Future Roles for Science and Technology in Counterterrorism

Tony Fainberg, Defense Threat Reduction Agency Department of Defense

The natural reaction among scientists, engineers, and technical experts following the atrocities of September 11 was the fervent wish to apply their knowledge, abilities, and creativity in order to contribute to the defeat of current and future terrorist threats to the United States and its international friends and allies.

Indeed, there is ample opportunity for directing technical advances to this end. However, it should be emphasized that much can be accomplished nearly independently of technical innovations. Security procedures need to be improved in many venues. The most talked-about area today is aviation security; for example, the need to know who has access to airplanes at airports is pressing. Background checks to this end are now being instituted, and, although enabled by advances in computer technologies of various sorts, can already be accomplished, given bureaucratic acquiescence. But although technical applications can enable these checks, the main barriers to doing so in the past have been cost, inconvenience, and concerns about intrusion on privacy. Another example is in the area of explosives detection. Excellent equipment for detecting explosives in baggage has been developed and manufactured as long ago as 1994. Since 1997, this equipment has been deployed and further developed, but it could be deployed in such a way as to cover the whole civil aviation system rather than just 10 percent of it. Under the current, new imperatives, these and a number of other matters can and will be resolved through national resolve rather than advanced technology. Especially for the near-term, there is much that can be done to reduce our vulnerabilities (indeed, much is being done), without developing a lot that is new in the way of science and technology.

But, although science and technology are not the only answers to the diverse and menacing terrorist threat, they are part of the answer and will increasingly become so in the future. New integrated systems and approaches will be necessary both to increase the robustness of our society against bioattacks and to face newer threats, which themselves may be developed through the use of science and technology.

I will try to lay out some thoughts about where we might conceivably look for new tools to deal with threats that have occurred or that we can easily imagine occurring. My emphasis is on technologies that could begin to produce useful results in the mid-term (say, 2-3 years to 10 years), particularly those areas that are within the scope of this workshop's focus on the convergence of nanoscience/ nanotechnology, biotechnology/biomedicine, information technologies, and cognitive science.

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