Las Vegas Sun

March 24, 2019

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Security institute misses the mark


Lee Van Arsdale: A former Delta Force commander and consultant for the movie, "Black Hawk Down" - was the institute's founding executive director. With his top secret clearance, he once helped run the emergency response team at the Nevada Test Site for its managing contractor, Bechtel Nevada.

Thomas F. Williams: A recently named associate UNLV vice president with strong Energy Department ties - is the man in charge of the institute today. As a senior executive for the National Nuclear Security Administration, he used to coordinate all defense-related programs for the government at the Nevada Test Site.

James Sudderth: An Army special forces veteran with expertise in chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction - is the No. 2 man at the institute. He ran counterterrorism operations for Bechtel Nevada at the Test Site from 2000 to 2004 and once served on United Nations weapons inspection teams.

Harry Bostick: A former top lab researcher for Bechtel Nevada who specialized in nuclear emergency responses - oversees the institute's advanced technology lab. He has expertise in counterterrorism technology and radiation detection and once had a hand in the security design of the U.S. embassies in Moscow and Beijing.

Michael Gillette: An ex-Army paratrooper and SWAT commander who has expertise in counterterrorism training and several black belts in martial arts runs the institute's training and readiness office. He once provided threat training for the airline industry.

Wade Ishimoto: A member of the nation's first counterterrorism force and a top expert in special operations - is listed as deputy director of planning and development for the institute. But he spends his time working at the Pentagon under a special government program. He was a Delta Force intelligence officer in the 1980 failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, and he served as a security consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1984.

Charles Madsen: A former Bechtel Nevada employee who designed electromagnetic technology for concealed weapons detection and through-wall imaging is the institute's principal engineer. He has had ties to the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

Douglas Seastrand: A former senior engineer at Bechtel Nevada - is a principal computer scientist at the institute's lab. He left his job as a university regent last year to take the position.

Some former instructors:

David Binney: An ex-FBI deputy director who once oversaw the worldwide security program for IBM.

Castle Nishimoto: A former Army infantry commander and tactical response instructor and a career FBI agent who once served at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo.

Kenneth Walther: An undercover CIA operative for three decades who had assignments overseas in 101 countries. He has expertise in electronic spyware, including radio transmitters, receivers and antennas.

John Whitney: A former Secret Service assigned to presidential details and an ex-FBI SWAT Team sniper and hostage negotiator who has experience teaching tactical operations.

Lewis Subelsky: A former police officer, FBI supervisor and Energy Department counterterrorism expert who specialized in weapons of mass destruction.

Nineteen months after 9/11, Nevada's largest university won approval for a promising new step in the fight against terrorism. Using federal money, UNLV would create an institute devoted to counterterrorism research and training.

Sen. Harry Reid hailed the undertaking as a "bold step forward." Over the next three years, the new Institute for Security Studies received $8.9 million, more than three-quarters of it in federal money the Nevada Democrat steered its way. Congress also has agreed to send the institute another $5 million.

The institute opened as scheduled in 2003 and has since grown to 14 full-time employees, mostly from a circle of former Nevada Test Site executives and military veterans living in Nevada. They are paid salaries ranging from $79,500 to $160,000.

Beyond the payroll, however, the institute has little to show for the money, the Sun found in a detailed review of the program.

Ambitious mission

Three years ago, as the institute sought approval from the state Board of Regents and federal funding from the Energy Department, it outlined a mission it promised would turn UNLV into a leading think tank and academic authority on homeland security and place it on the leading edge of anti-terrorism laboratory research. The affiliation with UNLV was a major factor in securing the federal money.

The status today of its seven major objectives:

Three years later no academic program exists. The institute drifted away from its ties with the university. Its employees have not produced reports or analysis typical of academic think tanks.

Today, the institute's leaders cannot cite any advances in technology. They do say the institute is working on a sensor device to seek out snipers, doing infrared testing to detect heat from a human body and studying electromagnetic waves that measure energy from a nuclear blast. They also say the institute has developed a research program for concealed weapons that can see through walls.

It no longer has that as an objective.

That, too, is no longer an objective.

The institute cut ties with the outreach division 16 months ago. It says its biggest accomplishment is providing an eight-hour course on terrorism awareness to 149 law enforcement and private security officers. It also has participated in several other short training programs, including one at University Medical Center, involving small numbers of emergency workers.

That no longer is an objective.

That remains part of its mission.

While the institute has not added any new objectives, the institute did land a $500,000 contract from the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security to study the state's vulnerability to terrorism and natural disasters. Records show, however, that the institute handed off the majority of that work, about $387,000 worth, to a defense consulting firm headquartered in New Mexico.

That contract is indicative of the institute's operating method. As federal money poured in to the institute under UNLV's name, a large portion was paid out to contractors and security consultants with ties to the Test Site. The man who spearheaded the work on the vulnerability study for the New Mexico company, James Sudderth, once ran counterterrorism operations for Bechtel Nevada, the private firm that manages the Test Site. Sudderth is now the deputy director of the institute.

When asked to provide a list of accomplishments, the institute named several federal research grants it said it had received. But when pressed for details by the Sun, the institute admitted misrepresenting some of those claims, as well as other claims about its role in some university research projects.

Thomas Williams, the institute's interim director, said that even though the institute may have veered off course, "I think we've been very successful in the last couple of years. You're far from perfect when you start up. You make mistakes. You have growing pains. But I'm feeling very positive about this organization."

Jerry Bussell, who served as Nevada's first homeland security adviser from November 2002 to June 2004, doesn't share that view.

"What's over there now is not what it was supposed to be in any way, shape or form," said Bussell who, after retiring, worked as a paid consultant for the institute to help establish the agency. "It was supposed to be an honest broker, an independent voice assisting on the homeland security effort. But it has fallen short of that. So far, the taxpayers are being cheated."

UNLV also has fallen behind other universities that started similar homeland security academic programs - a development that Williams, a former senior government manager at the Test Site, acknowledged was a setback for UNLV.

"This hiccup is of concern because I think we've lost momentum," Williams said. "At the time we started, there were only two or three universities that were offering these executive masters courses. Now, there are probably 50 or 60 out there."

UNLV President Carol Harter acknowledged that the academic end has faltered.

"We might have been slightly overambitious," she said. "But academic programs take years to develop."

Reid, however, is taking a dim view of the use of the federal money.

After the Sun described its findings to Reid, the senator said he was "very concerned" that the institute may not be producing what it promised.

"Unless they have some deliverables that I can see, they're not going to get any more money," Reid said. "I don't want this to be a boondoggle or a waste of taxpayer money. They've got to do something rather than just sit down and talk to each other."

Shrouded in secrecy

The institute is a product of the nation's mobilization after 9/11 to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Reid envisioned that it would feed off the national resources being poured into a high-tech counterterrorism training facility the senator championed at the Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The list of those who have either worked or have been associated with the institute over the past three years looks like the cast of a Hollywood spy thriller.

At the top of the list is Lee Van Arsdale, the institute's founding director, a former Delta Force commander and Defense Department counterterrorism chief who left 16 months ago,

The roster includes a former Central Intelligence Agency operative who said he worked undercover in 101 countries, as well as a special forces expert involved in the ill-fated rescue attempt of the American hostages in Iran, a counterterrorism consultant who helped design security for American embassies in Moscow and Beijing, an engineer who has worked on imaging mechanisms that can see through walls and a former United Nations weapons inspector.

But their work is shrouded in secrecy.

The institute refused, for example, to provide details about a $550,000 contract it said it obtained to design a counterterrorism curriculum for a "major entertainment and resort complex." It wouldn't even confirm information obtained by the Sun that showed that the contract was with the Walt Disney Co. Much of the work on the contract was turned over to consultants.

Even the institute's off-campus location gives rise to intrigue.

Its rented offices and 600-square-foot technical research lab are housed on two underground floors of the Alexander Dawson Building, a security conscious facility at Flamingo Road and Spencer Street that posts warnings that visitors are being monitored by surveillance cameras. Individuals can enter the lab area only by punching in a security code.

Little is known about the institute within UNLV and the university system. The agency offers no information, other than its mission statement, on its Web Site, which hasn't been updated since August.

University Regent Steve Sisolak, who was among those who voted to approve the institute three years ago, said he had difficulty getting information from UNLV and pinning down Williams about the institute's mission.

"I have no idea what they're doing," Sisolak said. "They're flying under the radar. Whatever they're doing is secretive in nature. They don't want people to be aware of it."

After inquiries by the Sun, Sisolak said he expects the institute will be brought before the Board of Regents in August.

"We want to find out what they've done with all the money they got," Sisolak said. "I'm concerned that it's not doing what it was approved to do. It was supposed to be an academic program, and there's no academic program."

Those involved in the homeland security effort here also have trouble understanding what the institute has been trying to accomplish.

"I haven't seen where they fit in," said Clark County Emergency Manager Jim O'Brien. "I haven't seen them participating in the regular day-to-day emergency management and homeland security preparedness activities."

The institute also has failed to attract national attention.

It is barely known outside the state by members of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium - a five-member group of institutions considered the nation's leading providers of training for emergency workers in situations involving weapons of mass destruction.

"While we are aware of the institute, we do not have enough information about the organization to comment further regarding its training programs and other homeland security-related initiatives," Texas A&M University spokesman Jason Cook said.

Texas A&M's National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center in College Station, Texas, specializes in helping government agencies develop plans to address events involving weapons of mass destruction.

Fellow consortium member Louisiana State University, which trains emergency personnel in biological incidents at its Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education in Baton Rouge, La., also doesn't know much about UNLV's program.

LSU spokeswoman Jennifer Hughes said she spoke with three academy directors at the university involved in counterterrorism education and asked them about UNLV's institute.

"One of our directors had heard of the institute but didn't know what it was doing, and the other two said they had never heard of it," Hughes said.

Van Romero, vice president of research at another consortium member, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, said the UNLV institute once provided the consortium with a useful "train the trainers" curriculum.

But Romero, the consortium's former chairman, said the institute needs to develop some specialized expertise in homeland security to establish a national reputation. Romero's university has a research center that offers training in live explosives, such as car bombs.

"UNLV has some connection to the Test Site, so radiation detection and monitoring is one thing I would look for them to do," Romero said. "And I would look for them to do things like security in casinos and at big events where there are lots of people."

Part of the reason why educators and emergency management professionals cannot figure out the institute's role in combating terrorism is that the institute itself is still searching for an identity.

"Over a year period, this organization may be completely changed," Williams said. "We're trying to go where the priorities are."

Today, the institute has only two divisions, down from the six it described in the plan approved by the Board of Regents. One is the Office of Advanced Technologies, intended to perform laboratory research related to homeland security and counterterrorism. The other is the Office of Education, Training and Readiness, designated primarily to provide training to emergency workers and conduct seminars.

Williams said the downsizing was deliberate and part of his management style since assuming the reins from Van Arsdale, who left in March 2005 to take a job as chief executive officer of Triple Canopy Inc., a fast-growing security company based in Virginia.

"I'm trying to streamline the organization because, if you have too many tentacles out there, you start losing control and losing sight of what you're supposed to be doing," Williams said. "Even though it looks like a much-reduced organization, a lot of those functions may function well within just two different business lines."

Roles reversed

When UNLV officials brought the idea of creating the institute to the regents in May 2003, they trumpeted the academic side, saying it would be part of the Graduate College, where it would fall under the watchful eye of the university.

Instead, it wound up as part of the UNLV Research Foundation, a private and wealthy offshoot of the UNLV Foundation, the university's chief fundraising arm.

The Research Foundation, which was run by Williams at the time, was supposed to play only a supporting role by promoting the institute's commercial and nonacademic features.

But as it turned out, the university ended up playing the supporting role.

Harter said the institute was put under the Research Foundation simply because officials at the time thought that was the best place for it.

"We had many moving parts all at once," she said. "You're trying to get it structured in a way that makes the most sense."

Williams said the Research Foundation had the background and experience to take the institute.

"There wasn't a lot of base at the university to support the wide diversity of programs we expected," he said.

Bussell found those words troubling.

"I have never understood why the institute was placed under the Research Foundation," he said. "It was clearly defined by the regents that it would be an integral part of the university, linked at the hip."

Since the Sun began inquiring about the institute's role at UNLV, its leaders said they now intend to put it under the university's wing, as originally planned. They also said they plan to re-establish ties between the institute and the educational outreach division.

The master's program has been on hold since May of last year, when it graduated a pilot class of 15 students, including Sheriff Bill Young, all of whom received full $31,596 scholarships from the university. Records show that the pilot program was underwritten in part by Bechtel Nevada. The company provided UNLV with a $315,916 check to pay for several of its executives to participate.

The quality of the pilot program received mixed reviews.

"Some of the professors were high quality and others were not," said Young, who added that overall he found the program challenging.

But Bussell, who was one of the instructors, said the curriculum lacked a strong academic foundation.

"At the time, it didn't seem to have the academic standards that it needed," he said. "I recommended that it needed to be significantly improved."

Students, for example, received graduate credits for spending a week observing how the Test Site deals with emergencies and another week in Washington hearing presentations from Homeland Security officials. One two-credit course listed in the catalog is called "Cyber Security for non-Nerds."

Public Administration Department Chairman Lee Bernick, who ran the pilot master's program last year, acknowledged that curriculum needs to be strengthened.

"There were some very good things, and there were some things we want to change," he said. "We want to structure it so it's more traditionally academic."

Bernick said collaborating with the institute was rocky at times.

"It was a learning process for them to understand what a master's degree program should have in it," he explained.

In hindsight, Williams said, both he and Van Arsdale learned a lot in their dealings with academia.

"We realized over time that the higher education side is a different culture that neither one of us were used to," he said. "They just don't have a business sense in terms of priorities, speed and meeting deadlines."

The pilot program went into its stall after the 2005 graduating class when Bernick decided he did not have enough time to devote to both his duties as chairman of the department and director of the program.

The university, Bernick said, has had a difficult time finding his replacement, but it expects to hire someone this summer and re-launch the program in January.

Bernick conceded that UNLV might now be lagging behind other universities in this fast-growing field, but added: "We'd rather have a good product than a bad product."

Something else missing at the institute is an effort to position itself as a homeland security think tank.

Bussell said he has not seen the institute conduct any scholarly research on homeland security issues or publish any major papers.

"They should be a center of information to the outside world," he said. "They should be holding seminars and conferences and doing some real scholarly work that can be applied to the homeland security effort. That's the kind of stuff the community needs."

Van Arsdale said the academic side of the institute was important to him when he was at the helm.

"There are a lot of people doing a lot of things, but the universities haven't been brought to bear here," he said. "I'm proud of what we accomplished, but there's a lot of work remaining to be done."

First, however, the institute may need to clarify exactly what it has accomplished.

Exaggerated claims

Institute officials acknowledged that they exaggerated the institute's achievements in written information provided to the Sun.

In a four-page summary of its goals and accomplishments, Williams listed several grants for projects totaling more than $1.1 million that officials later admitted were never received.

Those false claims included a $220,000 grant to develop a "launched listening device," a $446,000 grant to produce a surveillance camera and a $447,000 grant to work on a project dubbed "vehicle borne improvised explosive device defeat."

The summary also claimed that the institute had been teaming with the UNLV College of Engineering's Transportation Research Center to analyze the safety and risks of transporting high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But when pressed, Williams admitted the institute is not participating in the project.

Also on the list was a claim that the institute is working with Qualcomm Inc., a wireless communications company based in San Diego, on a project to improve the tracking of hazardous waste shipments and states' response to accidents.

But Williams said the institute is merely administering a $992,000 Energy Department grant for the project and that the actual campus research is being handled by the College of Engineering.

One area in which the institute has excelled is in providing jobs and contracts to former Test Site executives, several of whom worked with Williams when he was at the Test Site.

Of the $8.9 million the institute has budgeted since its inception, $3.1 million has been allocated to salaries and fringe benefits. Another $2.8 million has been set aside for consultants, who often have close ties to the institute's managers.

Van Arsdale and six of the 14 current salaried employees at the institute came from Bechtel Nevada, which has a written agreement with the institute to collaborate on funding requests for federal research related to homeland security.

Former Bechtel employees hold the key management positions at the institute. Sudderth, who once headed Bechtel's counterterrorism operations at the Test Site, was named deputy director under Williams last month. Harry Bostic, a former top counterterrorism lab researcher for Bechtel, runs the institute's Office of Advanced Technologies.

How Sudderth wound up as the No. 2 man at the institute is an example of the nature of the organization.

On Sept. 10, 2003, while he managed Bechtel's Counter Terrorism Operations Support Project at the Test Site, Sudderth gave the institute and UNLV a company check for $315,960 to pay for the tuitions of Bechtel employees looking to participate in the pilot master's program.

By the time the class graduated in May 2005, Sudderth, a former Delta Force member with extensive experience in counterterrorism and special operations, had left Bechtel and was employed at Keystone International Inc., a New Mexico-based private security firm.

While heading up Keystone's Las Vegas office, Sudderth helped the company land a subcontract from the institute to do the majority of the work on the $500,000 contract that the agency had received from Nevada to study the state's vulnerability to terrorism.

Keystone, records show, also has done other work for the institute, receiving a total of $680,000 over the last couple of years.

But Sudderth soon got restless at Keystone.

While spearheading the vulnerability study for the institute, he applied for the agency's deputy director's job. On May 15, less than three weeks after the institute delivered the study to the Homeland Security Commission, Sudderth was named to the post. Keystone, meanwhile, still has an ongoing contract with the institute.

For months before he was hired, sources familiar with the institute said, there was speculation within the agency that Sudderth was coming on board.

But Williams said Sudderth won the job fairly over 18 other candidates.

"I'd stack James Sudderth's qualifications up against anybody in the United States," Williams said. "I'm glad we have him."

Sudderth said he hopes to shape the institute into a real resource for the community in the fight against terrorism.

"I've got some strong feelings about what needs to be done in Nevada to get us prepared," he said.

His most ambitious project is to position the institute at the center of plans to create a Terrorism Early Warning Group, a new concept in homeland security aimed at improving intelligence sharing between local, state and federal agencies.

Sudderth said the institute, which has worked with Metro Police early in the effort, hopes to tap into the state's share of federal homeland security funding for the project, which will be designed to create what he calls a "social network of trust" among the various agencies.

The institute, Sudderth said, also has applied for about $6 million in Department of Homeland Security funding to set up counterterrorism training for local police.

As the institute works to add some heft to its resume, Williams defends the institute's practice of maintaining close ties to his former Test Site associates.

"It's a small world," he said. "The more you deal in this, the more you find out that a lot of the same personalities have run into each other over the years.

"Although it may look like inside politics, I just think we're trying to bring in the best in the business to get the job done here."