Can Science and Technology Help to Counter Terrorism?
Richard L. Garwin
There are large contributions to be made by science and technology, ranging from the most basic research on information technology and the action of bacteria and viruses to the need for new understanding of social dynamics and personal motivation in countering terrorism. Many of these endeavors, if successful, could have far-reaching benefits both for the public and for business. These “dual-benefit” activities are very difficult to design and fund. In addition to the benefits, there are serious prospective problems of misuse, manipulation, and the application of the new-found knowledge by terrorists and by states in warfare.
Nevertheless, it is desirable to push ahead, in order to allow the continuation of free and democratic societies in the face of the evolving threats of personal empowerment and terrorist use of technology.
There is also a matter of motivation of those who work on counterterrorism. It is one thing to construct useful, and even beautiful, buildings against the challenges of cost, time, limited space, and within the constraints of gravity, wind, and functionality. It is quite another to incur significant costs and additional design constraints in an attempt to reduce their vulnerability to terrorism and to losses should an attack occur.
In the medical profession, we see similar conflicts. Some people pursue biomedical research in the quest for knowledge and truth, confident that the information acquired will be helpful in some way. Others invent new technology for countering disease, such as the mechanical stents now so widely applied or the imaging technology that permits the acquisition of information to guide treatment, without the cost and hazard of invasive surgery. At the same time, however, medical professionals put significant effort into repairing the damages of knife and gunshot wounds, preventable accidents, and the like. These “missions of mercy” require every bit as much ingenuity, knowledge, and technique as countering or caring for natural disease, but it is debilitating, to say the least, to exercise and expend such resources when the damage has been inflicted intentionally by one human being on another.
Still, people sort themselves out, and those who are willing, and even committed, to do such work deserve to be supported and esteemed by society. In addition, many of
those working in S&T, as in other endeavors, do so as skilled workers who are employed in a system and who produce for their public or private employers what they are asked to do. They are supervised and evaluated and provided with tools independent of whether what they do is of benefit to society or not. Thus, it is the job of society to harness science and technology routinely and of management to give incentives to individuals and organizations to prevent damage from terrorists and to provide mechanisms to inhibit their activities.
Strengthening the design of a building against earthquake does not automatically increase the threat from fire or disease. In contrast, expending resources to eliminate totally (if that were possible) the possibility of damage from blast, knowledgeable terrorists can, without much difficulty, shift their focus to incendiary or biological or chemical attack, or to a building not yet protected. Therefore, a balanced approach is desirable, countering threats that may not be evident or even imminent today, but that may well be the next resort of terrorists.
Given this somewhat negative assessment of the problems in working to counter terrorism, I recognize that India, the United States, and many other countries have enormous human resources and that there will be plenty of people willing to work effectively to counter terrorism. People who do this work understand that they will not be perfectly successful and that it will result only in ameliorating, rather than eliminating, damage from terrorists.
An additional aspect for such research is the recognition that major damage from terrorism results from the analog of “immune response” of society to terrorist acts. Just as there are autoimmune diseases in medicine, so too the response of society to a threat of terrorism can cause more damage than do the terrorist attacks themselves. In light of this, solutions must always be evaluated in terms of the cost they inflict in society. We should tread as carefully as possible in order to minimize the inhibition of freedom and to permit the evolution of democracy and the enhancement of well-being.
These generalities are illustrated by the following discussion.
Terrorism disruptive of entire societies unfortunately spans an enormous range, from the familiar “mall” bomber with a vest or a briefcase full of high explosives to chemical or biological weapons terrorism (thus far not experienced to any significant extent), to the disruption of unique bridges or other urban choke points, to the ultimate nuclear explosion or the multiple seeding of a contagious disease such as smallpox.
There can be considerable learning from experience with the first level of damage from individual events. Particularly from the many cases of suicide bombers in Israel, and now in Iraq, we are familiar with the loss of dozens or even hundreds of people to a single suicide bomber. The general approach to protection is, first and foremost, to reduce the number of individuals who are willing to carry out such activities. This entails a careful look not only at the behavior of our society and government, but also at what the government says and at how it is perceived. I will not mention this again, although I believe that it is of fundamental importance.
Relatively simple approaches for the detection of explosives or explosive-carrying
devices come next. These differ according to the damage that might be done by an explosion, although it is extremely difficult to protect against the loss of one, or even a few, human lives. That stands in contrast with the entire U.S. police and judicial system. U.S. society is remarkably free for an individual to cause damage or death, but at the same time, the number of such activities is held down by the promise of detection, prosecution, and punishment. The normal criminal justice system is of little help against the individual suicide bomber, although it can be of significant utility against a structure that organizes suicide bombers.
Strictly protective measures include explosive detection systems (sniffers) at mall entrances, roadblocks or barriers to prevent high-speed access by vehicles carrying large amounts of explosives, and rapid-detection systems for detecting hundreds or thousands of kilograms of explosives in a vehicle. It is particularly difficult to detect and deter explosives carried or driven by suicide bombers, since they will probably choose the lesser goal of blowing up the guard if they are frustrated in their approach to the more lucrative target.
In order to prevent the autoimmune destruction of society by the threat or practice of a modest amount of mall bombing, it is essential for leaders and citizenry alike to put this threat in context. In the United States there were 2.4 million deaths from various causes in 2001. Of these, deaths from heart disease were 700,000; cancer, 553,800; stroke, 164,000; accidents, 102,000; and influenza, 36,000. Among the accidents, some 42,000 were motor vehicle deaths. An appropriate sense of perspective for leaders and the general public is essential if societal disruption out of proportion to the threat is not to degrade the performance of the society and to impair civil liberties and commerce alike.
For instance, the Nuclear and Radiological Threat category of Making the Nation Safer includes so-called dirty bombs.65 These might not be explosions at all, but simple intentional contamination with radioactive materials.66
A key point is the identification of the radioactive material, and the characterization of the threat by duration of exposure. If it is cobalt-60, with a half-life of 5 years, even though a substantial fraction of the population exposed for 5 years could be at risk from cancer, controlled evacuation of the contaminated region within a few days or weeks would limit the hazard by a factor of 50 or more. This is consistent with the regulatory approach to environmental hazards such as arsenic and drinking water, for which the regulated limit in the United States is now 50 parts per billion (ppb), corresponding to a lifetime cancer risk of about 1.7 percent. The new limit is to be 10 ppb (reached by 2006), which then corresponds to a lifetime cancer risk of about 0.3 percent. To my mind, this is unacceptably high, but there is also a requirement that consumers be notified of the arsenic level in their municipal drinking supply, so that they can take individual measures if they so wish.
To reduce the threat from radiological dispersal devices, it is highly desirable to implement stricter control and reporting of the millions of sources of intense radioactivity. These are used for radio therapy in hospitals, industrial radiography of
National Research Council. 2002. Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. The report is available in PDF format at http://books.nap.edu/hml/stct/index.html.
Dirty bombs have been discussed at some length by Henry Kelly and colleagues from the Federation of American Scientists. See: http://www.fas.org/ssp/docs/030602-kellytestimony.htm.
heavy thick materials, and food sterilization as well as, to some extent, polymerization of plastics. Three things have to be done. First, opportunities for terrorists to obtain dangerous radioactive materials must be reduced; second, there need to be early warning systems that would detect illicit movement of radioactive materials; and, finally, panic and casualties from any attack that does occur must be minimized.
At the other extreme of nuclear threats is the explosion of a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear device in an urban environment or in a harbor. I have published some analyses leading to estimates of hundreds of thousands of people who would be killed by the explosion even of a 1-kiloton bomb (about 5 percent yield of the nuclear weapon that destroyed Nagasaki). For a ground-level explosion, many more people would be killed by exposure to the prompt radiation from the explosion and to the immediate fallout of the debris from the explosion itself than occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.67
Protecting society against terrorist use of nuclear weapons lies in the improved safeguarding of nuclear weapons by the states that possess them. In this regard, Russia is a special problem in view of the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and the rather poor security created by the economic problems in that country. Pakistan is another concern, because its dozens of nuclear weapons are at risk of diversion by sympathizers with extremist Islamic groups, and also by a potential coup against the government.
It is possible to detect the nuclear materials – Pu-239 or U-235 – most commonly used for nuclear weapons. Of these, highly enriched uranium is the greater problem, since it is far less detectable than plutonium. Uranium is also easier to fabricate into a nuclear weapon that might well have the full yield of the Hiroshima bomb – some 13 kilotons.
Another general-purpose instrument against terrorism is intelligence. To this we need to add the powerful tool of appropriate financial rewards for informants.
Turning to bioterrorism, I offer three examples: foot–and-mouth disease, salmonella, and smallpox.
Foot–and-mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious disease that affects pigs and cows. It is not apparently a threat to human health. However, it is typically forbidden to import any animal product from an infected region into a country free of FMD because it is so contagious. This is a problem that cries out for improved vaccines, in order to prevent the spread of FMD in places where it already exists, and to protect animal populations in states that are free of FMD. Ironically, the existing vaccine is not much used for protection because its use results in the animals developing antibodies that cannot be distinguished from the presence of FMD.
It is in the interest of the trading nations of the world to develop effective protection against FMD, and this could very well be done in India. More effective vaccines for FMD are needed. It is highly desirable to carry out such work, even though the United States has been free of FMD. As with smallpox, the absence of even a single case should not convey a sense of security, but a profound sense of insecurity and instability against the introduction of the disease.
Salmonella is a frequent cause of food poisoning in the United States and to a greater extent in other countries. Its cause is a common bacterium causing primarily illness and occasionally death. The one recorded bioterrorist incident in the United
States, other than the anthrax attacks of fall 2001, was by the Rajneeshee sect in Oregon that wished to reduce the number of people voting, in order to give their candidate a better chance of being elected.
We have had a lot of recent experience with anthrax. Among our new-found knowledge is the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment after symptoms begin. To recapitulate, anthrax forms a hardy spore, which survives in the environment for decades. When it is ingested in the lungs or gastrointestinal tract, some fraction of the spores enter the vegetative state, from which the bacteria can reproduce.
There is an effective vaccine against several strains of anthrax, and as mentioned, there is also effective antibiotic treatment. However, recent knowledge of the mechanism by which the bacterial population produces disease implicates three protein products of the bacteria. These toxins act in specific ways in animal cells. These actions can be blocked by appropriate chemical counters. Should such a treatment prove viable, there would be another approach besides preventing the disease or preventing the multiplication of the bacteria, and that would be to detoxify the toxic products, so that the disease itself would be less harmful to its host. Much more biomedical research along these lines is indicated. India should be a prime location because of the substantial competence of its scientists and the lower cost of doing research there.
Despite the effectiveness of a few grams of anthrax in killing five people, it is not highly communicable. In principle, therefore, improved hygiene can protect individuals from the primary source, and it is not necessary to take strong measures to isolate people sick with anthrax.
Smallpox is different. We all know that the world has been free of smallpox since the World Health Organization (WHO) made an extraordinary effort to eradicate the disease worldwide. This was possible because smallpox has no animal hosts other than humans.
In 1972, the U.S. government terminated its vaccination program. Arguments in favor of termination included the fact that several people per year died of side effects of the vaccine, and no one died of smallpox. Therefore, why vaccinate?
Vaccination against smallpox is the analogue of permanently inserted control rods in a nuclear reactor. Failing substantial vaccination, the country is at risk to the dissemination of the smallpox virus. If, for example, the virus were disseminated at a busy airport, tens of thousands of people could unknowingly be exposed and disperse it throughout the United States and the world. In the 2 weeks or so that it takes for the disease to become apparent, many others would be infected, but the key point is that the number of people infected would continue to double or triple every 2 weeks after that.
Smallpox has a fortunate characteristic in that vaccination is effective during the first 4 days after exposure, or so it is thought. Therefore, it is possible in principle, with an appropriate distribution of vaccine and a few-minute course in vaccination techniques, for a few thousand workers throughout the United States to create 10,000 effective vaccinators in the first hour and many times that in the second hour, so that all reachable individuals could be vaccinated within a couple of days. Such an effort would require a plan and provision of bifurcated needles and other supplies for the vaccination process.
The United States has been largely unsuccessful with the George W. Bush administration’s initiative to vaccinate large numbers of first responders and health-care workers, and to make vaccination available to those who desire it. I believe this is a
significant failure. Further, there is not yet a plan to vaccinate hospital and emergency workers in a single day.
My August 2002 paper describes the effectiveness of nonspecific measures to counter a smallpox epidemic.68 Smallpox is not among the most highly communicable diseases. Experience with natural epidemics indicates that each smallpox victim infects about three others. Hence, 1,000 primary cases would grow in 2 weeks to 3,000. Two weeks later that number would grow to 9,000, and so on. If the transmission could be reduced by a factor of 4 – to an average of 0.75 secondary cases per primary case – even if there were no other treatment, 1,000 primary cases would result in a total of 4,000 cases altogether, rather than in tens or hundreds of millions of deaths.
Society need not set up quarantine or other barriers routinely, but they should be available if an outbreak of smallpox (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS]) occurs, at the first sign of a significant number of cases. This would do nothing for the primary victims, but it would keep a tragedy from becoming a disaster by limiting the infection to a multiple of the initial cases, compared with the potential millions of victims of a fulminating epidemic.
In order to achieve this level of containment there must be analysis and planning. In addition, implementation of a plan would require action by much of society. This can only be achieved by the distribution of action messages via radio and particularly television. The Internet is an excellent distribution medium in the United States because it provides data on demand; following an alert, anyone with Internet access would be able to access and print the information relevant to their locality. In instances of biological terrorism, a radiological dispersal incident, or the release of toxic material, the channels for distribution of warning and action information to the public are not inherently affected. Simultaneous attacks on the Internet and the power grid would, however, amplify greatly the impact of biological weapons, radiological dispersed devices, or chemical attack.
Science and technology specific to countering terrorism includes the means of ensuring premature detonation of explosives or of inhibiting the triggering of explosives. Most science and technology counterterrorism tools are highly useful for public health, law enforcement, or general intelligence purposes. Much science and technology now useful for counterterrorism is embodied in systems in general use, such as the media of mass and selective communications. Science and technology cannot eliminate the problem of terrorism, but they can help in opposing it.