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International efforts in homeland security R&D

By Penrose Albright

At the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), one of the key rationales cited by the President and Congress was the need to provide a focal point for enlisting the national science and technology enterprise. Science and technology were–and are–seen as clear asymmetric advantages held by the developed world in dealing with the threat of terrorism. Moreover, it was clear from the outset that the effort to counter this threat needed to be international in scope. As a physicist, I understood that international cooperation in S&T must underpin any US counter-terrorism strategy.

Obviously, other nations had been thinking about and dealing with the terrorist threat for a long time; the UK, Israel, Russia, Australia all come to mind. The threats they have tended to face, however, have not been as technology-enabled and apocalyptically driven as those we fear today–for example, the IRA typically called ahead of time to warn of a bombing. Furthermore, it is clearly advantageous to the US if sophisticated counter-terrorism technology that deters, dissuades, and prevents attacks is deployed across the developed world–the usual target of terrorists. It should be just as difficult for a terrorist to cross the border into the EU as it is to cross into the US; it should be just as difficult to attack the public with a pathogen in London as it is in Chicago.

However, while the technical infrastructure for conducting R&D aimed at domestic security lies primarily in the developed world, the needed talent (and understanding of the threat) exists in the broader international community. Although the developed world is naturally concerned about its status as a preferred target, terrorism is a global phenomenon and so is the desire by governments to protect against it. The market for technical capabilities is worldwide, and the talents and insights needed to combat it is truly international in character.

Perhaps the greatest issue surrounding contemporary counterterrorism is the potential for truly catastrophic terrorism–biological, nuclear, and chemical. Terrorist organizations have made clear their desire to acquire such weapons, and with the possible exception of the nuclear threat, the technological infrastructure and expertise needed for their production is not a significant barrier.

Furthermore, the critical ability to produce fissile material is no longer in the hands of a few countries–it is spreading. A large-scale biological attack, or the explosion of a nuclear weapon on domestic soil would be epochal in its effect. The attacks of September 11th killed an order of magnitude more people than the previous largest terrorist attack, and its perpetrators had the intention to kill far more. The subsequent anthrax attacks reminded policymakers that use of that agent in an aerosolized release, as opposed to mailing it in letters, could kill 10 to 100 times more people beyond that. The scale of this threat and the softness of the targets require new ways of thinking.

Nevertheless, international cooperation can be impeded by differences between the US and foreign governments with regard to perceptions of the threat. For example, most nations regard the nuclear threat as much less of a concern than does the US. Therefore, prerequisites for successful international S&T cooperation include a coordinated risk assessment between governments and then, for those areas of commonality, a strategic approach to the S&T requirements.

Another potential impediment to international S&T cooperation is that organizationally, no other country has anything like a “Department of Homeland Security.” Most nations provide equivalent scope through offices at the Prime Ministerial level, equivalent in most ways to the old Office of Homeland Security in the White House that preceded creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the US. In particular, most nations deal with the more apocalyptic threats of biological, nuclear, and chemical terrorism through their military establishments, with public health and environmental agencies playing a supporting role.

This military nexus can impede collaboration on homeland security technology development for both technical and programmatic reasons. Although the S&T base generated by military programs is invaluable, defense technology cannot easily be transferred to the civilian community. For example, militaries must train and equip themselves for deployed and episodic operations, and hence assume an extensive and constant supply chain, depot and spares infrastructure, along with a cadre of specialists trained to service the equipment.

The civil community, on the other hand, cannot support that same infrastructure or a dedicated trained workforce. Likewise, many of the protection requirements for military technology are predicated on its use by and for soldiers of a certain age, degree of health, and acceptance of personal risk. The civilian population that must be protected includes people of all age groups, in varying degrees of health, who also enjoy a strong legal framework to minimize risk to the individual. For sensors, as an example, the detection, false alarm, and throughput requirements that must be met in a civil setting are profoundly different from those associated with military deployments.

Penrose Albright, now with the Civitas Group, served in the White House Office of Homeland Security as Senior Director for Research and Development and headed the Transition Planning Office that designed the future Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate. When that Directorate was established, he became its first Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff