Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert talks about impact of 9/11 on national security mission
By Bill Murphy
Note: The Lab News recently sat down with Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert to talk about how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation's subsequent response have shaped Sandia's strategic direction over the past decade and how those attacks have framed the discussion about the just-completed 2012-2016 strategic plan.
Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert talks about Sandia's 2012-2016 strategic plan.
Lab News: In September 2001 you were working in the UK. Did you happen to be in England on 9/11 itself?
Paul Hommert: Yes, I was in England. I'd been in the States and had flown back to England the Sunday before, the 9th. Like anyone, I can remember 9/11 precisely. In the UK, it was a little after lunch, in the early afternoon. I was in a meeting when one of my colleagues came in, grabbed me and said, “You have to come and see this.” As I watched the events unfold, I was just staggered; I mean I actually couldn't stay at work, I had to leave because I was glued to the television. And you have such a range of emotions. One of the most telling things is the enormous outpouring of respect, the true depth of caring that came from my British colleagues. It's something I will always remember. It was genuine and immediate; it was especially meaningful because I think they understood that in a situation like this, I wanted to be home. That was hard to wrestle with, that I couldn't do anything.
LN: Did experiencing 9/11 while you were overseas and away from home perhaps give you a different perspective on America's vulnerabilities in the post-Cold War environment?
PH: Being in the UK when it happened, I think maybe I had a better sense of how much the world looks to America, and here the world looked to an America that was damaged, that was not as invincible as it might have been on the 10th of September. You also gained a sense of how important America is in the world.
LN: Has the post-9/11 security landscape shaped your thoughts about Sandia's strategic direction?
PH: Absolutely. As you know, our leadership team recently finalized a set of strategic objectives that project us forward based on where we are as a laboratory today. And certainly, where we are in 2011 has been fundamentally affected by the events of 9/11.
Just take a look at the aggregate defense budget, including intelligence. That budget has increased dramatically — and I'm not even talking about the money that's been allocated to conduct two wars. That increase has definitely had an effect on us; it's given us the opportunity to work on a broader set of challenges and make broader contributions to the nation's security.
But beyond that, and in a more basic way, the past decade has changed how we view ourselves relative to both our nuclear weapons mission and to our broader set of missions. Our strategic objectives reflect that changed perspective, emphasizing that in the post-9/11 world, our mission diversity is an asset in our ability to serve the nation. But we have to be mindful of leveraging our diversity in a constructive way. If we treat our nuclear weapons mission and our other national security work as separate and unrelated, I think we lose a critical focus. That's why we now have only one programmatic executive VP [Jerry McDowell]; in my view we are a national security laboratory first and foremost that has a unique nuclear weapons responsibility and then has other programs it executes that are part of an overall national security mission. Our weapons work and other national security work should never and cannot be thought of as separate; they have to be managed in an integrated way.
LN: You and the leadership team have identified five strategic objectives. Can you get specific about how the objectives are going to move us in a strategic direction that emphasizes our role as a national security laboratory?
PH: As we've just discussed, most Sandians understand how the post-9/11 world has helped define us as a national security laboratory. It's important to emphasize, though, that we still have a unique nuclear weapons mission that is very much a core part of who we are. Our first strategic objective makes the point plainly: “We will deliver with excellence on our unique nuclear weapons mission.”
Some — not necessarily at Sandia — have asked whether nuclear weapons are as important to national security today as they were in the Cold War. After all, they say, what do nuclear weapons have to do with the world as it is now? Aren't they a relic of the Cold War?
If you probe deeper and think about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability, think about the issues of proliferation, a dynamic that was very much affected by 9/11 and our nation's response to it, you have a world in which nuclear weapons still have a hugely important role in strategic deterrence. That role has been recognized explicitly in the president's 2009 Prague speech [on nuclear disarmament as a worthy goal] and in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
In pursuing that first strategic objective, we're in the midst of a modernization effort in the nuclear weapons program. In that effort, Sandia will be called upon to both lead and produce in an unprecedented way, in a way we have not had to do since before the end of the Cold War.
So the first objective calls us to a higher level of leadership. I can't overstate how big a challenge this effort will be, what a stretch it will be for us. If we are to succeed, we'll have to bring to the task everything we've got, everything we've become good at in this diversified Laboratory over the years.
Needless to say, the prerequisite for success in our first objective is that we also succeed in objective number four, that we excel in the practice of engineering. Our customers in the weapons program and our other major programs demand the absolute highest standard of excellence, as they should, because there is just no margin for error in matters that affect the security of this country. As we move forward, we need to recognize that engineering in the 21st century assumes a base of exceptional science and the ability to integrate science into our engineered products.
The post-9/11 world has presented us with a new set of national security challenges that require new solutions and new engineering approaches. The nation expects, and we must demand of ourselves, that we deliver those solutions by building on and continually improving the base of excellence we are known for.
LN: The new set of strategic objectives talks about amplifying our national security impact. Isn't that implicit in the objectives you've already mentioned?
PH: Probably, but we [the Labs' leadership] felt it important enough to explicitly make it an objective. We have so many skills and abilities that we can go in many different directions, some of which we should go in, some of which we shouldn't. To me, amplifying our national security impact is all about how we leverage our diversity in a strategic way, gaining a greater focus, a greater recognition in Washington and amongst ourselves about where should we concentrate our capabilities for maximum impact.
LN: We've talked about three of the five objectives; there are a couple of others.
PH: The third objective [i.e., objective number 3 in the list of five, “Lead the weapons complex as a model 21st century government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) national laboratory”] is, to me, about both taking advantage of an opportunity and then holding ourselves to the highest standard of operations.
The leadership in DOE and NNSA want to reinvigorate the GOCO model, a model developed in the very different operational era of the 1950s. That model, useful as it has been, cannot be just taken from the 1950s and dropped into our current environment.
As the largest laboratory and certainly the largest laboratory when you look at nonnuclear operations, one should expect us to lead, the Department should expect us to lead, in bringing this model into the 21st century.
As leaders, we need to be mindful about the standards we have for the efficiency of our business processes, and for the strength of our cultures of security and safety. While I think those cultures are strong, they can always be stronger. And also I think we face the challenges any commercial business faces today in dealing with our cost parameters and the effectiveness of our operational space and business space.
Our workforce has seen us take on some of those challenges on health care, the pension plan, the way we do performance compensation and job classification. All of those efforts are intended to take us to a higher level of performance that includes being on a stable financial basis as an institution. People should not underestimate the importance of excelling in this objective as almost the entry ticket for the continued strength of our programmatic position.
LN: Okay; and the fifth objective?
PH: The fifth objective [“Commit to a learning, inclusive, and engaging environment for our people”] might sound like a statement of the obvious but sometimes the obvious is so obvious you forget about it, right? Even with the challenges I talked about earlier, we must constantly ask how we can make sure we're focusing on things that strengthen the work environment for our people. And that has to do with how we support learning programs, how we support the facility base and the environment where our work is done, how we support engagement in the community, how we support work-life interaction. Any of these elements has a soft character to them, but in aggregate, ensuring the environment for our people requires focused leadership attention and concrete actions. That is why we've made this issue one of our five strategic objectives.
LN: In thinking about our strategic objectives and where we're going as a laboratory, I wonder: In the post-9/11 world is there anything like the sort of day-to-day urgency in our mission work that characterized our work during the Cold War?
PH: Oh yes. It's sometimes hard for us to talk about all of the things that we're doing post-9/11, but I can tell you that there are many activities here that have saved the lives of our military personnel. When you're working on things that have that kind of realness to them, there is a sense of urgency. Absolutely.
And when you know you're on the hook to put in place a technology that has a fundamental impact on our national security capabilities at large, there's an urgency to that.
I would remind everybody, too, that in the work we do in nonproliferation and in energy, for example, the faster we bring solutions, the sooner we can provide the policymakers with technology options that bolster the nation's security. So there's an urgency there, and I think the folks working in those areas feel that urgency.
And then I would come back to our unique nuclear weapons mission: I don't view the importance of that deterrent as any less significant than it was during the Cold War. If anything, today, we're in a more complex environment, more dangerous, and the nation's extended strategic deterrent is still vitally important to the world and to our allies. In this post-9/11 world, our allies — and our adversaries — are looking to us, watching how we take on modernization [of our weapon stockpile], because they see that as an indicator of the strength of our deterrent and of our commitment to that deterrent. That falls right in this Laboratory's lap. And I know our workforce senses that because I know how hard they're working right now on these programs. So, yes, that spirit of urgency is there; very clearly, it's there.
LN: You have described our new strategic objectives as game-changing. What do you mean by that?
PH: That phrase is perhaps overused. In this context, for me, it means that in three to five years in every one of those five areas [defined by the strategic objectives], the way the Laboratory operates must be different; we must be changed in each one. We have to deliver and train and bring a whole new generation to the stewardship of our deterrent; we have to effect that change. We have to bring a new level of focus, strategic recognition, and investment to our diversity. We must be a more effective, efficient, and stronger cultural organization with respect to the way we operate under the GOCO model. When someone asks where to find the best national security product engineering, based in science, the answer rolls off their tongue — it's Sandia. And then, five years from now, we want our people to recognize that we've created an environment that amplifies the uniqueness of what Sandia has to offer and it recognizes them in a way that's more tangible than we've done in recent years. All of these things are about being at a different place than we are now.
LN: Do you think we're anywhere near there?
PH: Oh yes, absolutely, we're near there, without question. But near there, occasionally there, isn't as good as always there. And that's where we're headed. It's not that where we are today is bad in any way. This is a great place. We do phenomenal things. But the nation needs for us to be even better, our people need for us to be even better, and we will be.
LN: How confident are you in that?
PH: I'm very confident. We have a great leadership team. If you look at the talent we've brought to the Laboratory in the last three years, I mean, it's just phenomenal. The new talent we've brought into this Laboratory is nothing but exciting. So I don't know how not to be optimistic about us moving forward. I am very optimistic. Between our mission, our talent, and unfortunately, the diversity of the nation's challenges, Sandia is an important and great place to be. And we just want to make it an even better place to be. - Bill Murphy
By Renee Deger
Less than a day after Sandians evacuated midmorning on Sept. 11, 2001, pockets of professionals throughout the Labs were back at work, considering various US facilities, and asking the same question over and over: “What would happen if an airplane struck?”
The targets they explored in the first days were the most obvious — government buildings, military installations, nuclear power plants. Within weeks, more Sandia teams were asking more complex questions, the “targets” were more diverse, the “weapons” more varied, and the “adversaries” more enigmatic. Within months, whole organizations in Sandia were devoted to constructing a new — and permanent — definition of national security.
Ten years later, what had been the response to 9/11 is now an operational reality for many Sandians. The event brought lasting shape, definition, and relevance to a host of specialties, program areas, and even solo projects that anticipated and explored a broad range of threats against the US and its allies. National security now explicitly includes homeland security and defense, which have developed into both a collection of dedicated programs and an overarching mission space that draws from expertise and centers across the Labs. The expanded national security mission also has helped Sandia cultivate deeper, more collaborative interactions with end users, leading to more usable solutions and greater innovation and intensifying Sandia's role in anticipating risk.
It's important to note that there are few activities that Sandia now undertakes, as a result of 9/11, that weren't under way in some shape or form prior to the attacks. It's in Sandia's DNA to anticipate worst-case scenarios and map out mitigation or response strategies.
The rise of terrorist activities in the late 1960s had prompted Sandia to explore threats by small groups of nonstate actors alongside the traditional, Cold War hazards. This included, of course, the ever-present threat of some evildoers getting their hands on a nuclear bomb. But prior to 9/11, threats were typically framed as more limited in their impact or as accidents, like a nuclear power plant meltdown or a chemical spill, and likely never to happen, or perhaps only in the dim, distant future and, if so, then certainly somewhere else.
“9/11 changed the perception of terrorist activity,” says John Vitko, who retired in 2007 but played a major role in shaping some of Sandia's homeland security programs as well as the federal agency that now bears that name. “Before 9/11, terrorist acts were viewed as activities that drew attention to a cause or were aimed to strike terror, not necessarily to cause widespread death or alienate possible constituents.”
The legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security, which rolled 22 federal agencies under one umbrella, specifically sought contributions from the national labs. So when virtually every branch of the new agency began questioning their defenses and preparedness, Sandians were suddenly working with new populations of professionals, from border, immigration, and customs officials, to airport security screeners, local law enforcement, and emergency managers.
The kinds of questions these new stakeholders posed challenged Sandians to adjust the way they studied problems and created and tested solutions, says Holly Dockery (6020), deputy to VP Jill Hruby of the International, Homeland, and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit.
This became clear during the process of creating the new DHS. Holly, John, and John Cummings, who is also retired from Sandia, were part of a very small cadre of scientists drafted primarily from the DOE labs to build the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate of DHS from scratch, implementing the ideas the National Academy of Sciences raised in its 2002 report, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism.
Supporting the DHS ‘civilian security' mission
“We were making a broad new push for a range of science and technology that would support the new ‘civilian security' mission of DHS,” Holly says. “Most of us thought security trumped everything else. But this was no longer just about security. It was about the kind of science and technology that could help balance security with the need to maintain a normal life. But it was also about enhancing routine, legitimate activities — travel, trade, and immigration.
“That was not security the way DoD defines it,” Holly continues. “On a military base, it doesn't matter if scanning every person and vehicle by hand stops traffic for two hours. But in an airport or an operating cargo port, you just can't do that, and [Customs and Border Protection] won't do that.”
This new dynamic brought Sandians closer to the operational dynamics of the environments they were assessing for risk or seeking to secure with new plans and solutions, and to great benefit. To be sure, Sandia has long employed a systems approach to developing solutions for complex environments. But the expanded practice of factoring in greater operational dimension for a broader range of users has strengthened Sandia's expertise and enhanced its reputation as a leading systems engineering lab.
Along with this new cast of characters came dramatic new working environments and test beds, like fully functioning airports, active ports, and operating subways. As Larry Brandt (8110) recalls, the projects that emerged after 9/11 broadened the nature of Sandia's work.
“In the past, our focus was on national security missions primarily for federal and military users,” Larry says. “With the events of 9/11, we greatly expanded our role with state and local entities and with new kinds of infrastructure owners. The old skill sets were adapted and augmented to deal with new customer environments.”
A case in point was a two-day operation in January 2006, led by Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, that used the San Francisco International Airport as a test bed for a program called Protective and Responsive Options for Airport Counterterrorism (PROACT). The program developed and tested procedures for airports to respond to a biological or chemical attack. The demonstration involved 120 officials from local, state, and federal agencies.
Larry contributed to the systems analysis activities that helped define the program. Eye-opening for Larry during that process, he says, was how difficult it was to implement changes in chemical and biological readiness in light of the numerous daily concerns present in a metropolitan airport. “We had to adapt to operational realities, and that was often quite challenging,” Larry says.
New programs, new tools
Sandia's response to the new world that dawned on Sept. 12, 2001, opened with a flurry of activity helping longtime partners like DOE and DoD assess and understand their risks. But that was just the beginning. The areas of expertise that were called upon — threat identification and characterization, risk assessment and management, attack response and restoration planning, chemical and biological detection, and physical security — and the tools applied — security solutions like sensors, detectors, and weapons systems and modeling and simulation (mod/sim) software — to name just a few, exploded as more public and private entities tasked Sandia with helping them address their individual concerns.
Initially, the questions centered on Sandia's expertise in protecting critical assets. Senior Manager Basil Steele (6500) spent the first days following the attacks assembling information on a range of risks and mitigation strategies for a congressional report. Decades before, Sandia had begun developing a number of physical security specialties to support the nuclear weapons enterprise, but most were in maintenance mode by 2001. The post-9/11 probes prompted the US Air Force to renew close ties with Sandia security experts, particularly in the overhaul of security at multiple US nuclear weapons installations. The Navy followed with similar tasks. This work continues today.
“People had stopped thinking about security as something that had to continue to evolve,” Basil says. “9/11 put that back into focus and spurred all kinds of activity in developing next-generation protective technologies, like weapons systems, early detection devices, access-denial mechanisms, and simulation and modeling tools.”
Stephen Attaway (1525) worked closely with Basil on expanding the use of modeling and simulation to run system scenarios that could help identify tools for further testing. That was a major change that came about as a result of 9/11. The tools developed for the Advanced Simulation & Computing program were originally built to study weapons performance and safety. But the demands following 9/11 — the expanded number of queries, the wide range of scenarios and facilities explored, the kinds of solutions under examination — required wide-ranging applications of simulation and modeling capabilities that continue to be developed today.
“We didn't have in the job description anything like studying events like 9/11, but because we had built the large-scale computing resources, we could apply the tools to simulating terrorist attacks,” Stephen says. A longtime code writer, Stephen says the physical security questions brought him around to the other side of the desk, and he began studying vulnerabilities and researching mitigation strategies to see what would work. The influence of mod/sim capabilities on moving projects along was astounding, he says.
“We were able to use mod/sim to help people get beyond the denial stage that they have a security problem and see solutions that would work,” Stephen says.
Civilian security systems analysis exploded as well, as a result of the attacks. The security systems analysis group has since spun off multiple new groups dedicated to securing a wide range of physical locations and critical resources as well as partnering with other countries.
Initially, Sandia analysts were asked to examine the security of potential civilian terrorist targets, including major manufacturing facilities like chemical plants, large infrastructure facilities like dams, and even national monuments. Greg Wyss (6612) was looking at the reliability of the national telecommunications networks when the attacks happened. He was drafted for an urgent project for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — a 60-day probe of potential aircraft vulnerabilities of all 106 US nuclear power plants. The NRC then asked for a two-year, in-depth study of the two most common types of nuclear power plants, which was the largest project Sandia had done for the NRC in decades.
“Sandia's analysis, testing, and modeling and simulation activities for the NRC elevated our credibility dramatically,” Greg says. “Our work supported the NRC's aircraft security rulemaking, and we continue to assist internationally on the topic.”
Emerging new threats probed in the wake of 9/11 didn't eliminate fears of a possible nuclear disaster. In fact, the events dramatically heightened fears that a nuclear weapon would be detonated in the US or in an allied nation. This drove a major expansion in programs and technologies that could detect or track the movement of nuclear weapons, precursor materials used in their manufacture, and even radiological materials used in medical fields.
Sandia had developed radiation detectors for many years prior to 9/11 but they were mostly big, expensive, stationary, and used by specialists in targeted locations, like military bases. In response to new demands for radiation detectors in civilian locations, Sandia began exploring solutions that were smaller, cheaper, more mobile, and easier to use. And, perhaps more importantly, the new technologies were capable of translating information about the materials being detected into the kinds of data points that specific end users needed.
“The primary activity was that the analysis software became more reliable,” says Dean Mitchell (6633), a veteran of Sandia's radiation-detection projects. “We were strongly involved with that. “Dean says that prior to 9/11, the Sandia gamma detector response and analysis software (GADRAS) was used by about a dozen people to support internal projects. Now, hundreds of people inside and outside the Labs use the software, which has been refined and enhanced over the past decade.
Bio takes shape
While program areas throughout the Labs experienced tremendous growth after 9/11, the most dramatic visible change took place in biological threat reduction, a collection of capabilities and projects under the Countering Biological Threats umbrella. The programs provide the science, technology, and technical policy solutions to confront on a global scale the entire lifecycle of a biological threat — from awareness to prevention, preparedness to detection, and response to recovery. Some of these programs didn't exist 10 years ago and others were small projects with single principal investigators.
Activities and programs aimed at prevention, for example, had barely taken shape until agencies throughout the government started examining their security postures in the first days after 9/11. At that time, Senior Manager Ren Salerno (6820) was a technical staff member working solo and trying to get laboratory managers and security specialists worldwide to pay attention to biosecurity.
The day before 9/11, which fell on a Tuesday, Ren was wondering whether he was ever going to get any real traction with his fledgling program. The Sunday after 9/11, he was on a plane to Washington, D.C., to meet with the deputy secretary of agriculture to discuss security measures for the nation's biological research labs.
While those conversations began as a result of 9/11, it's nearly impossible to separate that day from the impact of the series of anthrax letters mailed in the following weeks. [The 10-year anniversary of the anthrax letters will be examined in the Sept. 26 issue of Lab News.] But it's fair to say that in that one-month period in 2001, 9/11 sparked the sudden demand for biosecurity expertise, and the anthrax letters wrote the checks.
Within weeks of that flight to Washington, Ren's fledgling program had a couple million dollars and the job of upgrading security systems for the nation's top laboratories. “The urgency was immediate because no one knew what was going to happen and we thought any critical infrastructures and any dangerous materials were vulnerable,” Ren says. “What the anthrax letters did was heighten that beyond anything imaginable.”
Anup Singh (8621), who leads diagnostic research, says the event prompted him to turn more attention to biodefense detection and diagnostics, building on some of
Sandia's initial projects in chemical detection. “We already had lots of projects at Sandia doing environmental detection, but until that time there was nothing at Sandia focused on the people,” Anup says. “And at the end of the day that is who we wanted to save.”
In 2002, Anup secured Sandia's first funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop a portable diagnostic tool that could diagnose disease from human saliva. That project helped Sandia establish a track record in medical diagnostics that has since led more new funding agencies in the biological sector to throw their support behind Sandia.
Sandia's new reality as a national security lab that assists a diverse set of partners carries new responsibilities, particularly as 9/11 passes into the collective memory. The Labs became a focal point for the nation's leaders in first the year. Members of Congress, military officials, agency heads, and a host of other government luminaries beat a path to Sandia to learn about the Labs. Such visits still happen but not with the same degree of regularity. And shifting priorities and tough budgetary realities now, 10 years later, put a greater burden on Sandia to educate partners and government leaders as their ranks turn over. Yet the threat is constant, and history has demonstrated that vigilance in the absence of successful attacks is crucial.
“The interest was huge at first. Congress recognized the value of the DOE labs in the legislation creating DHS, and we expected that we would be treated the way we're treated by the DOE,” Holly says. “That's the not the case. We're just another contractor and it's a difficult education process to help people who carry guns and badges and are constantly dealing with tactical, everyday concerns to appreciate the value of long-term research and development that is not providing immediate solutions.”
Holly spent most of the past eight years working for DHS in a number of capacities and returned to Sandia in February. “To be impactful you have to really understand the needs of the sponsors and also to have the people who need the tools and the analyses really understand the value of your contributions,” Holly adds. “It's a constant and ongoing education process for both Sandia and the users.” -- Renee Deger
Years before Osama bin Laden executed the world's deadliest terrorist attacks, Sandia researchers were studying what made the US vulnerable and where threats to US security in a post-Cold War world were likely to emerge. Among these researchers was Gary Richter (8112), a systems analyst who evaluated the goals and capabilities of terrorist groups. In a 1999 case study, he concluded that bin Laden was a significant threat who "taps a bottomless reservoir of ethnic and religious discontent and funnels it against the US." As it turned out, Gary was right.
Weeks before 9/11, Sandia and KAFB were discussing creating an open campus by removing the fence around TA-1 now that the Cold War had passed. That discussion ended with the 9/11 attacks.
* * *
American Airlines Flight 11 tore into the World Trade Center at 6:46 a.m. in New Mexico. About five minutes later, then-Labs Director Paul Robinson, who was at home getting ready for work, heard the first televised report of the tragedy.
From 1985-1988, Paul had worked on the 93rd floor of the south tower. He recalled that one of the job's perks had been a car and an underground parking spot, where he very well could have been during the 1993 truck bomb attack had fate not interceded in 1988 by having him leave New York to lead the US delegation at the US-Russian Testing Talks in Geneva.
This second set of attacks was clearly far worse. “You couldn't help but think what might have been. It was horribly shocking,” Paul says. His thoughts quickly turned to the day ahead. “I headed into work because I knew we were going to be busy. I got calls at home and on the way in.”
* * *
Gary was in Albuquerque for a conference when he heard the news. He was glued to the television when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower at about 7:03 a.m. in New Mexico.
“I had this feeling of helplessness,” he says. “I'm employed by a national security laboratory to study these things and right now at this hotel I can do no more than my own mother could do. I dedicated most of my life to fighting people like this; it's been my career, so it made me sad that I couldn't do anything right then.”
* * *
An hour-and-a-half after the first plane hit, Paul says Gen. John Gordon, then-head of NNSA, called to ask for Sandia's help.
“‘You guys are the ones who have been working counter-terrorism the hardest,'” Paul recalls Gordon saying, “‘Get some guys back here to help me handle all the requests we're getting, and the communications with all the other labs and sites.'”
Paul agreed to send a Sandia-led team to Washington, D.C., as soon as possible. He was unaware at the time that the Federal Aviation Administration already had made the decision to ground civilian air traffic.
Within hours of the attacks, the questions started. People remembered Sandia's past research, particularly a video of an F-4 Phantom crashing into a structure similar in strength to nuclear reactor containment vessels. The video took on new significance that day.
“Almost instantly, all around the country, in lots of organizations, people remembered that work,” Paul says. “They were asking Sandia, ‘What's the vulnerability of this facility and that facility?'”
A phone bank normally used for VIP visits was set up in the director's office to handle the mass of phone calls.
To help get answers, Paul phoned Tom Bickel (2200). The then-director of Engineering Sciences had used structural mechanics calculations to predict damage caused by aircraft hitting various structures.
Paul also organized focus groups of researchers who worked for Dennis Miyoshi, the director of Security Systems and Technology at the time.
“One of the focus groups' ideas was spectacular; an example of Sandia engineering that offers simple, elegant solutions,” Paul says. The group advised using steel cable, properly tensioned and anchored, to throw back any vehicles that attacked areas containing critical buildings and personnel.
There was never any explicit threat to the Labs, but Paul says those in the director's office were working on so many issues that they “were almost unconscious of what was going on outside.” That job was left to others.
* * *
Wes Martin, protective force chief of operations, heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center when he left home. By the time he arrived at the office, word came that a second plane had hit and he knew this was no accident.
Wes says Sandia aligned with Kirtland Air Force Base to elevate the Force Protection Condition to “Charlie plus,” which describes a situation where actions are taken because terrorist activity is imminent plus additional security measures were put into place as if Sandia were under attack.
At 10 a.m., just more than three hours from the first attack, nonessential Sandia employees were told to go home.
“There was a flow of people leaving,” Wes says. “It was not an insane rush. People left in a very organized manner.”
By 2 p.m., the base was virtually empty and Sandia's Leadership Council met to establish who was required to report for work and figure out how to get people back.
The Emergency Operations Center was concerned about the state of Sandians who were on travel and scattered all over the world, particularly those at the Pentagon, which was also attacked that morning, killing 125 people on board the aircraft that struck the building and 64 people working there.
Charlie Thomas, who was on special assignment to DOE and was at the Pentagon that morning, recalled at the time: “We felt a tremor go through the building.”
Charlie and all Sandians there and elsewhere were all right.
* * *
On Wednesday, Sandia's laboratories and offices were nearly deserted with a lone car in a parking lot that normally held hundreds. “It was eerie,” says Iris Aboytes (3601), an emergency communicator that day. “It was like a hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere.”
Former VP Roger Hagengruber arrived at work at 4:30 a.m. and received a phone call from Gordon, asking him if he were willing to lead the Washington-bound Sandia team and describing some of the needs he already had: take a look at NNSA's facilities, assess the risks, and look at the possibility for organized terrorist attacks and attacks using aircraft.
Sandia's security research dated back to the mid-1970s. Sandia's fingerprints could be seen throughout all nuclear portal perimeter monitoring systems, perimeter intrusion protection, double fencing, and other security measures and research. By the mid-90s, researchers were looking at the possibility of a terrorist attack to steal nuclear materials. Roger had been tapped by DOE in 1996 to conduct a number of security studies, including looking at the importance of dealing with the security of nuclear materials.
When rumors of substance spread after the attacks that there would be attacks on nuclear facilities, it made sense to call Sandia.
“I was working off of a very strong base of experts who knew a lot more about the details than I did,” Roger says. “And, I was ready to help take on the concern about how to deal with the security. 9/11 increased what was already a very high priority to an urgency to make sure we had done everything we could.”
* * *
On Sept. 13, a gray, rainy Thursday morning, Wes stood at the Eubank gate watching a line of vehicles waiting to return to work. Motorists handed their badges to officers at the gates for the first time and expressed their gratitude for the added security.
“We probably got more respect from the people at the gates than we ever got before that day,” Wes says.
Wes, like Roger, also viewed his job in terms of a broader sense of national security. “In there,” he said shortly after 9/11, “is where we're developing the technology that can help us win this thing … . Our job is to get those folks into their labs and offices as quickly as possible and make sure they have a safe place to do the work this nation needs right now.”
Thursday was a busy day. Researchers say their phones were ringing off the hook. Even before 9/11, Sandia had developed systematic ways to identify security weaknesses of buildings, dams, drinking water supplies, and other possible targets. Now the nation wanted the benefits of that work.
Tom, who rode in that morning with former VP Al Romig, learned that he would be joining the team headed to Washington that day. He jokes that he had to tell Al to find his own ride home that evening.
Joining Roger and Tom was Jim Larson, then a manager in what later became Critical Asset Protection and Security. The men gathered at a corporate terminal adjacent to the Albuquerque airport, but their team wasn't yet complete.
Roger ran into a Los Alamos lab expert, who happened to be passing through the terminal and agreed on the fly to join them. Once in Washington, they coincidentally bumped into two special nuclear material production experts from Pantex and Rocky Flats who were trying to return home, but agreed to join the team when asked.
The Lear jet they took had government clearance because civilian aircraft were still grounded.
The tiny jet departed Albuquerque alone that day, headed for Andrews Air Force Base near the nation's capital. The passengers weren't afraid to be alone in the sky because they were too busy discussing how they were going to carry out their work.
Over the central region of the country, the pilot called Roger to the cockpit. “The pilot said, ‘You'd better take a look at this. I've never seen anything like this before. There isn't a thing in the air. It's empty.'”
Normally the screen would have been filled with midday flights criss-crossing the country, but that day it was dark.
After landing safely, they were taken to a hotel in Crystal City, Va. As they walked across the lobby, they found the typically bustling hotel deserted.
* * *
By Thursday afternoon, Paul had worked two-and-a-half days straight and took his first break, like many other employees who worked long hours during the crisis.
* * *
At 7:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 14, Roger and his team were taken to a high-security vault at DOE and began calling NNSA facilities, talking to security managers, making sure contingency plans for an aircraft attack and a release of materials were in place.
“We went to work every day in an environment that was the aftermath of a war zone,” Roger says.
Tom recalls: “It was very chaotic.”
They looked for vulnerabilities as they worked, particularly at critical facilities. “These types of attacks not only would create a nuclear incident, but they could also damage our nuclear program,” Roger says. “We looked at events that would cause death or exposure to significant amounts of radiation, that would cost a permanent or decades-long loss of a permanent facility or would cost billions of dollars to replace. Finally, we looked at things that could create an irretrievable loss of public confidence.”
Working 12 hours-plus a day through the weekend, the team created a matrix based on high, medium, and low risk and a list of recommendations for the facilities in what was later dubbed The 72-hour Report.
While some callers found sleepy or grumpy employees on the other end of the line, once they knew why the group was calling, they helped. Team members say everyone pitched in during the crisis.
“They were fantastic. . . . Whether it was Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Y-12, or Pantex, or any of the other DOE/NNSA facilities, I saw them all come together and really, really focus. They were able to overcome any differences and everybody just focused on trying to help,” Jim says.
* * *
For the next few days, the mood at the Labs was one of nervousness, as it was across America, particularly when airlines returned to the skies. Wes says he helped respond to numerous false reports from employees. “It was jumpiness,” he says.
* * *
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001, Richard Sparks, now retired from Sandia, but still serving as a consultant, arrived at Ground Zero with 650 pounds of equipment to outfit search dogs looking for victims' remains with wireless low-light video cameras and two-way radios and monitors for search and rescue K-9 handlers. Richard managed to assemble eight systems at the operating base next to Ground Zero. Mary Green (6612) joined him for three days, helping him assemble the collars and parts and coming up with several variations and improvements on the original camera collars.
Richard says he worked with search-and-rescue teams from all over the country who asked to buy the devices, but they were never commercialized. He says a company in California is interested in manufacturing them for such teams.
* * *
As a new week dawned, the calls for help from around the nation continued. Betty Biringer (5942) recalls Org. 6400 being “bombarded” with calls for their security risk methodology for federal dams, which had been completed that August. They started applying the methodology to other facilities, particularly for large metropolitan governments that called to say they had hundreds of critical structures they needed to protect.
“It was pretty sobering: the realization that it was no longer a technical problem or a paper exercise; it had really happened,” Betty says. “We've got to protect the nation from this. There was a feeling of nationalism among us. We all knew why we went to work every day.”
Sandians also helped outside the workplace. Bruce Berry (6833), who was then a Sandia emergency planner, Troy Hamby (4136-1), Lloyd Rantanen (3333), Mike Hessheimer (1534), and Gerald Wellman (1525) were on the New Mexico Urban Search and Rescue Task Force that traveled to the Pentagon to help recovery efforts. Working 18-hour days, they shored up damaged parts of the five-story structure, searching for survivors and recovering airplane parts along the way.
“You can't help feeling anger or hate that this act was done. Of course, you can't dwell on that because you are there to do a job. But you come across remains and you wonder, whose mother was this? Whose son?” Berry said at the time.
Across town, Roger and his teammates provided a classified briefing to Gordon on their findings.
“There were a number of important things that were done because of the report,” Roger says, explaining that he cannot provide details.
After the briefing, the team flew home. “For those of us who had spent these feverish five days in Washington it was such a relief to get home because it had been so intense,” Roger says.
A decade later, Roger remains proud about what he, Tom, Jim, and the others accomplished.
“The ability of this laboratory to contribute to this was a reflection of 30 years of capabilities and development of our understanding of how security and technology come together,” he says.
But his feelings are mixed when it comes to security actions taken since 9/11.
“9/11 was a wakeup call for the country and those of us at the Labs who had responsibilities in security to say that events that we had deemed relatively unlikely needed to be more seriously evaluated in terms of finding the balance of money and security,” Roger says. “As a nation we still haven't adequately dealt with that.”
* * *
On Oct. 5, former Lab News editor Ken Frazier wrote in the newspaper that he hoped some semblance of normalcy was returning to Sandia.
“Nothing is quite the same. Nor ever will be. But there seems to be a little less tension than marked those first two horrible weeks after Sept. 11,” Ken wrote. “People are allowing themselves to emerge a bit from what, after all, has been an intense period of communal national mourning.”
* * *
Wes went on to serve multiple Army tours, eventually retiring as an active component colonel. These tours included serving as the senior antiterrorism/force protection officer for Iraq and later as base commander of Camp Ashraf, in Iraq, where he worked closely with an Iranian opposition group based there. During these tours he continually called on Sandia for help with certain security issues.
* * *
Paul, who retired from Sandia in February 2006, says, 9/11 “changed our thinking about being the Labs the nation turns to first for solutions to tough problems in science and technology. 9/11 was a small culmination of that. We were harvesting a lot of work people had been doing for several years.”
* * *
Several people, particularly those working in security at Sandia, say “normal” didn't ever return.
“I think it forever changed the way we looked at physical security because it changed the threat spectrum, I don't think it's ever been the same,” Betty says.
* * *
After 9/11, Gary received calls from colleagues congratulating him on correctly stating that bin Laden was a threat before 9/11.
“I had this sense of professional pride, but I felt guilty that 9/11 had happened,” he says.
Over the next six months, Gary conducted as many as 60 briefings to NATO members about his work on terrorism, but he still wonders whether he could have done more. “Most people didn't want to hear about such things,” he says. “All my life, I'll wonder, should I have pushed my ideas more strongly? Could they have made a difference?”
This narrative of the days following 9/11 at Sandia was taken from previous issues of the Lab News and interviews with Paul Robinson, Roger Hagengruber, Jim Larson, Tom Bickel, Dennis Miyoshi, Wes Martin, Gary Richter, Betty Biringer, Richard Sparks, Mary Green, Iris Aboytes, and Randy Montoya.