Anti-terror research effort launched

$7 billion to be spent this year on programs involving dozen agencies

March 07, 2004|By Ralph Vartabedian | Ralph Vartabedian,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

On the drawing board is one of the most ambitious and broad 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 will be spent this year for high-tech efforts to shore up defenses against a terror 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 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."

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 health care system equipped to handle epidemics of a disease spread by terrorists. Advanced research would deal with threats that don't 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 wasteful spending - "a huge new public trough" in the words of one defense official.

Other critics say that 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 runs the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism based in Oklahoma City, said 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 could 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 whom to treat and whom to quarantine before the disease spreads. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believe that 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 mathematicians, chemists, biologists and computer scientists.

Milanovich started pioneering many of the programs nearly a decade ago. When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, Livermore was ready to deploy key systems - such as rudimentary biological sensors.

The fiscal 2005 budget, which President Bush released last month, underscored the commitment to technology.

Almost every federal agency has a role, though 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 visions for technology is a national sensor system that could continuously monitor the air for pathogens, dangerous chemicals or other public hazards. The sensors would 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 controlled 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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