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Pondering the Costs of Terror Protection

A USC think tank takes a multifaceted approach in assessing the risks of attack and determining the best defense.

July 10, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Should commercial airplanes be equipped to deflect shoulder-launched rockets? What would be the financial fallout of a radioactive attack on Southern California ports? Which bridges deserve the most money to bolster protections against Al Qaeda assaults?

Questions like those are being pondered at a federally funded think tank at USC, the first of its kind in the country. Formally named the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, it is better known as CREATE, an acronym at odds with its mission to evaluate potential destruction.

CREATE was the first of six university-based research units, titled Centers of Excellence, established around the nation since 2004 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And it is expected this summer to be the first test case of whether taxpayers should keep paying for such research.

The other centers investigate issues more specifically related to terrorism, such as psychological tolls and protecting food supplies. The USC center was given $12 million over three years to help evaluate the most likely threats -- and to determine the most efficient ways to deter and prepare for them.

The research involves engineering, economics, political science, computer science and psychology, and it traffics in non-classified data so students can participate.

The center operates on the notion that funds to fight terror aren't limitless. "We can spend ourselves into bankruptcy by making things more and more secure, or we can do it in a smart way," said CREATE's director, USC professor Detlof von Winterfeldt. And the smart way, he said, is to examine the risk and determine "where you get the largest risk reduction for the money."

A German-born mathematical psychologist who is an expert in risk analysis and nuclear energy, Von Winterfeldt concedes that sober academic inquiry does not always affect the real world, where politicians control the purse.

For example, a remote Alaskan fishing village with 2,400 residents last year received $202,000 in Homeland Security funds for 80 surveillance cameras, provoking jokes about Osama bin Laden hiding in the snow. With the series of grants announced in May, Homeland Security contended it had used more objective methodology to choose sites at most risk -- only to provoke protests from New York and Washington that they lost out to other cities' political muscle.

"There is always politics. My argument is always that decision-making goes on with or without CREATE and analysis. But sometimes it helps to put a perspective in from that corner," said Von Winterfeldt, who co-founded the center with engineering professor Randolph Hall. Hall is now USC's vice provost for research advancement.

CREATE is helping the state government rank the most important and defensible big targets in California, such as sports arenas and dams, in anticipation of another batch of federal anti-terrorism grants known as Buffer Zone Protection. Last year, the state received about $13 million from that program.

Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for the governor's Office of Homeland Security, said CREATE will have a "very significant" role in awarding those funds in California.

Now, CREATE is being evaluated itself. Federal reviewers recently visited USC to help decide whether taxpayers' investment in the think tank should be renewed for three years.

The answer will affect four administrative staffers and about 34 professors, mainly at USC, but also at several partner campuses including New York University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. CREATE generally pays those professors the equivalent of a summer salary. Also involved are 70 other researchers and graduate students on stipends and fellowships in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Jack Riley, associate director of Rand Corp.'s homeland security division, said the USC unit's influence goes beyond its basic research. As the first such center, it is helping to build up terrorism studies much as colleges developed Soviet studies early in the Cold War.

"The credibility they've gained has helped other centers off to faster starts," said Riley, who serves on CREATE's unpaid scientific advisory board.

Homeland Security officials declined to comment on the renewal chances. But they offer some praise for CREATE's work.

In what both sides described as a collaborative process, Washington sometimes suggests topics for CREATE to tackle. USC professors say they try to respond to such requests but have not been forced into any particular topics or pro-Bush administration conclusions. However, one East Coast academic who is knowledgeable about Homeland Security centers but asked not to be identified said he expects CREATE's renewal will come with pressure to pursue more topics that Washington wants.

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