipment, and use are well known. Perhaps less apparent are the vulnerabilities of a modern electric power grid. Many of these systems have vulnerable, unique, extra-high-voltage transformers that do not have spares and thus represent a single-point failure. A solution recommended in the Academies report is the production of a substantial number of mid-sized transformers specifically designed to be reconfigurable in combination to replace one of the failed high-voltage transformers. Another example is the replacement of operating engineers in power distribution control rooms with computer systems running Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. These computer-based software systems are generally produced abroad; it is difficult to guarantee their integrity. In addi-

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings tion, while some electric utilities use encrypted traffic on fiber optics to communicate among the SCADA computers, some use clear traffic on the Internet, vulnerable to a cyberattack. From the perspective of a longer time frame, adaptive power grids should be developed to make them harder to attack and to make recovery after attack much easier and quicker. Communications and Information Systems In the United States the most urgent issue is to reconfigure first responder communications so that police, fire, and medical personnel can communicate with one another and with the emergency operations center (EOC). Inability to do so greatly aggravated loss of life, especially among firefighters, in the World Trade Center attack. The main worry about cyberattacks is that they may be used, perhaps with EMP as well, to amplify the destructive effect of a conventional physical or biological attack. The longer-term concerns about human resources for research in computer and network security were also discussed in Dr. Wm. A. Wulf’s paper. The goal must be the invention of fully secure operating systems. Transportation and Borders Sensor networks for inspection of goods and passengers crossing the nation’s borders will be a research priority. The primary technical challenge will not be the design of sensors themselves, although much progress is needed here, but in the systems engineering of the networks of sensors together with data fusion and decision support software. Biometrics for more secure identification of individuals shows promise, and systems superior to the driver’s licenses used by most travelers are promising. The range of threats to the transportation networks of a modern state is very great, and careful systems analysis to identify the weak points and find the most effective and economical means for protecting them is essential. Cities and Fixed Infrastructure The emergency operations centers in many large U.S. cities are quite vulnerable, not only to a destructive physical attack but also to a more indirect attack on their ability to access data and to communicate through a cyber- or EMP attack. Remedying these vulnerabilities must have high urgency; in many cases, the centers will have to be relocated.6 Much research is already under way to analyze the structural characteristics of high-rise buildings that may make them much more vulnerable than neces-

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings sary. Without waiting for this research to result in revised building codes, the expert panel recommends immediate adoption and extension where appropriate of European standards for fire and blast, which were much improved following World War II. As already noted, air intakes for large buildings need to be less accessible and equipped with better air filters, perhaps with chemical analysis sufficient to determine that a toxic material is present. Instrumentation to allow first responders to detect toxic and hazardous materials; special provisions for protecting harbors, bridges, dams, tunnels, and dikes; and protection against attacks on urban water supplies downstream from the treatment plant are all discussed in the Academies report. Response of People to Terrorist Threats The study concludes that public fear and confusion are more likely than terror in response to most attacks. The main dangers are panic and destructive behavior resulting from a lack of credible public information. Thus, a loss of public confidence in those responsible for protecting the public can also be an attack amplifier. The government faces a number of dilemmas, for example, in using a color-coded warning system to alert the public to the perceived likelihood of additional terrorist attacks. Some citizens feel that this system itself may needlessly amplify the threat, thus doing terrorists’ psychological job for them. An urgent matter is for the government to train and introduce to the public well in advance of any attack a number of trusted and knowledgeable people, prepared to provide accurate and trustworthy information quickly and authoritatively. TECHNICAL STRATEGIES Admittedly, technical strategies can only make the terrorist’s task more difficult and less consequential. Only effective detection and disruption of terrorist capabilities through intelligence and police work in the short term, and reducing the supply and motivation of terrorists in the long term can truly reduce catastrophic terror attacks. But neither of these strategies is assured of success; it would be irresponsible of government not to adopt the most cost-effective strategies for reducing vulnerability to terrorism. From the great variety of threats studied by the Academies’ experts, a few commonsense conclusions about technical strategy can be extracted. Repair the weakest links (single-point failures) in vulnerable systems and infrastructures. Use defenses-in-depth (do not rely only on perimeter defenses or firewalls). Use “circuit breakers” to isolate and stabilize failing system elements.

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings Build security and flexibility into basic system designs where possible. Design systems for use by typical first responders (which will require unusually careful attention to the needs and capabilities of the end users of new technologies, since those needs are so different from the military, which the technical community has supported for so long). Focus priority attention on the “system of systems” technical challenge. The last point is particularly important. Attacks are likely to involve multiple complex systems. There are a number of dimensions to the systems engineering challenge of homeland security. The multiple critical industrial infrastructures are closely coupled. Almost all of the responses to terrorist threats require the concerned action of federal agencies, state and local authorities, private companies, and in some cases friendly nations. The technologies used in counterterrorism will themselves be coupled complex systems. An evident example is the notion of complex networks of sensors that are coupled to databases, within which the network output is fused with other information and from which sensible information must be provided so that local officials in EOCs can use it. Thus, priority setting requires modeling and simulating attack and response and red teaming to test the effectiveness of proposed solutions. The Academies’ report attached a high priority to the establishment, within the new Department of Homeland Security, of a Homeland Security Institute to provide the systems analysis and decision support services to the senior officials in the department. Provision for such an institute is in the law creating DHS, although it is given only a three-year life unless extended by the Congress. SUMMARY: FIVE POINTS ABOUT COUNTERING TERRORISM Only a farsighted foreign policy, addressing the roots of terrorism and denying terrorist ideologies a foothold in other societies, can make the United States and its allies safer. Weapons of mass destruction are potentially devastating, but the most probable threats will depend on the characteristics of the economy itself, as was the case on September 11, 2001. Reducing vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure is a highly complex systems problem; it requires a tested strategy. Policies for understanding who will pay to harden the critical infrastructure industry, and how the federal government and industry cooperate to this end, are required. A unique degree of cooperation between industry, cities, and government is required.

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Terrorism: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Improving Responses - U.S.-Russian Workshop Proceedings NOTES 1.   Making the nation safer: The role of science and technology in countering terrorism. 2002. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Website: www.nap.edu. Also available online in PDF at: http://books.nap.edu/html/stct/index.html. 2.   The quality and timeliness of the report were in large part due to the effort of the project’s National Research Council staff, Dr. Ronald Taylor and Dr. Elizabeth Grossman. 3.   Politically motivated terrorists, such as the Irish Red Army, may have a specific goal, which, if achieved, might end their attacks. One can imagine an attempt to negotiate an end to their terrorism. This is not so for the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the September 11, 2001, attack on New York City and Washington, D.C. 4.   Gerald Holton anticipates just such a combination of individual terrorists supported by a rogue government in a paper presented at a terrorism conference at the Hoover Institution in 1976 and published at that time in Terrorism, an International Journal. He called this threat Type III terrorism. See G. Holton, Reflections on modern terrorism. Edge, 2002. Available online at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/holton/holton_index.html. 5.   The traditional definition (in many U.S. statutes) of WMD is those weapons developed for military use complete with delivery systems. Thus the search in Iraq for chemical weapons of mass destruction focused on chemical warheads and the stocks and production facilities for charging them. Ordinary chemicals in commerce, such as chlorine, phosgene, and other such materials, have not been considered WMD as defined in U.S. law. 6.   The EOC in New York City was located in the World Trade Center, surely not a good choice.