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U.S. Funnels Billions to Science to Defend Against Terrorism

Air monitors, national sensor networks and GPS shipping containers are some of the projects.

March 07, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, banking on science to protect the nation from a catastrophic terrorist attack, has launched a vast research and development enterprise that will span many years and possibly decades.

On the drawing boards is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching U.S. research projects in recent history, involving more than a dozen federal agencies that are managing work by thousands of scientists at hundreds of institutions and laboratories across the nation.

At least $7 billion this year is slated for high-tech efforts to shore up defenses against a terrorist attack using biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Federal agencies are investing $3.5 billion in research and development and as much as $3.4 billion in high-tech spending for vaccine supplies and improvements to the public health system, an analysis of the federal budget shows.

"Science is the big advantage the West has over these people who would throw us back to the Stone Age," said Dr. Penrose "Parney" Albright, assistant secretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security. "We will have a research establishment devoted to our priorities ... to stay ahead of the threat."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Terrorism defense -- An article in Sunday's Section A about government research on high-tech ways to fight potential terrorist attacks misspelled the name of a bioterrorism expert and did not include the full name of his institution. His name is Stephen Johnston, and he is director of the Center for Biomedical Inventions at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Scientists envision far more sophisticated sensors at the nation's ports that would detect attempts to smuggle nuclear weapons. They see major population centers continuously monitored by remote detectors for evidence of a biological or chemical attack, and the nation's healthcare system equipped to handle mass epidemics spread by terrorists. Advanced research would deal with threats that don't even exist yet, such as biologically engineered diseases.

Some terrorism experts, however, are questioning the Bush administration's approach, saying the technology effort is poorly organized and may ultimately result in a massive waste of money -- "a huge new public trough" in the words of one defense official.

Other critics say that the investment is needed, but that scientists have promised too much.

"I am not convinced that technology is the solution to many of these problems," said Mark Gerencser, who leads the global security practice at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. "The current research is very important, but in and of itself the technology is not going to solve the problem."

Dennis J. Reimer, former Army chief of staff who now runs the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism headquartered in Oklahoma City, said so far the effort's priorities remain unclear. But Reimer added, "It is unfair to say they have had ample time to do their work."

Inside federal laboratories, however, scientists are brimming with optimism that they can provide the nation with a bulwark against attacks potentially more devastating than the Sept. 11 disaster.

A smallpox attack by terrorists, for example, could infect tens of thousands of Americans before the first victim would even fall ill and cause millions of painful deaths. Such an attack could come in any number of ways, experts say: the virus sprayed from airplanes, dispersed in restaurant salad bars or introduced into building ventilation systems.

The challenge involves determining who to treat and who to quarantine, before the disease spreads. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory now believe they have found a way to identify victims of smallpox and other infectious diseases within hours of exposure, using a sophisticated new analysis of blood molecules.

"It is an immense undertaking," said Fred P. Milanovich, one of the nation's top bioterrorism experts who launched the Livermore research project with a consortium of mathematicians, chemists, biologists and computer scientists.

Milanovich began to pioneer many of the current programs nearly a decade ago, so when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, Livermore was ready to deploy some key systems -- such as rudimentary biological sensors.

The fiscal 2005 budget, which President Bush released last month, underscored the commitment to technology -- tapping the research establishment created to deal with 20th century problems to address 21st century security risks.

Almost every federal agency has a role, but a handful are taking the lead.

* The Department of Homeland Security, which was formed last year by combining 22 agencies, would get $1 billion for research in fiscal 2005. One of the department's far-reaching visions for technology is a national sensor system that could monitor the air continuously for pathogens, dangerous chemicals or other public hazards. The sensors would all be linked to central control centers, resembling the military's worldwide surveillance for a missile attack.

* The National Institutes of Health has a $1.7-billion bioterrorism research budget, the largest part of which is run by the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. It supports roughly 2,000 researchers at universities and private companies across the country, according to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the institute.

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