Counter-Terrorism Technologies -- Taking Stock on 9/11

Taking stock on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we can clearly see numerous examples of places where the investment in the science and technology base has enabled more effective counter-terrorism operations.
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On this 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it makes sense to take stock of where the nation has progressed in its effort to deter and combat future terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad. The 9/11 attacks came as a shock, and have rightfully come to be regarded as a major U.S. intelligence failure. In the aftermath, the nation undertook significant organizational reforms designed to enable more effective intelligence and law enforcement operations against evolving terrorist threats. The country also looked to see what science, engineering and technology could do to help addresses these threats.

Technology has long been the nation's strong suit. Americans tend to believe that where there is a problem, there must certainly be a solution and it most likely involves technology and money. During the decade that followed 9/11, billions of dollars were spent on a vast range of programs and technologies in the name of counter-terrorism. For the first two years after 9/11, I joined with other scientists and engineers at the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community in efforts to identify the most promising approaches to the problem. Ultimately we found that there was no magic bullet or perfect solution to this thorny problem, but were able to suggest a range of investments that could be made to address the evolving terrorist threat.

An honest assessment of these investments in counter-terrorism technologies reveals that the results have been mixed -- as one might well expect. A combination of greatly improved intelligence and law enforcement personnel have employed some of the better technologies with considerable success. Indeed, some 45 terrorist plots have been stopped and others deterred. How much of this has been simply luck and how much can be traced to any new technology program is a matter of debate, and there are clearly examples of both that can be found.

One area where technology has made a significant contribution has been in new systems to aid in intelligence and surveillance against terrorist operations. While terrorists may hold to an eighth century ideology, they have not been reluctant to employ 21st century communications and information technologies. They have utilized the Internet and cell phones for a number of purposes, and at the time of 9/11 the nation was in need of systems to intercept and sort out terrorist communications. While highly sensitive, public disclosures about several key programs show that considerable progress has been made in this critical area, giving the intelligence agencies some key tools in locating terrorists and stopping their plots. Aside from communications intercept, a new area of "data mining" has also shown considerable promise in locating terrorists and their plots.

At the same time, several of key surveillance programs used for counter-terrorism have come under fire from civil liberties groups as being unconstitutional violations of the Fourth Amendment privacy protections, and others. Critics of the Bush Administration saw this as "running roughshod over the Constitution." Even now there are still federal court challenges to laws such as the 2008 FISA Amendments Act and others that have enabled counter-terrorist efforts since 9/11. Ultimately a balance needs to be struck between the essential needs for intelligence to thwart future attacks and protected privacy rights, but as yet it remains an unsettled area where the Supreme Court will need to rule at some future point in time.

Less controversial have been efforts over the past decade to employ new information technologies to what has been termed the Information Sharing Environment -- collaborative efforts to best utilize available intelligence and other data among the various federal, state and local agencies with counter-terrorism responsibilities. While certainly some progress has been made over the past 11 years, the net result is largely a national embarrassment, and clearly a triumph of politics over physics. The information and communications technologies are all well-developed, but multiple bureaucracies have generated a set of plans and an even larger set of excuses as to why the fundamental problems in this area remain to be solved.

Another area where significant progress has been made are a range of efforts to assist with border control, visas, and airline security. Better scanners, facial recognition systems and other systems introduced over the past decade have certainly improved security at the nation's airports and other important locations. Here it hasn't been a smooth path, and there have been a host of complaints along the way, but despite the criticisms, the TSA and other responsible agencies are in fact doing a far better job at a very difficult task. This is in large part due to some effective technologies that have been put at their disposal, and upgraded several times in the post 9/11 era.

An even greater challenge has been posed in dealing with the nation's porous borders and port system where various technologies have been tested and no major success is yet on the horizon. For example, the huge volume of containerized freight entering the United States on a daily basis makes it virtually impossible to conduct inspection for terrorist weapons and other contraband on any thorough basis. Despite extensive research and a variety of programs, it is still impossible to search more than a small fraction of the containers entering the country. This continues to be a weak point in counter-terrorism efforts with no viable solution in sight.

On the battlefield, or more accurately the battlespace, a host of new technologies have made the military forces more effective in counter-terrorism missions. Ground forces have new systems to cope with improvised explosive devices (IEDs); detection of chemical, biological and nuclear materials -- weapons of mass destruction; as well as new protective equipment. Air forces are now able to conduct what have previously been highly risky missions with a generation of drone aircraft, operated in relative safety from locations often far away from the target site. Indeed, the effect of repeated attacks by U.S. drones against al Qaeda and other terrorist targets over the past several years has had a huge impact on the ability of these groups to engage in devastating plots.

Taking stock on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we can clearly see numerous examples of places where the investment in the science and technology base has enabled more effective counter-terrorism operations -- both at home and for our friends and military forces abroad. There are also good examples of where bureaucratic squabbles, politics and poor organization have impeded successful implementation of systems that might have helped in the war against terrorism.

Thus far, the nation has been fortunate in that another plot on the scale of 9/11 has not been mounted, and others have been foiled on the basis of good intelligence, effective law enforcement and in some cases just good luck. In the long run, however, it is not possible or even sensible to rely on luck. The nation needs to continue its investment in technologies that give our counter-terrorism personnel the upper hand. At the same time, it needs to work equally hard to overcome the bureaucratic and political impediments to employing new systems that make the nation a safer place.

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