Sept. 11, 2001: another day which will live in infamy

Countering terrorism is a labor-intensive effort, and even the best technologies can't change that fact.

John Rhea

Countering terrorism is a labor-intensive effort, and even the best technologies can't change that fact.

WASHINGTON — Advanced technology will play a key role in the American response to last month's terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, but it will take a back seat to human factors.

American vulnerability to such attacks is not the result of insufficient defense-related technologies to counter them but rather a combination of two factors: an inability to coordinate available resources and a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the vulnerability.

The latter inhibiting factor vanished within a matter of hours on Sept. 11. Now it's time to establish lines of authority and get everybody on the same page.

Throwing money at the problem won't solve it, although there will obviously be popular support for significant increases in defense spending.

That money needs to be spent effectively. Countering terrorism is a labor-intensive effort, and even the best technologies can't change that fact. The terrorists pick the time and place of their attack — as they did so skillfully on Sept. 11 — and the defenders must be able to anticipate a broad range of threats.

For openers, airport security has to be upgraded. It can't be left in the hands of deregulated airlines employing low-skill, minimum-wage personnel in order to cut costs. My own experiences flying have given me the uncomfortable feeling that this has been an accident waiting to happen. Now it's happened.

As I write this 24 hours after the tragedy, the death toll is on its way to surpassing the 2,400 killed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and appears likely to exceed the more than 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers killed in what has been called the bloodiest day in American history, the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862.

The United States was never the same after either of those tragedies. After Antietam President Lincoln raised the stakes of the Civil War from preserving the Union and preventing the spread of slavery to a wholesale socioeconomic transformation of the nation in what has been called the second American Revolution. Pearl Harbor finally laid to rest the myth that the United States could revel in splendid isolation.

The United States won't be the same after this tragedy either. Despite all the brave words in the immediate aftermath of the attacks that we Americans won't give the terrorists the satisfaction of knowing that we had to respond by curtailing civil liberties, the fact is that we will.

This will be a bitter pill for a democratic society to swallow. Tightened airport security will increase both travel costs and inconvenience. We may even have to follow the lead of the Israeli airline, El Al, and employ armed plainclothes sky marshals on selected flights.

Where advanced technologies can make a contribution is in two areas: human intelligence, or HUMINT, which has traditionally been the province of the CIA, and signals intelligence, or SIGINT, which is the specialty of the National Security Agency (NSA).

HUMINT and SIGINT can be valuable tools in identifying the terrorists and their plans in time to take effective action — that is assuming, however, that officials of the CIA and NSA, plus the U.S. Department of Defense, FBI, Federal Aviation Administration, and others, can effectively organize the anti-terrorism function. The electronics industry can, and undoubtedly will, play a major role as well.

This is another bitter pill for a democratic society. HUMINT, in particular, means dealing with undesirable elements in a shadowy world of death and deceit. When President Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of war, Henry Stimson, learned of plans to create the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of today's CIA, he replied stiffly, "Gentlemen don't read other people's mail."

Unfortunately, we will have to read other people's mail — and a lot more. Much as naive people like me would rather do the job with spy satellites and other "national technical means," the reality is that we're going to have to put people on the ground. We're not going to be comfortable with those people.

There's a reverse technology issue here that we also must address. In today's climate of ever more pervasive commercial technologies employed in military applications the terrorists also have access to state-of-the-art technology.

For example, I was particularly interested in some of the talking heads I watched on television who said that the Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft used in the suicide attacks are relatively easy to fly. Moreover, there is widespread availability of advanced simulators capable of quickly training pilots on that family of aircraft. Even the day after the tragedy it seems obvious that the terrorists were trained pilots.

We can hardly restrict exports of those aircraft or their simulators. That would represent a clear victory for the terrorists. Nor can we go back to the days of clumsily trying to prevent the export of militarily critical technologies through the coordinating committee, or COCOM, of NATO. It didn't work then, and it's not going to work now.

I wonder why we needed this wake up call. At last year's COTScon West conference in San Diego last December we devoted considerable attention to the issue during a panel on the vulnerabilities of today's interconnected information systems. The consensus seemed to be that the problem is real and shouldn't be swept under the rug.

If anything, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were more sophisticated than the threats of cyberterrorism we discussed at COTScon. The attacks represented major financial expenditures and complex logistics support.

If the terrorists can do what they did in New York and Washington, it seems to follow logically that they can — and probably soon will — attempt to disrupt essential computer and communications networks.

Even more frightening are the possibilities of biological and nuclear terrorism, also on a par in terms of complexity with the attacks of Sept. 11. Einstein once warned that nuclear bombs could be delivered by commercial ships to harbors. The skills required by suicidal fanatics certainly wouldn't be any greater than flying Boeing 757s and 767s.

When President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, he had the momentum of an entire nation behind him. President Bush has that momentum today. He will have to use it.

More in Home