Dordt College News

Verbrugge helps keep the U.S. safe

March 14, 2014

Mention Edward Snowden and the NSA, and Ken Verbrugge will be happy to talk about national security.

Verbrugge (’69) has spent his whole life in the secret world of security. He began during the Vietnam War in navy intelligence. A mathematics major at Dordt, he went on to earn the “Engineers Degree,” an MSEE in communications engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School, and an M.S. in strategy and policy at the National Defense University. Over the years, he’s studied the Chinese and the Russian navies and was stationed in Japan, Azores, and Spain. Captain Verbrugge gained a reputation as a naval officer with honesty and integrity, someone who cared for and respected his sailors.

Today, as a program area manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, he’s helping find technology fixes for Homeland Security to keep the United States secure.

Technology fixes are right up his alley. Verbrugge recalls being an inquisitive child, always trying to fix things like toasters or equipment on the family farm. Today he applies his fixing skills to more complicated technologies that help Homeland Security do its work in today’s geopolitical world.

“We’re building the capacity to trace bad people and objects,” he says. “The only deterrent to terrorists intent on killing themselves and us is for their plan to fail.”

Verbrugge gives examples of the kinds of things he and his colleagues work on: robots to investigate dirty bombs and small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or tethered balloons to conduct surveillance from a distance at large public events.

Verbrugge acknowledges that there are at least two schools of thought regarding whether organizations like the NSA are violating civil liberties or keeping citizens safe and regarding whether Snowden is a traitor or a whistle blower. He welcomes the debates that are happening as a result of these events and believes they are healthy. But, having lived in the classified world for so long, he definitely comes down on the side of heightened security.

“The NSA and FBI have saved us from many Boston Marathon-like events,” he says, asking rhetorically, “Do you want your family safe or do you want your privacy? It's more effective for local police and the nation’s military to act preventively than to have to pick up the pieces after a tragic event.” From the national perspective he has gained over the course of his career, he believes that safety is more important than privacy.

“I’m not so personally concerned about my privacy. Nothing on my phone or email makes me worry,” he says.

And in his experience, information collected by security organizations is almost always expunged by the government unless it points to questionable connections.

“Many sleeper cells have been exposed in large cities, including Washington, D.C., as a result of such surveillance,” he says. “Evil people do exist.”

Verbrugge also sees a legitimate role for security related to U.S. economic interests.

“The Chinese have gained leverage from U.S. ingenuity by infiltrating businesses and governments via the Internet,” he says. He does not want them to have free rein to do so in ways that harm United States businesses or citizens.

After a lifetime in science and engineering, Verbrugge is convinced that “the world longs for new ideas to develop and market.” He hopes today’s Dordt students will take up that challenge and is trying to help that happen. Last summer he pointed senior Calvin Leader to an internship at Johns Hopkins APL. Leader was hired and spent his summer there. (Voice, Fall 2013)

Verbrugge appreciates the broad education he received at Dordt. “Psychology, theology, math, and the sciences blended to give me an understanding of the creation and the Creator,” he says. Living around the world only deepened that foundation.

Today, Verbrugge is partially retired from full-time work at Johns Hopkins APL Lab, but his interest in technology is undiminished. He continues to help develop new security tools.

In the past few years, he’s also become involved with another kind of technology—technology that he hopes can help society solve some of its energy problems. He actively participates in wind energy development and has had 2MW wind turbines erected on the family farm near Chandler, Minnesota. (MW refers to millions of watts. One MW will light 10,000 100-watt light bulbs.) He has partnered with Dordt graduates and Minnesota neighbors through Valley View LLC, a wind development project.

Hundreds of wind turbines like those put up by the Valley View partners have been springing up in southwestern Minnesota, in the area immediately surrounding Verbrugge’s family farm.

“I like the idea of helping the U.S. become less dependent on fossil fuel,” says Verbrugge, noting that many of the world’s conflicts have been over oil rights. He also hopes to provide his grandchildren with a future source of income for their college tuition.


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