Correction to This Article
A July 4 article about computer simulations of terrorist attacks incorrectly said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported in 2003 that a computer worm penetrated the control systems of a nuclear power plant, disabling its safety mechanisms for about five hours. The worm disabled a safety-monitoring system, but it did not affect the rest of the systems safeguarding the plant.

Computers Simulate Terrorism's Extremes

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005

LOS ALAMOS, N.M.-- Deep inside the cave-like laboratories of the legendary research center that created the atomic bomb, scientists have begun work on a Manhattan Project of a different sort.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, they have been constructing the most elaborate computer models of the United States ever attempted. There are virtual cities inhabited by millions of virtual individuals who go to work, shopping centers, soccer games and anywhere else their real life counterparts go. And there are virtual power grids, oil and gas lines, water pipelines, airplane and train systems, even a virtual Internet.

The scientists build them. And then they destroy them.

On a recent weekday at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, researcher Steve Fernandez took several power-relay plants in the Pacific Northwest offline with a few clicks of his keyboard while Kristin Omberg and Brent Daniel were working up mathematical models that calculated the worst places to release biological agents in San Diego.

"We're trying to be the best terrorists we can be," said James P. Smith, who is working on simulations of a smallpox virus released in Portland, Ore. "Sometimes we finish and we're like, 'We're glad we're not terrorists.' "

The Los Alamos experiments are part of the Homeland Security Department's efforts to harness technology to aid the war on terrorism. Like government "data-mining" projects that use flight itineraries, credit card reports and other data and try to find patterns to predict who might be a likely terrorist, the simulations are attempts to guess the bigger picture.

The federal government is using the simulations to provide options in the event of a real terrorist attack. The information is so sensitive that most of the lab's work is classified, and the physical facility is secured with its own experimental technologies. If the simulations got into the wrong hands, the researchers say, they could be used as the ultimate weapon against Americans. "It would be a terrorist recipe for doing something terrible," Smith said.

Some urban planners have criticized the project for its cost -- each simulation can cost tens of millions of dollars -- and have argued that such modeling can never be precise. A book on public health threats by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, for example, notes that some critics say simulations "cannot provide clear evidence for or against any option." Advocates say the exercise is providing crucial information for protecting the country.

When planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon nearly four years ago, the government had little understanding of the weaknesses and interdependencies of power, water, transportation and telecommunications networks. Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar under the Clinton and Bush administrations, warned that this opened the possibility of "cascade" failures--domino effects--that authorities had little power to stop.

In 2003, for example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed that a computer "worm" on the Internet penetrated the control systems of a nuclear power plant, disabling its safety mechanisms for about five hours. That same year, much of the East Coast and Midwest were hit with an electrical blackout that experts thought should have been limited to one area.

Clarke created a "critical infrastructure protection" group made up of the top officials from the government and from industry. The Los Alamos simulations are the cornerstone of their work.

The models have helped officials pinpoint and prioritize where changes need to be made. Fernandez's work has led to upgraded security at certain power plants. Omberg and Daniel have created biosensors--which can detect a wide variety of biological threats -- that have been placed in areas of major cities that the computer program calculated were vulnerable, such as near sports arenas or transportation hubs.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company