State looks to IT after bombings
- By Dan Verton
- Aug 23, 1998
In the aftermath of terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania this month, experts are calling for a renewed focus on information technologies that may help deter future attacks.
After bombs ripped the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 257 people, including 12 Americans, the State Department is "in the process of conducting a worldwide security review," according to a spokesman for State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
In addition, the spokesman said the increased use of information and sensor technologies that would detect intruders who break an electronic barrier surrounding an embassy is a logical next step for the department, but he declined to comment in detail.
An industry source confirmed this month that the Defense Department has tasked TRW Inc. to install intrusion-detection systems at temporary embassy locations that State has begun to set up in Kenya and Tanzania.
According to the source, TRW technicians are on-site with equipment that the company offers under its Tactical Automated Security System contract. TRW won the original TASS contract in October 1996 in response to a terrorist bombing of a U.S. Air Force complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 airmen. TASS kits include a host of commercial sensors and computers that act as a central nervous system for military and diplomatic posts, providing real-time monitoring and detection of movement and intruders.
DOD officials declined to comment, saying that State was in charge of all security arrangements at embassies abroad.
Security experts believe that technology is only part of the answer when it comes to protecting embassies overseas from terrorist attacks.
"Technology can only go so far," said Tom Preston, president of Preston Global, a Kentucky-based security consulting firm specializing in crisis management, counterterrorism and work place violence.
Although the United States can choose from many types of eavesdropping devices and technical tools that collect data, analyzing the information to discern patterns and possible targets slows the process. "Intelligence does not move as rapidly as it should," Preston said. "What you have happening is paralysis by analysis."
However, Lou Tyska, director of strategic partnering for Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, said there is no excuse for why the government does not invest heavily in IT solutions.
Still, Tyska acknowledged that technology solutions only support security measures and do not provide security. "If you think that somebody is going to wave a technological wand and remove the risk, then you're dreaming," he said.
Mark Lowenthal, president of Open Source Solutions USA and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence, said protecting U.S. embassies has less to do with IT than analysis. "It's more an issue of threat assessment than of threat warning," Lowenthal said. "IT can certainly play a role in automating database access and matching [terrorist methods of operation] with known threats, but that capability is pretty much well in-hand."
According to Tyska, one of the key threat factors in the age of superbombs is the proximity of the bomb to the target, something he said intrusion-detection and sensor systems cannot protect against because sensor systems are placed in close proximity to the embassies.
U.S. embassies should consider deploying remote communications systems that would allow for the efficient passing of indications and warning information to the main guard posts, Tyska said. "In the end you can do all of the technology installations you want to, but close counts in horseshoes and in bombings," he said.
John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, said the bombings indicate there also might be some questions about the adequacy of U.S. signals intelligence and technical collection capabilities. However, Pike said clear indications that something like this was going to happen could have been picked up through open sources, such as the Internet.
According to Pike, a statement posted on the Internet and elsewhere in February by the World Islamic Front, a radical anti-American group headed by known terrorist financier Osama Bin Laden, clearly called for attacks against U.S. installations that were easily accessible. Despite a warning put out by State in June about the threat, "nobody seems to be listening," Pike said. "This was the obvious smoking gun."