TCS Daily

Going on a Manhunt: Do We Have the Technology to Win?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 21, 2004 12:00 AM

As the military noose around insurgents in Falluja, Iraq tightens, the ability of terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi to slip through that noose becomes all the more exasperating, for both U.S. forces and for regular Americans who would like to see the murderous hostage-taker strung up by his beard hairs.

Unfortunately, the U.S. ability to hunt and catch individual terrorists and evil-doers such as Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden, and their fellow killers/chat-room buddies is nowhere near the U.S. ability to fight and win a war. Which is why a panel of advisors has told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that "the global war on terrorism cannot be won without a "Manhattan Project"-like TTL program" for "tagging, tracking and locating" individual terrorists, their helpers, their weapons and their activities.

The advisors, who formed a Defense Science Board panel that reported its findings several weeks ago, said that funding and developing a TTL program should be a presidential priority. The panel is absolutely right -- as Zarqawi, bin Laden and other terrorists' continued freedom so plainly shows.

Why is this a science-board issue? Because the U.S. does not have the technology that's needed to do the job -- or doesn't have it in a form that has been perfected enough to make it useful. Among the technologies the panel listed are biometrics such as iris scans, face, voice odor and gait-recognition technology, and hand-geometry recognition. Weapons and other objects, for their part, can be recognized with acoustic/seismic technology, radio frequency detection, infrared, multi-spectral technology as well as nuclear, chemical and bio detectors.

Among the human targets of TTL: enemy leaders and sympathizers, nuclear-weapons experts, financiers of terrorism, and professional or academic experts who might help with terrorist attacks. Other targets include their weapons and manufacturing facilities, vehicles, manufacturing equipment, and vehicles for transporting the weapons and parts. And activities that need to be tracked are their travel and communications, recruiting, financial transactions, internet activity, organizational meetings, and shipment of materials. The panel also notes that any work they are doing sequencing the genomes of pathogens should be tracked as well -- a chilling warning about the bio-warfare threat that terrorists may present.

Of course, the "tracking and locating" is much easier than the "tagging." If those in the U.S. military or intelligence community could get up close to a bad guy and "tag" him, they could presumably kill him or catch him at that moment as well. Put another way, the reason there remain terrorist adversaries whom we haven't caught or killed is that they're, well, hard to find.

Which is why a broader concept of tagging is needed -- and why the panel has done some initial thinking about the problem at hand. The panel notes that U.S. military and intelligence forces have, or should have, at their disposal the following technologies for tagging the enemy:

Radio-frequency identification (RFID): A chip that emits a frequency is placed on or near the person being sought, and receivers can thus track the frequency. Use of radio technology requires them to be larger than tags based on optical technology.

Spy dust: Used during the Cold War, "spy dust" particles placed on the shoes of a suspect could be tracked so that his movement could be followed.

Biochromophores: Molecules that emit a color or light pattern and that could be read by a special instrument.

Dynamic optical tags and retro-reflectors: Thin, signal-emitting and receiving tags that could be read by an "optical-receiver" instrument many miles away and that would last several weeks or months.

Nanobarcodes: The microscopic barcodes can be "read" by receivers. Unlike RFID, the codes have to come in direct line of sight with the receiver.

Motes: Tiny battery-powered computers with radio links that can both send and receive information.

Several of these "tagging" technologies require the adversary to be found first. But they are a start. And possibly, it would be feasible to tag potential adversaries in large numbers, even if one couldn't get close enough to a specific adversary. Tracking all their tags would subsequently help isolate the adversary who needed to be tracked more closely.

Of course, no sooner had the defense trade press reported on the panel's findings, than left-leaning websites declared any such TTL plans a threat to civil liberties: "If these technologies were ever successfully developed, the temptation to use it to track enemies of the states here at home would be mighty strong, too," said one critic on the website

The premature outcry is dangerous: Similar ill-founded fears have hamstrung the Patriot Act, the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness project and such Internet-based investigative technologies as Carnivore. Here's hoping and trusting the administration and Congress will take the science panel's appeal for manhunting technology seriously and fund it well. In other words, here's trusting the political leadership will focus on protecting Americans from terrorist attack and balancing that protection with civil-liberties concerns, rather than protecting Americans blindly from the theoretical fears of conspiracy theorists.


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