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Investor's Business Daily September 08, 2006

Nation's Plugged Some, But Far From All, Security Holes

By Doug Tsuruoka

We're safer, but not safe.

That's how President Bush, in a speech Tuesday, assesses the nation. It's also how many experts assess technology's role in protecting airports, seaports and buildings against terrorists since 9-11.

"We've not progressed as far as you might have thought," said John Pike, head of defense research firm GlobalSecurity.org. "The Department of Homeland Security has doubled their budget since 9-11, but it's hard to figure where that money got to." (See related story, A1.)

U.S. authorities targeted the cash avalanche to plug holes in the nation's anti-terror defenses, but some analysts say serious gaps in anti-terror technology remain.

The DHS spent $3.4 billion directly on homeland security-related technology in fiscal 2005 and is slated to have spent $3.6 billion when fiscal 2006 ends on Sept. 30. It's requesting $4.2 billion in fiscal 2007.

And the above is just for its in-house stuff. That does not include more than $30 billion more in technology-laced discretionary spending in fiscal 2006 that DHS doled out to local governments and law enforcement to buy radios, chemical warfare suits and other anti-terror gear. This funding includes outlays for nontech spending such as hiring more border patrol agents.

It also includes X-ray machines, cargo-container screeners and patrol boats. DHS spent $732 million in 2006 on bomb detectors alone.

Sensors to detect chemical and biological warfare attacks are sniffing the air in a few major U.S. cities, though most people aren't aware of this. Biometric systems to track foreigners in the U.S. are used at several major U.S. airports. And scanners are being developed to pinpoint suicide bombers in crowds or find hidden nukes in cargo containers.

"The No. 1 threat the government sees right now is a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon" being smuggled into the U.S., said Robert Ledoux, chief executive of Passport Systems, a technology startup in Acton, Mass.

Passport is working with DHS to develop a device that detects nukes in cargo. "The scanner uses nuclear resonance fluorescence — or excited photons — to detect cargo composition," Ledoux said.

Building A High-Tech Wall

The goal is deterrence. Technology's main role since 9-11 is to erect a bristling wall of high-tech defenses to make terrorists think twice before attacking — or rather, not attacking — the U.S.

"Enormous progress has been made in creating defensive measures to protect (U.S.) IT assets" since 9-11, Efraim Halevy, an ex-chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, said in an interview.

Critical information technology hubs, databases and infrastructure control points have been made more secure through new security software and other countermeasures, Halevy says.

"IT is a major component of 21st century life. The more it's protected, the less vulnerable the assets of the modern world are in its various manifestations," said Halevy, who runs the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies, a think tank at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Some anti-terror technology in the U.S. originated in Israel, a nation with considerable experience in fighting terror.

While much of this technology is impressive, analysts question how well some of it works.

On the surface, technology seems to be doing its job. There have been no repeats of 9-11 in the U.S. Much credit goes to solid police work in Britain and the U.S. that nipped several plots in the bud.

At times, though, security technology has come up short.

Sensors at airports have ID'd cat litter as nuclear material. Bananas tested positive for explosives because of high potassium content. Knives have slipped by screeners.

And even today, less than 5% of the 11,000 to 17,000 cargo containers that enter U.S. ports daily are inspected.

The General Accountability Office issued two reports in mid-2005 slamming such weaknesses in security technology.

A big hurdle is the high cost of revamping security technology at transport hubs.

Scott Greiper, head of Legend Merchant Group's homeland security unit, estimates the Transportation Security Administration spent $3 billion to $4 billion in 2002-04 to deploy new bomb detectors and X-ray machines at big U.S. airports.

The TSA also hired 43,000 workers to man checkpoints. The screeners earn about $75,000 a year, including benefits, for a cost of more than $3 billion a year.

The agency's also spending $10 billion or so more to equip 450 midsize U.S. airports.

Greiper says the good news is that DHS is getting more sensitive, and portable, detectors that do better in ferreting out bombs and other dangerous objects.

Even with improved technology, security remains a balancing act.

GlobalSecurity's Pike says U.S. airports and planes will never be completely safe. Making flying more secure means making it less easy. Past a point, he says, security concerns make it impossible for airlines to stay in business because of the hardships created for passengers.

Always Will Be 'Tug Of War'

"The only way airports can make their security systems completely secure is to stop flying," Pike said. "There's always going to be a tug of war, a moving target between security and convenience."

Even if security at airports and seaports improves markedly, Pike says, terrorists will still find it easy to slip across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Another threat, Pike says, is short-range nuclear missiles hidden in phony cargo vessels. He says terrorists or rogue states could use such ships to sneak within a few miles of the U.S. coast to attack a major city.

"They don't need" an intercontinental ballistic missile, Pike said.

Companies specializing in security know the challenges. They've unleashed a flood of anti-terror products, with more on the way.

Nanotech material makers are cranking out superstrong netting that can be placed around tankers or warships to thwart attacks by bomb-laden speed boats. Biochips are being perfected that detect for smallpox or anthrax.

One of the most futuristic products is a terahertz radiation scanner, which uses electromagnetic waves to detect from a distance explosives concealed on people or luggage. The waves can be beamed through crowds of commuters. They create radiation that shows whether bombs are present. Prototypes might soon be tested.

Many U.S. transport hubs are being fitted with wireless video surveillance cameras that scan baggage racks and other areas.

Some say technology alone won't shield the U.S. against terrorism. "There's no technological solution to terrorism," said former U.S. intelligence officer Robert David Steele.

"When we stop them from bringing this stuff aboard planes, (terrorists) will start blowing up the security lines at airports and they will start shooting the planes down with Stinger missiles," said Steele, who heads OSS.net, a business intelligence firm in Oakton, Va.

Ivan Olerich, a nuclear physicist with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., says the problem isn't that technology isn't up to fighting terror.

"A lot of these security proposals fail in terms of implementation rather than technology," Olerich said. "How do you handle false alarms? If you find someone with a bomb, what do you do? Shoot them dead?"

 


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