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On Politics

Science Rules in the War on Terrorism

- By Kenneth T. Walsh

It's been nearly a year since the attacks of September 11, enough time for Washington's policy makers to reach some conclusions about the best way to avoid such horrors in the future. What has become clear to nearly everyone is the importance of science and technology, not only on the battlefield but in the war on terrorism at home.

That's the assessment of John Marburger, President's Bush's chief science adviser at the White House, who predicts that amid the ongoing debate over creating a new Department of Homeland Security, this pro-science consensus will remain intact.

“The war on terrorism is clearly a technology-intensive activity,” Marburger says, “not only in the overseas operations where everyone has watched the effectiveness of these remotely operated weapons and their very, very impressive accuracy, and also the immediate communications and very tight interaction of the combatants on the ground and the command-and-control centers around the world. The role of satellites and sensors is very evident there,” he continues. “But in the homeland, we have a different situation, where technology that we use for daily life is being turned against us and exploited.”

Among our vulnerabilities are transportation, especially air travel, which became all too clear in the hijackings on September 11; skyscrapers that pose difficult problems of evacuation and fire containment if attacked; telecommunications, which can be penetrated and disrupted; and even the postal system, which already has been used to spread anthrax.

“All these systems are technologically intensive and growing more so,” Marburger says. The challenge is to find solutions that improve safety but still “permit us to go about our lives,” he adds. That's where technology can help immensely, but it won't happen overnight. “We're all trying to put cures in very fast, and there hasn't been time for technology to catch up to the need of society to protect itself,” Marburger says.

He sees promise in using technology to more efficiently monitor border crossings and prevent illegal immigrants from entering the United States. He wants to improve the screening of goods shipped by rail or sea by using more sophisticated labeling and packaging techniques that would prevent or reveal tampering. Perhaps most pressing given the woes of the airline industry since September 11, Marburger wants to focus on making air travel easier, especially for the economically vital frequent flier who can be given special “foolproof” identification using various new and emerging technologies. Other Marburger goals are to combat bioterrorism by developing better vaccines and finding better therapies, and to improve cyber security for the government, business, and individual Americans.

Finally, Marburger and Bush have taken a special interest in strengthening the capabilities of “first responders”—the fire, police, and rescue personnel who are sent to a terrorism site immediately after an attack. Among their needs are for better communications and technology. One idea that is under consideration is to give fire departments high-speed Internet connections so they can quickly obtain graphic information such as satellite photography that might help clarify a dangerous situation on the ground, and to provide them with the ability to quickly analyze samples of possible chemical or biological contamination “so they know what they're dealing with,” Marburger says.

It's unclear how much federal money will be needed to accomplish all this, but the science adviser admits that the amount will be substantial over the long term. As Marburger says, “Clearly, both the president and Congress understand that the war on terrorism is going to be a technologically intensive war.”

As for George W. Bush's personal commitment, Marburger says, “He's not a technology wonk, and I'm sure he doesn't lie in bed at night reading technology reports and science journals. But he certainly understands its importance and he's been supportive of my office and of the whole enterprise.”

Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. He can be reached by e-mail at