Like "Q," the natty bureaucrat who supplies James Bond with gadgets, Al Brandenstein is an inveterate solver of weird problems. He's got heat-seeking night vision devices, a black box so police can communicate better, and a database that can locate every toilet in a drug suspect's house.
"It worked great in Burlington, Iowa," he said. "The cops hit the front door and ran right to all the bathrooms. So the first thing they [the drug traffickers] do is try to flush the stuff down the toilet. But when they open the door . . . uh oh!" The eyes twinkle. Brandenstein, a specialist in research and development for a variety of obscure and not so obscure federal agencies for more than 30 years, likes to win.
Since 1991, Brandenstein has been director of the Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center (CTAC), the scientific arm of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
He is the government's clearinghouse for new science in counternarcotics. CTAC has a digitized wiretap system, a "mini-buster" to detect secret compartments, and "Gladys," a system that can track drug dealer networks by accessing telephone billing information even as traffickers make calls.
Brandenstein's approach appears to be simple: "Make sure it's good technology" and "get it as close to the end user as possible" are easily understood maxims, but the third rule--"make sure it has political support"--is perhaps the key to his success.
His easy charm masks a keen ability to shape the scientific world to fit the government's priorities.
Sometimes he makes offers that are too good to refuse. In the early 1990s, he needed basic information on how narcotics affect the human body, and he had a $16 million annual budget to pay for it.
However, he also knew that researchers do not find narcotics research sexy: "There are plenty of people working on Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases," Brandenstein said. But there's no Nobel Prize "if you do the equivalent for cocaine addiction."
But suppose he offered the nation's top neurologists $6 million to $7 million apiece to build state-of-the-art facilities--as long as they promised to do some narcotics research and to train others.
"The best minds in the country will now talk to me," he said. "They want what I got, and I want what they got." Now he's funding four neuro-imaging centers.
Albert E. Brandenstein, 62, of Hollis, N.Y., is an electrical engineer who has worked for the Navy, the Defense Department and elsewhere in the public and private sectors doing everything from umpiring fleet exercises to "special ops" and "spook stuff."
For a while he ran special projects for a "wholly owned subsidiary of a three-letter agency." In the mid-1970s he wrote the Navy's peacetime rules of engagement and served as science adviser to the chief of naval operations, Adm. Thomas B. Hayward.
It wasn't always high-tech, however. Brandenstein recalls a stint as a missile intelligence project director in South Korea in the 1970s, when military authorities told him his unarmed outpost was about to be overrun by North Koreans. Brandenstein handed a quaking young sergeant the team's lone fire ax and told him "as soon as somebody pokes a rifle in here, hit him with the ax. Then you won't be unarmed anymore." The threat turned out to be a false alarm.
Over time, Brandenstein has seen the creation of several generations of Cold War technology and participated in projects ranging from the global positioning system to stealth technology. He also has developed a deep appreciation of the crime-fighting potential of sophisticated military equipment.
"You take these separate developments, mix them into new applications and get them down to where you can pay for them," Brandenstein said. At CTAC, he has made this concept the cornerstone of a technology transfer program offering crime-busting devices and computer systems to state and local law enforcement agencies.
Funded at $13 million a year, the program has made more than 700 transfers in 46 states.
CTAC software allowed investigators to tap into real estate records that told Iowa police where the stash-house toilets were. In California, police from a dozen jurisdictions tracked and caught a burglary suspect using a device that allowed them to talk to one another despite their different radio frequencies.
And finally, there is the hand-held thermal imager, a night vision device that senses living things by heat, not light. As Brandenstein tells it, an investigator on a South Texas drug stakeout one night was surprised to notice a fast-moving blob in his imager heading straight toward a group of officers.
Brandenstein does not know whether the police drew their guns or jumped in their car, but they did live to tell the tale. The assailant was a mountain lion.
Albert E. Brandenstein
Title: Director and chief scientist, Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center, Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Education: Bachelor's degree in science, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute; master's, Columbia University; doctorate in electrical engineering, Oregon State University.
Family: Married; two children.
Previous jobs: Office director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in charge of counterdrugs, counterterrorism and special operations; a variety of federal agency and private -- sector jobs.
Hobbies: Singing in his church choir.
CAPTION: Albert E. Brandenstein, director of the Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center, displays a component of a covert surveillance system.