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DHS's Ongoing Challenge: Securing Soft Targets

By Chuck Brooks, Sutherland Government Solutions
 
In response to the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said there is “no credible or specific intelligence regarding a similar plot that has been uncovered” in the U.S.
 
Regardless, the Brussels attacks have certainly brought a new focus by DHS, the intelligence community and law enforcement to mitigate future threats to soft targets.
 
Security is based on increased vigilance and layering elements of  intelligence, surveillance technologies and trained personnel to guard vulnerabilities. The real challenge has always been deciding how much security to allocate to what, where and when.
 
Democratic societies by their nature are open and accessible, which poses a difficult challenge to secure all soft targets in public places such as airports, trains, buses, malls, schools, stadiums and hospitals. Or, for that matter, to secure any place where many people like to socially or commercially gather. The emergence of new capabilities could enable DHS to address these vulnerability issues, and there are protocols and systems that can make a difference.
 
DHS is exploring futuristic checkpoints that integrate the intelligent fusion of sensor components. The set-up could consist of behavioral sensors that try to measure hostile intent with micro facial and auditory sensors. Other physiological sensors could monitor respiratory, cardio, thermal and iris reactions of passengers who may mean harm.
 
These checkpoints could be combined with high-definition thermal cameras equipped with facial recognition software that feeds into real-time databases of suspected terrorists. The checkpoints could also use millimeter wave or 3-D imaging with stand-off abilities to detect bombs at a distance.
 
Chem-bio sensors, geo-fencing, situational awareness software, predictive modeling and newer interoperable communications technologies are additional instruments that can be used to deliver a better readiness and response for interdiction of threats. Technologies are not a panacea, but they do provide additional tools for protectors and first responders.
 
Israel, a leading country in developing innovative security, already employs many of these types of technologies and layered perimeter strategies to protect its airports and other critical infrastructure. But the U.S., being a larger country, does not have the resources to cover so many soft targets. For DHS and law enforcement, armed security, barriers, perimeter fences, cameras, acoustic sensors, bomb-sniffing dogs, and joint counter-terrorism training exercises are still the most feasible means of protecting citizens.
 
Dogs, in fact, have a proven success record for locating bomb materials that many say out-performs machines. But there is a shortage of both trained dogs and trainers, and more investment needs to be made on federal, state and local levels to expand K-9 patrols. A recent federal audit showed that the Transportation Security Administration is short on detection teams because of a lack of trained dogs.
 
The Brussels attacks, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the Boston bombing demonstrated the gaps in information sharing and interoperable communications between different jurisdictions of first responders and law enforcement. Joint counter-terrorism training exercises and new protocols facilitated by DHS and other parts of government have shrunk many of these gaps, but more progress needs to be made.
 
While no plots have been recently uncovered directed at our soft targets, it does not mean that such plots do not exist. Increased vigilance, shared intelligence, continued specialized training, and more investments in security technologies, canine detection capabilities, and dedicated security personnel to patrol common spaces will all serve to make us safer.