Changing the odds

We have heard many times from government officials that the war on terror is unlike any war this nation has fought. In this special report, we look at some of the important agency programs and technology initiatives related to homeland security in the coming year, and we see that this assessment of the situation's uniqueness seems well founded.

The battle is not one of raw military might, though there are certainly elements of that. Nor is it a battle pitting national economies against one another, even if economic centers in this country have been targeted at times. The special characteristic most often cited is the targeting of civilians, though even this, sadly, is not so unusual anymore.

One aspect that does set the conflict apart is its asymmetry. A nation as vast and a society as open as the United States is extremely difficult to defend against a foe who uses small teams of operatives for assaults and has the benefit of choosing the time and place of an attack. The consequences from even a single failure in homeland defense can be devastating.

To respond effectively to such a diffuse yet dangerous threat — when resources for defense are not infinite — the government must rely on force multipliers. In a nutshell, these are technologies that allow government officials to do more with less. Put another way, they are technologies for increasing the productivity of our intelligence analysts, military and first responders, and they are critical to homeland security.

A large part of the effort to integrate the agencies brought into the Homeland Security Department is focused on building a consolidated information technology infrastructure. We assess that effort's progress in this report's lead story. Such a unified system can help contain costs, thereby freeing resources for other purposes, and it can allow information to flow more easily and thus become more valuable within the department.

Being able to do something with that information is the subject of our second story, on developments in pattern-recognition software. Again, the idea is to make the most of limited resources, in this case government intelligence analysts and investigators. The volume of data collected by the government with possible relevance to tracking terrorist activities is overwhelming. Pattern-recognition software can sort that data and allow people to focus on the most promising leads.

In the field of cybersecurity, where single hackers have brought down entire networks and fouled thousands of systems, asymmetry is indeed the state of affairs. Our third story looks at an effort getting under way this year to build a nationwide cybersecurity early warning system to identify and ward off such attacks. It will consist of a vast network of distributed gear operated by government and industry and linked to provide a nationwide view of threats — a system whose value would truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

Our last story covers several new technologies that are emerging this year from the country's research and development labs. One is a solution to remotely monitor the contents of shipping containers, thousands of which enter U.S. ports every day. Others include handheld devices used to detect radioactive or biological weapons.

The United States likely cannot afford to secure every corner of the map, but solutions like these are designed to improve the odds of success.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above