When the three hijacked airliners destroyed the World Trade Center and part of Pentagon last September 11, the United States may well have entered a new stage in its technological history. A new war had to be fought with new tools involving new applications of science, new types of advanced technologies and new sets of ideas. It would be a long war, President Bush and his team told the country, before saying that the U.S. would eventually win.
But victory may well come slowly, and piecemeal. New ideas are needed to protect the country against technological acts of terrorism, capture or kill terrorist masterminds, conduct new forms of espionage, penetrate and dismantle dedicated terrorist networks, and build Islamic economies while modernizing their social structures. All these will require a good deal of scientific thinking and will take some time.
Observers called the attack a failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to communicate among themselves in detecting and tracking 11 smart, technically educated, ideologically committed hijackers. What was so shocking was that these individuals would give up their lives in their murderous assertion that the U.S. was as vulnerable to savagery as the poorest, most ill-governed country.
One analyst called the attacks "Globalization's Chernobyl." A RAND Corp. study, "Networks and Netwars," called the crisis a "new spectrum of conflict" involving flexible--even collapsible--networks of terrorists with efficient communications; "multihubs of spiderhead designs," as the report put it.
Planning the Response
Figuring out how to fight such elusive enemies over the long term was the main reason why two weeks after the attacks, the presidents of the three National Academies (Science, Engineering, and Institute of Medicine) called together a group of policy experts and officials in Washington, D.C. to map out how the country's academic research and engineering establishments might help out. The Academies had already produced 26 separate reports on such terrorist threats and solutions as airline passenger security, R&D needed to combat chemical and biological terrorism, preventing bombings, protection of office buildings, and scientific information for national security.
The ideas contained in those reports weren't unique to the Academies. Many groups and commissions that have studied terrorism over the years had been urging the government to get serious about using the best technologies to protect the country from biological, chemical, nuclear, and other forms of attack. Time and again they pointed to vulnerabilities of individuals, crowds, families, buildings, planes, water supplies, factories, power plants, and other crucial segments of society and the economy.
The U.S. government did set up various bodies such as the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Numerous consulting groups and think tanks established terrorist programs and consulting services. But not much government spending was committed to actually protecting the United States, eliminating sources of terrorism, or simply understanding its roots.
What did happen, though, was that a community of technically qualified terrorism experts did become established inside and outside the government. On Sept. 26, 2001, the presidents of each of the three Academies asked Lewis M. Branscomb, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Richard D. Klausner, former head of the National Cancer Society, to pull together the effort.
As NAS president Bruce Alberts put it, "We decided to jump-start some activities by using two million dollars of our own endowment money. We had Jack Marburger [John D. Marburger, president Bush's science adviser] and Norm Neureiter [Norman Neureiter, science adviser to the Secretary of State], there to make sure what we would eventually propose would be useful. …