Outside Chance

Meet the Thinkers Who'd Help Uncle Sam—If Only He'd Bring Them In

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation is stretched thin trying to deal with a flood of tips on terrorist activity, the agency is turning away former agents volunteering to work for free. At a time when brilliant hackers from the cyber netherworld could hunt America's enemies through the Internet, the federal government is refusing their help outright and closing off the chance for future cooperation with broad-stroke legislation that slams them.

As panicky residents in Mississippi cry anthrax, FBI scientists are still begging their administrative superiors to talk to a Virginia resident who, as a Soviet researcher, helped make the lion's share of the world's biological weapons. Then there's the robotics firm in Little Italy that designs deep-digging probes for NASA's Mars missions 35 million miles away, but doesn't know who to call to help look through the World Trade Center rubble a few blocks south.

The last time the U.S. was threatened on its own soil, national leaders brought together the brightest talent—whether domestic or from hostile regimes—to build the atomic bomb and beat back Hitler. Now, instead of creating a new Manhattan Project, the feds are erecting a Homeland Security tent with serious holes. The Pentagon has issued a cattle call to the American public for new methods to battle terrorism, and famously solicited Hollywood screenwriters to dream up terrorist scenarios for which the U.S. should be prepared. Even President Bush enlisted the television show America's Most Wanted to hunt down Al Qaeda cells. It's obvious Washington is trying to be more creative, but an outsider is still left to wonder about the resources left untapped.

“We’ve never been asked to go in”: Honeybee Robotics chairman Stephen Gorevan.
photo: Jesse James
“We’ve never been asked to go in”: Honeybee Robotics chairman Stephen Gorevan.

"The federal government has repeatedly failed to use resources at its disposal to fight the war on terrorism," says Brian Flynn, who has agitated for attention to terrorist dangers since his brother was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. "Yes, September 11 has caused us to make a number of short-term changes, but this battle requires fundamental changes. Once again, I fear that we may not have learned our lesson."

Flynn is founding the Civilian Defense League, a citizens' activist group to push for new policies and programs. Among the ideas his group will champion is that of a new emergency broadcast system for the information age, with alerts reaching the public through e-mails from Internet service providers, and Web postings that can overwrite pages at the server level. Notices to wireless phones and Palm Pilots could signal people in pinpoint hazard zones. It's an idea that requires no new technology and could have been done years ago as new communication channels opened up.

Such innovation should be welcome, but at this moment even cheap, mundane solutions are being refused, experts say.

"I don't disagree that there's talent out there that could be used and isn't. We're probably a perfect example of that—we've got former (FBI) agents here who've offered services for free and were turned down," says Dennis Farley, president of the Intelligence Group, a New Jersey corporate security firm. Farley's staff includes an executive who, as part of the FBI's elite Evidence Response Team, worked on the Egypt Air Flight 990 crash two years ago.

The disconnect between eager supply and crushing demand is glaring. The FBI is buried in paperwork spinning out from the 390,000 tips it's received since September 11, yet "there's been no effort on our part to rehire," says Bill Carter, an agency spokesman. Imagine a private corporation turning away unsalaried skilled laborers when its crew is on the brink of exhaustion. Former agents are frequently contracted for specific cases, or to perform routine background checks on employees, Carter explained, but all such arrangements are made on a "case-by-case basis."

Another FBI source says legal hassles make it hard to accept free labor.

The harvesting of outside talent has been yet more abysmal. One example is that of Dr. Ken Alibek. As the former No. 2 Soviet bioweapons researcher and now an American citizen living in Virginia, Alibek might have valuable contributions to make in the anthrax investigation. After all, his team created more weapons-grade anthrax strains than any other and developed the most advanced ways to transport and disperse the germs. The FBI, however, hasn't seen fit to bring him in.

"Believe me, the failure to consult (Alibek) is a senior-level decision. . . . But we all must pay the price for such failures and omissions," commented one frustrated researcher close to the case.

Of course, the U.S. government debriefed Alibek, a native of Kazakhstan, when he immigrated in 1992 after the fall of the USSR. Intelligence officers may believe he has nothing left to tell them. But the 51-year-old Alibek remains active on the anthrax front—his company is developing countermeasures—and if presented with fresh data might be uniquely able to identify aspects of the strain causing panic in America now.

One qualification he might be missing is credibility, says Les Paldy, distinguished professor of technology and society at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a former U.S. arms-control delegate. He believes the FBI is going full tilt, and suggests the agency might have its own reasons for not contacting Alibek. "This is a man obviously capable of violating international law," notes Paldy, referring to the 1972 treaty that expressly barred the biowarfare work Alibek performed for years.

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