Olympian Challenge

David Tubbs has been in Athens for more than a year, but has barely visited the Acropolis. As the head of Olympic security for an American company called Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), he's been directing a 50-member team seven days a week for so many hours a day that, he says, "I don't count." Greece, which will host the Summer Games in August, is well behind on its security pre-parations, having dithered before awarding SAIC a $277 million contract to install security infrastructure. This little-known defense contractor, based in San Diego, now has a very high-profile job: providing the technology to guard the 2004 Games from terrorists.

Other firms have more name recognition, but when it comes to matters of national security, chances are SAIC is involved. Founded in 1969, it ranks No. 288 on the Fortune 500. It's one of the largest employee-owned companies anywhere, with about 40,000 people in 150 locations worldwide. Many SAIC researchers--and their clients--have connections to the FBI, CIA and military. That's part of the reason it's so secretive about the exact technology it's going to deploy in Greece. Past innovations include software that scans newspapers in every major foreign language, looking for hints of terrorist activity; that will continue to be a useful tool.

So, too, will be technology that uses "echolocation," sending out sound waves and reading the echoes that come back. During the Iraq war, SAIC trained dolphins to use echolocation to help de-mine the Gulf. With their natural sensory system, dolphins can even determine if an object is man-made or not. They knock a ball with their noses to alert their handlers to anything suspicious. For the Greek Games, SAIC will likely patrol the country's nine ports with a higher-tech version: underwater sonar that sends out ultrasonic waves to determine the size and location of, say, a suicide swimmer.

Greek officials are particularly worried about an "NBC" --nuclear, biological, chemical--attack. Sensors for each of the three can run $50,000 a pop, and the Greeks have yet to decide how many they can afford.

None of the sensors is in commercial use yet, though some did get a trial run at the Salt Lake City Olympics. The Greek Games will be the first big test for much of the technology, some of which SAIC is developing ultimately for the U.S. war on terror. Ideally, Athens will have fixed NBC sensors all around town to alert officials if there's something unusual in the air, as well as mobile sensors that police can bring in to identify if that something is harmful.

Some NBC sensors, though, work more quickly than others. A nuclear sensor can be as simple as a Geiger counter, which measures radiation levels instantly. A chemical sensor using coated film and quartz crystals can identify whether an offending agent is sarin or ammonia within a minute. But biosensors are tricky because there is such a range of germs: it can take up to an hour to recognize a biological agent. Just what the Greek Olympic police (all 45,000 of them) do in the meantime could make or break the Games.

That's where SAIC's high-tech command centers come in. The company is installing a "C4I" system--command, control, communications, computers and integration. As the brain of Olympic security, the C4I system will connect 100 command centers across Athens to monitor everything from traffic flow to wind speed (and, in a worst-case scenario, the spread of something like anthrax). Footage from 1,600 closed-circuit TVs will also stream into the centers. And an airship with spy equipment will float above the city. Riding in it may be the only way Tubbs gets to do any sightseeing in the near future.