Sandia LabNews

Becoming a national security laboratory: Sandia researchers anticipate the worst and develop mitigation and response strategies


In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a broad range of Sandia capabilities, including expertise in materials, sensors, and explosives containment, was brought to bear in the emerging war on terror.(Photos by Randy Montoya)

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.”

Nontraditional partners

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.

Honeymoon period

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.”