Success of DHS was built on relationship with Lab

Sept. 13, 2011
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Parney Albright (Download Image)

Success of DHS was built on relationship with Lab

Editor's note; The following is part of an ongoing series looking back at the events surrounding 9/11. Today's feature looks at the role the Laboratory played in establishing the Department of Homeland Security.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Parney Albright already had spent 16 years working in national security. That morning, on a military base just outside Washington, D.C., Albright and several highly trained members of the Army's Special Operations Force were involved in a dress rehearsal of a new technology that would give U.S. snipers a dramatic operational advantage.

Sept. 11 was the rehearsal; Sept. 12 would be the debut to a group of Pentagon VIPs. At the time, Albright was working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), after many years of service at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

"We were getting everything ready for our first dry run of the day when a soldier comes tearing up in a truck to tell us the first airplane had hit the World Trade Center," Albright recalled. "We all listened to events unfold on the radio, all of us except for the snipers. They were already packing up and checking their ammo locker. They already knew they were needed somewhere else and, soon enough, they were off to D.C.

"My daughter was in elementary school at the time and knew I worked in the Pentagon quite a bit," he added. "I checked in with my wife and the school and they let my little girl know I was OK."

Within a couple of days, DARPA created a group and drafted Albright to help lead it. "There was some low hanging fruit we got to pick right away."

For example, this was the team that recommended hardening cockpit doors. And there were segments of national infrastructure that obviously needed extra protection. For example, the team recommended securing the liquefied natural gas farms outside of Boston where about 66 million gallons of natural gas arrives by ship every week. "Most of our work was pretty obvious but critical," Albright said.

"It was only one week later that the first anthrax letter came through the mail," he said, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory played several important roles to help manage this crisis. Anthrax spores were analyzed at the Lab to find out more about their origin.

Over time, science and technology became critical. "Tests of aviation security equipment in Atlantic City came up with false alarms about 5 percent of the time. In Miami, in real life, we saw 40 percent false alarms. We found out that cheese and peanut butter looked exactly like explosives to the monitoring equipment that was deployed."

On Oct. 3, Albright received a call from the White House requesting his service, so he started to work there Jan. 2, 2002. "From today's perspective, it's hard to appreciate the dramatic shift in our nation's thinking on 9/11. Every attack up until then was aimed at making a political point, without the consequences of the attack dominating the coverage. On 9/11, this changed.

"The attack was an end within itself. The only point was mass murder. There were no demands. There were no negotiations that the attack might influence. Death and destruction was the only goal, and this was unlike anything else in U.S. history. And it required an entirely new strategic response."

Soon after Albright started at the White House, in addition to his role as a science and technology adviser, he was asked to advise the White House on issues surrounding weapons of mass destruction. His expertise was deployed in the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Formed on March 1, 2003, the department is described by Peter Andreas of the Watson Institute at Brown University as "the most significant government reorganization since the Cold War, and the most substantial reorganization of federal agencies since the National Security Act of 1947, which created the Defense Department, National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency."

"From the beginning," Albright says, "I knew that the success of the Department of Homeland Security would be built on its relationship to the national labs, Lawrence Livermore in particular. The new department was facing big challenges that could only be answered by the big science that only the national labs deliver."

In fact, the original legislation that created the DHS contained a provision that Lawrence Livermore become a seamless, integral part of the new department. This provision was revised with Albright's help as the legislation moved through Congress.

Under Albright's leadership, DHS mobilized the national R&D enterprises, including the national laboratories. Real, working technologies were deployed into the field as quickly as they could be fabricated. The Lab's BASIS system became the lynchpin to the DHS BioWatch program, which maintains a nationwide network of instruments working 24 hours a day, seven days a week providing warning from an attack from a range of bioterrorism agents.

Lab scientist Tom Slezak was instrumental in creating the BioWatch program and rolling it out to more than 30 cities across the country. Eighty percent of the U.S. population is protected by this technology created by the Lab.

In addition to discovering ways to keep the war off U.S. shores, the Lab devised ways to better prosecute the war on the terrorists' home field. Back in 1998, the Lab's Mike Carter came up with the idea for surveillance drones and how that eye in the sky might be able to create persistent views of the enemy. This technology has dramatically changed how the war on terror has been fought.

Carter was part of the Lab's Washington, D.C. delegation of about 25 people who played an instrumental role in creating the Department of Homeland Security.

"Every national lab played an important part in protecting our country after 9/11," Albright said. "New ways were invented and deployed to detect chemicals, bioagents and radiation. Sandia and Los Alamos collaborated on an assessment of the economic impact of different terrorism scenarios. The Pacific Northwest National Lab created the foundation for full body imaging at aviation checkpoints. And of course the massive computing resources of the labs were harnessed to the nation's defense and put to work.

"Most generations are given a challenge that draws a line between one era and the next. Ten years on, it's clear to me now, even more clear than it was the morning of Sept. 11, that our generation must meet and surmount unprecedented and unanticipated challenges to our national security. Today, I think we can look back across the decade and know that we've traveled a great distance toward our goal, yet there are many miles yet to go."