National labs seek edge in homeland security technology

LIVERMORE, Calif.-When James Bond needs a high-tech edge in his battle against the latest supervillain bent on world dominion, 007 invariably turns to the beloved Q and his laboratory full of customized weapons for British secret agents. In the deadly serious war against terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, Tom Ridge, secretary-designate of the new Department of Homeland Security, will increasingly look westward for his own technological edge, toward the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In fact, scientists and technicians from Livermore, and its sister nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos and Sandia, N.M., have operated largely unseen on the front lines of the counter-terrorism/counter-proliferation fight since long before 9/11. Since the late 1960s, the labs, which are today part of the Department of Energy, have staffed secret Nuclear Emergency Response Teams that use sophisticated radioactivity-detection equipment to respond to reports of nuclear smuggling. When U.S. intelligence officials were told in October 2001 that terrorists had acquired a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb and planned to smuggle it into Manhattan-where its detonation could kill hundreds of thousands of people-the response teams rapidly descended on New York. Fortunately, the report turned out to be false.

After the 1995 release of sarin gas in a Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the nuclear weapons labs deployed chemical-weapons sensors in the Washington Metrorail system. More recently, mobs of spectators and revelers at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were largely unaware of the presence of Livermore and Los Alamos technicians operating a sophisticated biological-weapons detection system and field laboratory called BASIS, for Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System. The lab teams also deployed to Florida in the fall of 2001 in response to hoaxes associated with last year's anthrax attacks. According to Livermore sources, three BASIS systems are even now deployed in undisclosed U.S. cities.

At Sandia National Laboratories, too, researchers and engineers are developing technologies useful for homeland security. Sandia helped create and license the decontamination foam for chemical and biological agents that was used to help clean up the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings in Washington, the ABC and CBS network news offices in New York City, and the American Media building after the anthrax letter mailings last year. Sandia has also helped develop extremely sensitive explosives detection technologies, handheld and otherwise, and a bomb disrupter that uses sound to disable bombs without exploding them so evidence against bomb makers can be retained. The disrupter is in wide use now by police and military bomb squads and was used to disable terrorist Richard Reid's shoe bomb last December.

Meanwhile, at Livermore, a unique Forensic Science Center specializing in explosives and weapons of mass destruction has helped identify and trace the origin of weapons-grade uranium smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. It helped convict "Unabomber" Theodore J. Kaczynski. And the forensics lab is said to be assisting in the investigation of last year's anthrax attacks.

Livermore is home to some of the fastest supercomputers on Earth, and its staff has a wealth of expertise gained in computer simulations of how weapons of mass destruction work and how they decay. Using these resources, Livermore has also developed special "data-mining" capabilities and advanced simulations, to aid in the war against terrorism and in the effort to stop the smuggling of catastrophic weapons. In the case of the 2002 Winter Olympics, for instance, Livermore computer scientists started with a computer code they had developed for the U.S. military to simulate different combat scenarios, and adapted it so that emergency responders deployed to Salt Lake City could be ready for possible terrorist attacks and other emergencies. Livermore is also working with the California National Guard to develop a state plan for coping with threats to homeland security.

Livermore teams routinely conduct "vulnerability assessments" for private energy companies, identifying critical nodes in the nation's energy infrastructure that might be susceptible to terrorist attack and recommending protections that companies and authorities might adopt. Recently, Livermore technicians simulated the likely consequences of an explosion at a propane storage facility that was the intended target of two anti-government militia members who where later convicted of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. A Livermore scientist testified that the planned attack could have caused a massive, 1-kiloton explosion. A similar assessment of the vulnerability of dams to terrorist attack has led some municipalities to alter their rules governing boating on dammed lakes.

"In both those cases, we used our very sophisticated three-dimensional computer modeling to show authorities what a worst-case scenario might look like, and it really opened their eyes," said Richard Wheeler, Livermore's manager for homeland security analysis.

"What we've found in the energy sector, for instance, is that people have done a lot of planning for natural hazards, which are single-point and somewhat predictable events such as Hurricane Andrew slamming into the East Coast," he said. "They haven't really considered the implications of being the potential target of a series of coordinated attacks, orchestrated by someone with malicious intent."

From the perspective of a determined terrorist organization, experts say, the United States looks like a complex series of linked networks whose critical nodes and interdependencies are not well understood even by those who operate them. "Our telecommunications system, for instance, relies on water-cooled switches," said Wheeler. "The water pumps require electricity to operate. Likewise, our natural gas pipelines are regulated by pumping stations that require electricity. So if our electric grid is interrupted, our telecommunications and natural gas systems could go down. Natural gas, in turn, is important for generating electricity. So the new Department of Homeland Security is going to have to take a systems perspective in analyzing our vulnerabilities, and that's an arena where the weapons labs have incredible computer-modeling and analytical tools to bring to bear."

A Transforming Threat

Although the public typically thinks of the nuclear weapons labs as focused on the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, the labs have been transforming themselves during the past decade into centers of expertise on U.S. national security, with an emphasis on safeguarding against weapons of mass destruction.

"As terrorist violence escalated dramatically during the 1990s-from the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, right up through 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks-people have become increasingly sensitized to the vulnerability of the U.S. homeland," said Harry Vantine, division leader of Livermore's Counterterrorism and Incident Response Division. "During that evolution, our emphasis on counter-terrorism grew in ways that might surprise the casual observer."

With U.S. and Western interests increasingly the targets of terrorists-and with the size of the U.S. nuclear complex having shrunk dramatically with the end of the Cold War-the weapons labs have found a niche in the growth industry of protecting the homeland against weapons of mass destruction.

"We have a lot of attributes that adapt very naturally to the counter-terror and nonproliferation missions," said Vantine. "For instance, we have intelligence assets, access to classified information, and employees with high security clearances who can handle sensitive information. We also possess some of the world's most advanced computers. So I think our innate capabilities in this field really appealed to Governor Ridge when he was studying the nation's homeland defense needs."

That point was underscored in the wording of the Bush administration's original proposal for a Homeland Security Department, which included Lawrence Livermore as one of the entities to be folded into the new department. Although that language was later dropped during congressional debate because of the weapons labs' continuing responsibilities in monitoring the nuclear weapons stockpile, it seems likely that Livermore will serve as a link between the Homeland Security Department and the nation's scientific and research communities. On December 10, Livermore announced that it was creating a new Homeland Security Organization to manage its counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation programs. That organization will report to the new Homeland Security Department.

Unanswered Questions

Major questions remain unanswered, however, about exactly how the new organization will work with the nascent department. And that kind of uncertainty is evident throughout the U.S. government, as scores of agencies and organizations begin repositioning themselves to adapt to the largest government reorganization in half a century.

Several Livermore programs with an estimated combined annual budget of $50 million are to be transferred into the lab's new Homeland Security Organization, which will become part of the Homeland Security Department, although the programs themselves will stay here in California. Among them are Livermore's Nuclear Smuggling Program and Threat Assessment Center, its Chemical and Biological National Security program, the Energy Security and Assurance program, and a portion of Livermore's Advanced Scientific Research program.

The question of whether Livermore will serve as the "lead lab" and focal point between the national laboratories and the new department-or whether Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia will report to the Department of Homeland Security separately-also hangs in the air.

And whether this massive reorganization will distract the laboratories from their work is another important question. Scientists and managers here say it could have both helpful and harmful effects.

"I think creating a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security will help focus national attention, and hopefully resources, on missions that in the past were buried deep within many organizations," said Page Stoutland, deputy division leader at Livermore's Counterterrorism and Incident Response Division. "Because the process will necessitate merging so many different cultures, with all the attendant bureaucratic upheaval that implies, it will be important to establish clear lines of communication and to constantly tweak and update the organizational relationships involved. We'll probably have to take a step backwards while all that plays out. Hopefully the reorganization will then allow us to take two steps forward."

Scientists, researchers, and technicians at Lawrence Livermore-which is managed by the University of California under a contract from the Department of Energy-also wonder whether the unique and freewheeling culture of scientific exploration that has long been the hallmark of the nuclear weapons labs will survive intact under the umbrella of one of the world's largest bureaucracies.

"I believe our national security culture will prove synergistic with a Homeland Security Department, but it will be very important to maintain a free flow of information," said Nancy Suski, a program manager at Livermore. "The fact remains that the government is creating a new entity in the Homeland Security Department out of a lot of very diverse organizations and cultures. I really hope they move out smartly in the early days, or else a lot of people may start circling the wagons to protect their turf, and you could end up with a very large organization at the top with a whole lot of stovepipes leading to it, and little crosstalk."

Richard Wheeler manages Livermore's Homeland Security Analysis program. "I think the new department will be a boon to recruitment of people energized by the challenge of protecting our homeland," he said, "because after the end of the Cold War, it became harder for a time to attract the best and the brightest to come to the labs. On the other hand, the government is creating a huge bureaucracy by throwing together many different organizations and cultures, and the new department will need to maintain its flexibility to be able to adapt to emerging threats. My biggest concern is that expectations are going to ramp up very fast, once the new Homeland Security Department comes on line. The ability for the new department to meet those expectations may not ramp up as fast."

Race Against Time

A tour through the secure campus of Lawrence Livermore drives home just how rapidly the lab is evolving in the interim to counter the growing threat of terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. The halls of the Threat Assessment Center are lined with framed, ominous letters threatening the United States with the use of weapons of mass destruction. The center has been analyzing the letters for credibility.

A briefing in Livermore's Proliferation Prevention and Arms Control program reveals how scientists have scrambled to adapt radiological detectors originally designed to keep dangerous materials inside the U.S. nuclear complex to the far more challenging mission of keeping such materials from being smuggled out of the former Soviet Union, or across U.S. borders.

Scientists at Livermore recently developed a mobile radiation spectrometer-dubbed "Cryo3" for its novel cooling mechanism-that promises to limit the "false positives" from naturally occurring radiation in goods shipped into the United States such as bananas, clay, granite, and orange glaze. The importance of developing better radiation detectors was underscored in a recent presentation by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. The group estimated that the chances that terrorists will launch a successful attack with a radiological "dirty bomb" against a U.S target in the next five to 10 years are as high as 40 percent.

In Livermore's program for Chemical and Biological National Security, scientists have adapted the weapons labs' work in the Human Genome Project by mapping the DNA of numerous deadly biological agents, including anthrax, plague, and foot-and-mouth disease. This mapping can help detectors avoid false readings and help analysts determine the origins of such agents. A handheld biological detection system originally designed for U.S. military Special Forces and called HANAA-for Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzer-can test for 12 known biological agents simultaneously. Livermore recently adapted the system for first responders in the United States, to help them detect future biological attacks.

"In biological forensics, early detection of the actual release of a biological agent is essential, because if you wait until symptoms appear in human hosts and the disease has reached the infectious stage, the spike of how quickly it spreads at that point goes off the charts," said J. Patrick Fitch, leader of Livermore's chemical and biological program, which has collected and analyzed almost 1 billion liters of air for the presence of biological agents in the past year alone.

The grim familiarity Livermore scientists have with doomsday scenarios that were once reserved for Hollywood thrillers-and their understanding of statistical probability-gives them an air of fatalism when talking about the likely toll of death and injury in the war on terrorism. It's not a matter of whether terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction will attack the United States, they say. It's a matter of when.

"That's why I think one of the first acts of the Department of Homeland Security," said Livermore's Stoutland, "should be to define a matrix of success that will not judge them as failures in the event of a single successful terrorist attack. Because I think an attack by terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction is inevitable. I don't know how many people will be killed or what kind of attack it might be. But it's inevitable."

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