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Scientists join war on terror

New chemical, biological threats spur nation's top minds

By Gareth Cook , Globe Staff, 9/6/2002

   
Investigators emerge last fall from a house in Chester, Pa., where officials suspected hazardous materials were being produced. (KRT Photo)

 GRAPHIC

Protecting an Achilles' heel
A major effort to counter the threat of terrorism involves safeguarding the nation's electrical grid.
See what's being done


LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - As the world fell apart more than half a century ago, a group of scientists was summoned to this remote outpost, tucked against a chain of long dormant volcanoes in the New Mexico desert.

The scientists watched as Hitler assaulted London with frighteningly advanced rockets. They knew he was also working on a bomb fueled by the power of the atom, and they understood the profound consequences - the end of the Western democracies - should he succeed before they did.

Now the great minds are being called, once again, to battle. Deeply aware that new scientific ideas - from radar to the atomic bomb - gave America a crucial edge in World War II, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and across the country are working on weapons for the war against terrorism. And for those who have thought deepest about the march of technology, the mission is as urgent as the Manhattan Project.

''People here really believed that one day they would pick up the paper and read that London was gone,'' said Terry Hawkins, a top scientist at the lab. ''Today it is the same sort of thing. I have come to believe we are in this race, and the only certainty is that one side will win and the other will lose.''

The scientific effort taking shape is utterly different from the Manhattan Project because the conflict itself is so different. The enemy today is exceedingly difficult to locate or identify. His means of attack are unknown. The front lines are ephemeral - one day it could be a ridge in Afghanistan, the next an emergency room in Tulsa, Okla.

The world felt uncomfortably small when German V-2 rockets raced over the English Channel to explode in downtown London, yet that generation could not have imagined how interdependent the modern world would become, with fears of such dangers as computer viruses and genetically engineered plagues. Terrorists see potential weapons in every fixture of the modern world, from running water to subways to electronic banking.

''These are the conveniences of the information-rich service economy that characterize our everyday life today,'' said John Marburger, the president's science adviser. ''But these same systems increase our vulnerability to terrorism.''

A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation's antiterrorism research effort is a sprawling, impressive, and in some cases disorganized, affair. At national labs such as Los Alamos, researchers are accelerating work in traditional areas such as countermeasures for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. At academic laboratories, scientists are hard at work on a dizzying array of technologies, some wildly impractical, for an alphabet soup of government funding agencies. And Congress has authorized a multibillion dollar initiative to study potential biological agents.

Science is being invigorated by the new attention, and a sense of patriotic mission that evokes the Apollo program, but some scientists say there are troubling signs. On campuses, they worry about pressure to classify some types of research and to limit contact with foreign scientists and students, moves that could threaten the foundation of academic work. Others say they are not sure where to go with their ideas. And many say the government's failure to set up a single coordinating institution for antiterrorism research could mean that some of the new money will be squandered.

''It is like drinking out of a fire hose,'' said James Tour, a Rice University chemist whose research has been sponsored by the defense establishment and many other government agencies.

Yet step behind the security fences of Los Alamos and there are the glimmers of scientific progress. On bench tops and in tool shops are new devices that have captured the public's eye, such as handheld radiation detectors and automated systems to detect pathogens in the air.

Some of the most important work, though, comes in areas of complex engineering that the public has hardly considered: tracking disease outbreaks in real time, finding slivers of data in a flood of intelligence, understanding the dynamics of an electric power grid that allow the failure of a single generator to bring the system down.

Data mining

Soon after the first passenger jet slammed into a tower of the World Trade Center, a satellite began surveying Manhattan's landscape.

As the data streamed, researchers at Los Alamos realized they could use the images collected by the satellite to test an advanced software package, called GENIE, built to discern subtle patterns in overwhelming masses of data. Taking in the chaotic landscape of lower Manhattan, with its long, dark shadows, the software was able to draw an accurate map of where ash had fallen across the city, important information when assessing the environmental damage.

GENIE is part of a largely unpublicized research program, some of it highly classified, to combat one of the most profound problems posed by the technological war on terrorism: how to find the vital clues in the vast seas of information. Called ''data mining,'' the work could use computers to spot dangerous items in baggage X-rays, monitor streams of suspicious Internet chat and email, or call attention to emerging intelligence patterns.

In the year since the attacks, it has become clear that the country's ability to gather information has far outstripped its ability to combine and analyze it. Several FBI agents in field offices were concerned about suspicious characters at flight schools, but the agency's computer system did not allow a search for the term ''flight school'' across field-office files. The Immigration and Naturalization Service did not have a systematic way to track those who overstayed their visas. And the National Security Agency reportedly intercepted messages on Sept. 10 warning of trouble, but they were not translated in time.

Defending the homeland against diffuse and nearly invisible enemies is a problem that makes the Cold War - with its concerns about East Bloc tanks and the positioning of theater nuclear weapons - seem almost quaint.

''We are no longer just interested in the Fulda Gap between East and West Germany,'' said Steven Brumby, a scientist at Los Alamos working on GENIE. ''Now we are interested in the whole world.''

GENIE uses an ingenious approach called a ''genetic algorithm'' in which a computer evolves software to solve a problem, the way animals evolve over eons to adapt to their environment. An analyst points to a place in the image with a target - ash on the ground, a gun in a piece of carry-on - and the computer writes hundreds of tiny software programs to see which are best at picking out the target from the background.

Yet as important as this work is, it would be powerless if the threat is invisible. When the National Academy of Sciences convened a panel to determine what science can do to help, one of the most urgent areas identified was the need for new sensors capable of detecting biological, chemical, and radiological attacks.

The number of new devices needed is overwhelming: a machine to spot highly enriched uranium in one of thousands of shipping containers, an alarm that sounds when anthrax spores hit a building's ductwork.

But the state-of-the-art lags. For example, to detect chemicals, the ''best broad-spectrum high-sensitivity sensory systems'' are ''trained dogs,'' the academy reported in June.

Scientists understand how to detect many things, but the challenge now is to engineer solutions that are automated, reliable, and affordable, said Thomas Bevan, who coordinates homeland defense research at Georgia Tech.

Bevan is designing promising chips that detect E. coli and salmonella and is testing them at a poultry factory in Georgia. In a well-equipped lab, it is easy to pick out salmonella, for example. But Bevan and other researchers are working to build little machines that won't break down and won't set off a mass panic at the detection of something harmless. Shrouding this microscopic world, where many bacteria look alike and an innocuous chemical trace might look like mustard gas, is the new fog of war.

Defending the infrastructure

Ray Gordon seems as if he would have been at home in any of the great wars of the last century. A former Green Beret with graying, close-cropped hair, Gordon spends his spare time riding rodeo bulls, wearing proof of the hobby's danger in the form of a cast around his shattered lower left leg.

But in his office at the Los Alamos lab, Gordon summons up the battlefield of the future: a computer-generated map of Florida with a complex web of electric and gas lines. The two systems depend on each other, with gas-powered turbines generating electricity in some places, and electricity powering gas compressors in others. Millions depend on the grid.

''We start taking out components to see what will crash the system,'' said Gordon, showing the cascade of effects when an electric substation on the Gulf Coast is taken down in the computer model. ''It is a tightly coupled system of systems.''

The modern American lifestyle is made possible by a vast, interconnected network of infrastructure that moves water, power, goods, people, and information around the country. It is a network so complex that nobody really understands how it behaves. Everyone knows it is filled 0with individual vulnerabilities, but nobody knows what might make large swaths of it freeze up, the way a computer sometimes does.

Gordon, part of the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center run in cooperation with Sandia Labs, is working to defend the nation's infrastructure from surprise attack. But scientists also hope to understand how the sprawling system works so that they will be better prepared for other types of attack.

In one simulation, cars move around downtown Portland, Ore., meticulously modeled down to the level of individual drivers choosing the best way to get to work. Then a yellow cloud is released near the Willamette River, representing a cloud of anthrax spores. Exposed people are followed home, and at the end of the day there is a map, with the hardest hit suburbs colored crimson.

Such models as these can be used to plan responses, to help guide emergency workers as they decide strategy, or even to suggest changes in the infrastructure that would make a crisis easier to handle.

To some, work like this may sound mundane, but it is no more mundane, and no less important, than keeping a Boeing 777 in the air. Inside a 777 are hundreds of systems that interact with one another. To make the plane reliable, Boeing uses an approach known as ''systems engineering,'' which focuses on how individual pieces - from equipment to training - affect the system as a whole.

''Inevitably the public becomes enamored with specific devices,'' said Marburger, the president's science adviser. ''But devices can't work in isolation.''

What is needed, scientists say, is a searching, constructive paranoia that propels us to find the weakest links in the country's defenses, no matter how hum-drum, and strengthen them.

Tour, the Rice University chemist, said he has been stunned at how difficult this can be to accomplish. The recipes for horrifying nerve agents are so widely available, on the Internet and elsewhere, that there is no hope of keeping them out of the hands of terrorists, he said.

The chemicals needed to make them are easy to purchase, a point Tour made by ordering the ingredients - all on one order form - from a prominent chemical supplier and having them sent, overnight, to his office. (Total cost, including overnight shipping: $217.) Tour estimates he could have made 300 grams of sarin, soman, or cyclosarin and sent thousands of people twitching to their deaths.

Since his experiment two years ago, he has been trying in vain to persuade the government to regulate the sale of even small amounts of about 35 chemicals.

''You can never stop everyone, but you can put a roadblock in the obvious places and hope it stops the villain,'' Tour said. ''I have become so frustrated that I just don't talk about it as much any more.''

Information proliferation

In July, scientists announced they had created the polio virus from scratch, using information and materials that are readily available. The report highlighted one of the greatest vulnerabilities scientists now see facing society: biological warfare. Although the anthrax attack killed only a few people, it caused mass disruption, a mere hint of the chaos that would come with a more successful act. Protecting the nation from biological attack will be the most active area of antiterrorism research in the coming years.

Biological weapons represent the extreme case of the new kind of war: a fight not for territory, but for information. In World War II, there was never any question whether an attack was underway, but now scientists must devise ways to pick out subtle clues from the environment that a pathogen is on the march. Such attacks cannot be defeated with brute force. The sprawling public health system will need a system to share information and coordinate their response.

And the threat itself - biological agents, engineered to maximize harm - is a product of increasing knowledge, and its ready availability on the Internet. As some scientists think past the immediate threat of terrorism, it is the unforeseen consequences of this proliferating knowledge that cause them the most anxiety.

''The long-term threat may not come from people who are motivated, but from people who are like the computer hackers right now - just doing it because they can,'' said Murray Wolinsky, a scientist at Los Alamos. ''Twenty or thirty years from now a small group of people, or an individual, may be able to jeopardize significant fractions of the world's population.''

Already, in the frustrating investigation into the anthrax attacks, scientists are finding they are themselves prime suspects, because they have the knowledge and such direct access to the means. Scientists find themselves in an awkward position: potential suspect, potential savior. When Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the atomic bomb project, saw the searing light from the desert, he paraphrased from the Bhagavad-Gita in a declaration that is still famous as a warning of technology's spectacular capability for both good and evil: ''Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.''

Perhaps, some fear, the biotech revolution is releasing a new, even more powerful genie. Even if, somehow, politicians are able to bring an unprecedented amount of stability to the world, advances in biological engineering will make new means of mass destruction available.

It is an era of great hope, promising enormous steps forward from agriculture to human health. But now it is hard to foresee a time when the country will not need a dedicated team, some in universities, some cloistered in a desert lab behind barbed wire, working to contain the worst that science can devise.

''If we can't get this right,'' said Wolinsky, ''then what good does the rest of it do?''

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/6/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.





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