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New Technology Filling Defense Arsenal

Bomb Jammers and Vehicle Scanners Help, but an Educated Public Also Is Vital

By Spencer S. Hsu and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page A15

In a government building in Herndon, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is building a computer system intended to anchor the next generation of information sharing and analysis to thwart the truck bomb threat.

Meanwhile, scientists at America's national laboratories and defense research centers are developing scanning and detection equipment and such countermeasures as vehicle-disabling devices and bomb jammers, which can block or delay someone using a cell phone or other remote gadget from detonating an explosive.


At the Port of Houston, a U.S. Customs officer climbs into the cab of a truck that will use gamma rays to scan the contents of a cargo container, center. (Brett Coomer -- AP)


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The effort, analysts say, is to leverage America's strengths -- its technology, wealth, organizational power and educated citizenry -- to blunt terrorists' advantages.

The Transportation Security Operations Center is creating a cyberspace system that will collect and analyze tips from 400,000 truck drivers, toll collectors, construction workers and rest area crews.

In cooperation with the private sector, the system builds on the trucking industry's six-year-old national call-in line and tracking center. The Highway Watch program will feed a clearinghouse of government information on the transportation industry, becoming "the center of the matrix," in the words of Chet Lunner, assistant TSA administrator for maritime and land security.

Combined with law enforcement, media and other information sources, TSA leaders hope, in effect, to sweep straw from throughout the nation into a giant haystack and search for the sharp points.

"This information never existed in one spot before," Lunner said. "For the first time, we are getting a nationwide, systemwide look at the situation . . . in close to real time."

New technology is also coming on line, much of it classified. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent at such places as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which combines Department of Energy, Homeland Security and other funding to leverage techniques used to track and detect nuclear weapons, said Nancy Jo Nicholas, nuclear nonproliferation manager for Los Alamos.

Military, business, diplomatic and political leaders are purchasing bomb jammers. Such devices cost from hundreds to millions of dollars, and newer models are small enough to fit into a briefcase or backpack.

Pakistani intelligence said one helped thwart a December assassination attempt against President Pervez Musharraf. Others are being supplied to some U.S. military convoys in Iraq.

In January, the Army's chief of staff acknowledged the use of jammers to the House Armed Services Committee, but he would not discuss the bomb defense technology in detail for security reasons.

Elsewhere, U.S. border agents are employing gamma rays to scan a moving vehicle in 10 seconds. The Mobile Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System was used at the recent summit of the world's eight largest industrialized nations in Sea Island, Ga.

Agencies are pressing ahead with "geo-fencing," a method that can combine satellite, cellular or other wireless signals to track vehicles entering restricted areas.

Authorities also are looking to develop vehicle-disabling devices, embedding roadways with cables or other pop-up devices to stop or slow an approaching vehicle.

"Among industries, there is a lot of reluctance to implement new technology and regulations that are forced upon them," said David McCallen, program leader for nuclear material storage science at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California who has led research of devices to stop trucks. "There is no incentive for the market, so it takes determination on the part of government to do them."

Still, technology has its limits. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers switched off the radar beacons of their airliners, disappearing from controllers' screens.

In Washington, for example, the Department of Transportation has completed a two-year, $500,000 study of the truck bomb threat to the nation's capital. Its recommendations, which it acknowledges may not be practical in cases "short of war," include implementing truck restriction zones, banning gasoline tanker and through shipments of hazardous materials, and creating a centralized truck inspection facility, in addition to expanding technology.

But regardless of the government's efforts, authorities say that an educated and alert citizenry must be vigilant and must understand that some risks can only be minimized, not eliminated. If the public is educated about the nature of the threat, terrorism will lose some of its bite in the post-9/11 world.

"Money is not the defining factor. . . . Technology is not the answer," Lunner said. "It begins with better awareness of intelligence, better coordination [and cooperation with industry and operators]. It's not one silver bullet."


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