Discovery Guides Areas


The Protection of Public Facilities against Terrorist Attacks
(Released March 2005)

  by Carol Y. Wang  


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September 11, 2001—now known simply as "9/11"—is an unforgettable day in U.S. history. On that day, terrorists destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon building using hijacked commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of innocent people were killed on the ground and in the air.

A week later, bio-agent threats from domestic terrorism occurred. Two envelopes containing anthrax spores were sent to the broadcasting media through the U.S. Postal Service in New Jersey. Two more anthrax mailings intended for U.S. Senators in Washington, D.C. were found on October 9 [1]. The anthrax virus caused some deaths and contributed to the American people's growing anxiety about terrorism.

People in America were wounded physically and psychologically after these terrorist attacks. America suffered economically as well: the airline industry was almost destroyed and the U.S. economy took several years to recover.

Naturally, Americans had many questions: How could these terrible events happen in the United States? Should we sacrifice our national security for human freedom and democracy? How can we keep our homeland safer? What are the most likely future targets of such attacks? What should be done to protect them against terrorism?

The United States of America is a Constitutional Republic that protects liberty and civil rights by strictly limiting the powers of its government. Its high degree of personal liberty allows people the space and freedom to pursue happiness, but it also leaves American society more vulnerable to terrorist threats. The terrorists of late 2001 took advantage of the weaknesses of U.S. security—its international borders, its immigration policies and its financial management systems.

Homeland security has become a high priority, especially while the U.S. undertakes military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. In general, efforts are underway to prepare for the worst possible scenarios, in order to protect American society and minimize the possibility of terrorist attacks.

Fighting back

After "9/11", the U.S. government, recognizing the imperfection of its homeland security, reviewed the dangers and possible threats from international terrorism and domestic terrorism in the foreseeable future. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created by the government in order to protect civil liberties more effectively against violence and terrorism.

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3, creating the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). The advisory system is intended as a foundation on which to build an effective communication structure for information regarding the risk levels of terrorist attacks to the different level governments, agencies and American people.

Tom Ridge
Tom Ridge - Former Secretary of Homeland Security
Source: The White House

The risk levels from evaluated potential terror threats are measured by five threat levels, from Red (severe) down to Green (low condition). Each condition is associated certain tasks and responsibilities, and outlined in Protective Measures [2]. Federal, state, and local governments, public agencies, and private companies are responsible for training their employees to practice these measures.

Terrorist attacks can come from any direction, at any time, in any manner—bombs, fires, even biological and chemical weapons. Since, practically speaking, not everything can be protected, it is necessary to focus on the protection of critical infrastructures such as public transportation systems (bridges, subways, railroads and airplanes, etc.) and facilities (nuclear power plants, oil storages, and water utilities, electric utilities, etc.). These are essential elements of our economy and life, and are therefore attractive targets to terrorist groups. This article focuses on the protective preparations of some public areas, and provides relevant information to professionals and others who are concerned with these issues.

Security of public transportation systems

Public train transportation systems have been targeted since 1990s:

  • Tokyo subways suffered a poison-gas attack in 1995 when a group of terrorists put containers of highly toxic Sarin nerve gas in three subway trains at rush hours. Although Tokyo Emergency Control Centre staff received alarms within fifteen minutes, Sarin gas spread quickly at fifteen subway stations (carried there by the trains). Twelve people died, and over 5,000 became ill. Several people have permanent brain damage [3].
  • In 1997, Islamic extremists intended to bomb New York's subways. Fortunately, this attack was stopped by people and police vigilance.
  • On March 11, 2004 four commuter trains were bombed by ten explosions that occurred in Madrid. The attack was the worst terrorist public assault in modern Spanish history [4].
bombed out train
The scene of one of the Madrid bombings
Source: Wikepedia

Since subway stations and airports have buildings with entrances, a practical protective approach is to control entrances and monitor buildings inside and outside. Here are some strategies [5]:

  • More visible patrolling security staff, sniffing dogs, and random checks of facilities.
  • Detection and diagnosis via security cameras, closed-circuit television coverage, and sensors located at entrances, which can detect chemical, biological, and radiological materials.
  • Emergency phones and fire detectors as well as rapid-response networks to minimize casualties and damage.
  • Rescue vehicles and special exits to assist evacuation from dangerous scenes.
More innovative ideas have been turned into practical efforts. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has evaluated the feasibility and effect of the Train and Rail Inspection Pilot (TRIP)—a $1 million piece of screening equipment—by using it to screen Amtrak and MARC passengers and baggage at the New Carrollton, Md. train station [6].

According to DHS officials, the US-VISIT international border security program has been launched in December 2004. This program affects international bridges, airports, and other borders. It will use fingerprinting, photographing, and background checks in databases to identify foreign visitors across borders except visitors from 27 countries - mostly European countries whose citizens can come to the U.S. for up to 90 days without visas.

Between September 2003 and May 2004, TSA had records of 4.9 million banned items from passengers at airports, including more than 1.4 million knives and 400 guns. Undercover federal investigators told Congress that airport screeners of aviation security were performing poorly, though most of these banned items were caught by screeners. A college student reportedly passed the checkpoints with banned items including box cutters, and carried them on six commercial airplanes during seven months of 2003. As a response to the criticism, by the end of 2004, TSA installed Threat Image Protection (TIP) software on all scanners and began to evaluate their performance. Also, recently TSA has added lighters to the Prohibited Items List, which means lighters will not be allowed to pass the security checkpoints at U.S. airports.

Airport detection trace portal
Airport detection trace portal, also known as a "puffer" machine
Source: Transportation Security Administration

The technique known as brainwave fingerprinting, or as "computerized knowledge assessment" (CKA), is recommended as a security screening tool. Invented over 10 years ago by Dr. Larry Farwell, a former faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, its reliability has been proven in tests by the FBI and US Navy, and used in US courts for some criminal cases. The technique relies on the electrical properties of human brains: anything human brains imagine, sense, and think or experience triggers changes in their electrical activity. CKA studies a series of brainwave components to determine whether or not a subject has previously encountered a stimulus (such as an image or a word). Therefore, CKA could be used to determine if someone has knowledge of a specific terrorist training camp or a particular terrorist code, etc. But this technology is currently only a screening tool to provide analytic information to investigators. More research and experimental practice should be done in the future (see the CKA FAQ).

Security of water utilities

The Washington Times reported on May 29, 2003, that al-Ablaj, spokesman and commander of al Qaeda's mujahideen training center, was sending threatening messages to America and other countries that they will attack and harm our society. In 2004, an FBI bulletin last year pointed out that "U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have learned that al Qaeda members sought information on water supply and wastewater management practices in the United States and abroad" [7].

The possibility of water contamination naturally generates public fears. Obviously, water utilities—including plants, dams, pipelines, and other infrastructure—are extremely attractive targets to terrorists.

All water facilities should consider securities in both physical and biological aspects. First of all, water facilities need to ensure that their vulnerability assessment and security measures are reviewed constantly, including facilities and employees. A possible model is available: Veolia Water North America (Veolia Water) in Houston launched a water utility security program in 2002; its professionals are trained with the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories to assess the vulnerability of facilities and conduct emergency plan. Their safeguarding checkpoints could be used in every water utility [8].

Once water or water utilities are contaminated by toxic bio-agents, cross-contamination could be a sequential problem. Here are the cases of cross-contamination: After the incidents of anthrax spore contamination in October, 2001, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) organized a team of investigators and examined three cases of anthrax contamination that had occurred in a congressional building and two other federal buildings. All cases had cross-contamination problems. In one of the cases, after the respondent decontaminated the scenes using water and detergent, he put his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) respirators and other items into a bag. These items were transported to the building area, locker room, and vehicle. After that, the parts of the respirator were soaked in a sink. Anthrax spores were found later at all these areas by CDC investigators.

CDC recognized the potential for cross-contamination during incident emergency response activities, and pointed out that it is important for security officers to understand that emergency responses are significantly different for nuclear, biological or chemical incidents. Under a situation of chemical explosion or fire, quick evacuation from a scene could save life. If biological agents are involved, not only evacuation but also quarantine and decontamination have to be performed, with attention to concerns of cross-contamination [9]. First responders and security officers should collaborate with laboratories of the CDC Laboratory Response Network (LRN) or the World Health Organization (WHO) global network. The CDC and WHO have launched an overall mission of developing analytic standards for detecting biological agents, and provide health guidelines, technical support and self-assessment tools to local, state agencies, emergency responders, including performance standards, simulation exercises, and assistance to develop strategies for preventing and mitigating illness and injury.

Security of electricity utilities

An electricity blackout in 2003 affected 50 million people in the northeastern and mid-western U.S. and Canada. Typically, blackouts are caused by severe weather damage or facility equipment failures, most of which can be repaired quickly. But, for destruction of electricity facilities caused by terrorism, the situation would be much more serious. The electricity blackout in 2003, though not itself the result of a terrorist attack, underscores the vunerability of electric power transmission lines to such attacks.

There are about 15,000 power generators in 10,000 power plants and hundreds of thousand miles of tranmission lines in North America. This enormous power network has a value of over $800 billion, as estimated by industrial analysts. Unfortunely, this giant is very stressed, aging and vulnerable. The stresses are caused by these factors [10]:

  • Imbalance between demand growth and supply capacity.
    From 1988 to 1998, the total demand for electricity in America rose by about 30%, but transmission grid capacity increased by just 15%. The California outage in 2000 and the blackout on August 14, 2003 were just two consequences of this crisis. Power demand is expected to grow by 20% from 1999 to 2009, while the planned growth in transmission grid capacity is only 3.5%.
  • Rapid market expansion without formal analysis.
    Under the pressure of market competition and deregulation, dollar investment for power grid growth is declining.
  • Aging electricity infrastructure technologies.
    The current electric power distribution system is still primarily using technologies developed in the 1950s or even earlier. The system cannot handle increased market demand and the digital users of the 21st century. Several testimonies during a congressional hearing after a 2003 cascading failure showed that cyber attacks could be possible in the future as terrorists penetrate critical control of IT systems related to power management.

The current vulnerability of the U.S. grid offers potential terrorist attacks. Electricity blackout as a threat weapon could cause breakdowns of computers, elevators, and other equipment, result in subsequent dangerous attacks and economic losses elsewhere.

How can future blackouts be prevented? This is still a hotly debated issue in the government and the industry. To be reliable, a power transmission system has to be built with redundancy. It will cost $50-100 billion to upgrade the system accordingly, the California Electric Power Research Institute has calculated. The question is,that who is going to pay this mammoth sum? In 2004, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) proposed a "standard market design" to plan necessary regulations for the electricity industry [11]. Also, advanced technologies are needed in securing electric power facilities with such features as failure diagnostic systems, automatic alarm systems, and self-healing cabilities.

Cutting-edge technology to protect America

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) launched a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in December 2003 to encourage small businesses participate in federal R/R&D programs that can bring creative technologies and solutions to the mission of homeland security. HSARPA plans to issue various requests for research and development projects twice each fiscal year to meet DHS operational requirements, and develop innovative options [12]. Programs in research, testing and evaluation, enacted in cooperation with universities, fellowship programs and national laboratories, include studies in terrorists' social behaviors, detection of biological/chemical weapons, threat assessment and decontamination, radiological forensics, and cyber-technology. [13].

Recognizing the urgent challenge of homeland defense, many American companies and other institutions have dedicated their efforts to ongoing research. For example, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University have joined the project on Recovery-Oriented Computing to improve response to computer incidents. Some companies—including Cenus Technologies, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Sun Computer Associates—are developing self-configuring, self-protecting, self-healing autonomic computing technology for security systems at ports and bay areas.

The Science and Technology Directorate, the primary R&D unit of the DHS, is continuing to transfer cutting-edge technological resources to federal, state, and local officials in order to strengthen the capabilities of protecting the homeland. In the future, science and technology will serve as intelligent tools for national security.

© Copyright 2005, All Rights Reserved, CSA