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Fighting Drugs, Fighting Terror

Technology developed for the drug war finds use on a new front.
May 3, 2002

Criminal members of a powerful and shadowy international network conspire to enter the U.S., bringing with them implements to destroy Americans. To fight them, the government develops new strategies and new technologies, but the well-trained and well-financed malefactors continue to test the defenses, seeking any weak spots.

That’s the challenge of the War on Terror. But for more than two decades, it has also been the essence of the U.S.’s War on Drugs, and despite significant questions about its effectiveness and popular support, the latter is providing a rich vein of technology and experience for the former to mine, from biometric and chemical sensors, to surveillance and border protection, to anti-counterfeiting, computer forensics and the detection of money laundering. In 2002, the federal government will spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars on counternarcotics research and development, including $5 million by the U.S. Customs Service, $30 million by the U.S. Department of Defense and $40 million by the Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center (and excluding nearly $1 billion for related research by the National Institutes of Health). Now, high-tech companies that rely on drug-war dollars see an opportunity to increase their missionand revenueto include homeland security.

“There are a number of technologiesmy company’s includedthat could contribute to fighting both terrorism and narcotics,” says Jay Fraser, CEO of Tracer Detection Technology Corporation of Syosset, NY. In 1999, the National Institute of Justice awarded Tracer a grant to develop chemical taggants that could be used to mark people, vehicles, contrabandanything that the government wanted to follow.

Like many in the industry, Fraser is reluctant to divulge much detail. “It’s not my company’s security I’m concerned about, it’s the security of the field operations,” he says. But the NIJ’s Web page describes his taggant as an “encapsulated perfluorocarbon vapor taggant”an aerosol spray that could be detected later by chemical sensors.

Fraser is more willing to discuss his company’s anti-counterfeiting technologyembedding special fibers in documents such as a birth certificate or a driver’s license. A scanner reads the position of the fibers and records it in a bar code when the document is created. When its bearer presents the document, officials can validate it with a special reader. Before September 11, Tracer promoted the system’s ability to deter counterfeit event tickets. Now, Fraser sees more important application in deterring terrorists.

“Terrorists and people in the drug industry are constantly searching for the weak link,” says Brian Houghton, director of research for the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. “They’re masters in vulnerability and risk assessment.” Nowhere, Houghton says, are their similarities strongeror their battle with U.S. authorities more pitchedthan along the United States’ 7,000 miles of borders.

“If we’re talking about chemical or biological agents coming in, or God forbid a nuclear device, the fact is that drug dealers have been smuggling drugs in for years,” Houghton says. “It shows us how porous the U.S. is to illegal substances coming in, and in large quantities.”

Throughout the last decade, the United States deployed several new high-tech tools along its borders to combat drug smugglerstools that are now being used to screen for terrorists and terrorist weapons. Although authorities are experimenting with biometric scanners (see “Recognizing the Enemy” and “Walk This Way), the technology that’s had the greatest impact is the full-vehicle radiographic scanner, which lays bare the contents of a truck as quickly as an airport baggage scanner.

Customs officials inspect a cargo container using a truck-mounted gamma-ray sensor. (Photo courtesy of Science Applications International Corporation)

Called the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, the device was developed in the mid-nineties to help customs officials search tanker trucks entering the U.S. from Mexico. By September 11, 2001, Customs had installed 31 stationary scanners, 11 truck-mounted units, five designed especially to detect smuggled cars, and one designed to scan railroad cars. Since September 11, the system’s manufacturer, Science Applications International Corp, has trumpeted the value of their system to homeland security. “The terrorist attackshave profoundly changed the focus of the non-intrusive inspection, security and port operation industries in the United States,” wrote SAIC researchers in an upcoming article in the quarterly trade magazine Port Technology International.

Ports are one of the toughest areas to police, Houghton says, due to the vast number of anonymous shipping containers that pass through them each day. “You can’t open them [all] up,” he says, “so you need technologies forfor lack of a better wordsniffing.” Chemical sensing technologies, including mass spectrometery, ion mobility spectrometry, gas chromatography, optical spectroscopy, and vapor and particle preconcentrators, have all been investigated for counterdrug applications. Because of the cost and complexity of such systems, none has been widely deployedbut the new impetus for homeland security could change that. “You need slightly different sensor technology to sniff and detect cocaine than to sniff and detect C4 explosives or the like, but it’s very similar.”

Such similarities have not gone unnoticed by high-tech firms. Tracer and SAIC were two of thousands that responded to the Pentagon’s call last October for new technologies to combat terrorism. “Isn’t there a fairly strong feeling that narcotics in this country is a terrorist activity?” asks Fraser.

Yes and no, says Houghton, who cautions against drawing too many parallels, or assuming that knowledge in one area bequeaths expertise in the other. “There are similarities, but [drug trafficking and terrorism] are two different things,” he says. “Where they start to go apart is that drugs are such an epidemic. If all drug dealers and cartels were terrorist organizations we’d be in big trouble.”

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