200 Million Sensors on a Tiny Pad

As European governments struggle to formulate an effective response to Islamic State terror in the wake of the Brussels debacle, the usual declarations are being made: to increase security in public places and border checkpoints, to increase multinational security cooperation, including information-sharing among intelligence agencies, along with renewed pledges to unite against a ruthless enemy.

It would be neither fair nor accurate to say that such statements are empty and have produced no improvement in European security. That the threat and reality of terror have only grown in recent months and years is no proof that Europe has done nothing. Security in Europe is measurably tighter than it was before Paris, and will be tighter again after Brussels.

What can be said, however, is that the pace of terror has evidently outstripped that of counter-terror. Europe is faced with a formidable foe, whose resources, sophistication and fanatical zeal cannot be underestimated.

Certainly, the security forces on the continent are aware of this. They know they’re lagging behind. Yet, the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels show that more of the same response is not likely to be enough.

The reason for that is undoubtedly due in large part to attitude. While, technically, the security measures usually talked about do make good sense, they are only worth as much as the will to implement them. All too often, the resolute rhetoric of politicians is left to be put into action by irresolute bureaucrats, and security agencies continue to operate not in coordination with each other but in their own separate orbits.

David Wise, a senior expert on terrorism, explained why that is, in the realm of intelligence sharing. Intelligence sharing sounds like an obvious and straightforward response to the challenge. Let Country A show its list of Islamic State operatives to Country B, and vice versa, so that each will have a more complete list to check against at airports and other potential targets. What could be simpler?

But as Wise points out, “It runs counter to the deep-rooted culture of the spy agencies. Intelligence agencies exist to steal secrets of other countries and protect their own. Few outsiders can appreciate how deep that instinct for secrecy runs.”

Furthermore, hard experience buttresses this uncollegial attitude. “Intelligence agencies … tend to view the information they receive from other countries with varying degrees of suspicion.” For example, the key informant about Saddam Hussein’s ostensible weapons of mass destruction was an Iraqi, code-named Curveball. He turned out to be mentally unstable. Yet, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Curveball’s bogus claims in his speech to the U.N., and they became part of the justification the Bush administration used to go to war, recalled Wise.

The over-ratedness of intelligence sharing is well known within governments, but this does not stop politicians from calling for more of it after every major attack.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for innovative approaches to fighting terrorism. Western governments ought to be receptive to new ideas in the present crisis, and so we suggest the following from today’s news:

It comes not from the laboratories of high tech, but from the kennels of the New York Police Department. Dogs have been used for decades by the U.S. military and local police for various tasks, including sentry duty, tracking criminals and sniffing out illicit drugs. That’s nothing new. But the NYPD’s new counter-terror dogs are specially trained to detect the “vapor wake” in crowded places of the explosives used by terrorists. In particular, they are adept at identifying TATP, an explosive material currently in wide use.

The development of this amazing tool is not merely a tribute to the ingenuity of the trainers (it takes 18 months to teach the dogs their trade). It is rather more a tribute to the wisdom of the Borei Olam, who created animals with the biological capacity to smell things that we can’t.

But to say that dogs have a good sense of smell is like saying that a rocket to the moon goes fast. It doesn’t do justice to the phenomenon. Try again: A dog has 200 million olfactory sensors in its nose! (By comparison, the human nose has 5 million.)

This helps to explain how it is that “they outperform both men and machines” in ferreting out bomb threats, as James Waters, chief of the Department’s counterterrorism unit, said.

To date, there are only 130 in the entire United States, but demand for them is rising along with recognition of their usefulness.

Unfortunately, in all of Europe there is only one vapor-wake dog. Maybe it’s because the idea lacks the flashiness of high tech; it looks old-fashioned — you know, so low-tech. Hard for security officials to take it seriously.

But sniffer dogs are only low-tech in the sense that they use no artificial devices, like computers. Their ability is natural, G-d-given.

Perhaps the Europeans would prick up their ears if the sniffer dogs were described in technological terms: a portable explosive material detection apparatus containing 200 million sensors on a black pad smaller than a Blackberry. A very impressive technology, indeed.

Recent weeks, though, have seen a dramatic shift in public attitudes in Europe. The pressure on the leadership to restore safety, indeed, to preserve civilized society, will force them to consider any idea that will work.

Maybe it will also force them to reconsider the Creator of this amazing low-/high-tech invention known to us as the dog’s nose.