~e; nuclear sensors on alert

From bc <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Sat, 2 Mar 2002 22:31:12 -0600

[when i first read this story on the deployment of nuclear
  sensing technologies (remote sensing) i thought it might be
  in reference to the India-Pakistan conflict, yet the article
  states that it is for US homeland defense, and abroad. which
  is unique. add to that the 'shadow government' in action and
  it seems the cold war has become a insanely hot sauna... ~e]

To view the entire article, go to 

Sensors in Place to Detect Nuclear Threat

By Barton Gellman

Alarmed by growing hints of al Qaeda's progress toward obtaining a 
nuclear or radiological weapon, the Bush administration has deployed 
hundreds of sophisticated sensors since November to U.S. borders, 
overseas facilities and choke points around Washington. It has placed 
the Delta Force, the nation's elite commando unit, on a new standby 
alert to seize control of nuclear materials that the sensors may 

Ordinary Geiger counters, worn on belt clips and resembling pagers, 
have been in use by the U.S. Customs Service for years. The newer 
devices are called gamma ray and neutron flux detectors. Until now 
they were carried only by mobile Nuclear Emergency Search Teams 
(NEST) dispatched when extortionists claimed to have radioactive 
materials. Because terrorists would give no such warning, and because 
NEST scientists are unequipped for combat, the Delta Force has been 
assigned the mission of killing or disabling anyone with a suspected 
nuclear device and turning it over to the scientists to be disarmed.

The new radiation sensors are emplaced in layers around some fixed 
points and temporarily at designated "national security special 
events" such as last month's Olympic Games in Utah. Allied countries, 
including Saudi Arabia, have also rushed new detectors to their 
borders after American intelligence warnings. To address the 
technological limits of even the best current sensors, the Bush 
administration has ordered a crash program to build next-generation 
devices at the three national nuclear laboratories.

These steps join several other signs, described in recent interviews 
with U.S. government policymakers, that the Bush administration's 
nuclear anxieties have intensified since American-backed forces 
routed Osama bin Laden's network and its Taliban backers in 

"Clearly . . . the sense of urgency has gone up," said a senior 
government policymaker on nuclear, biological and chemical terror. 
Another high-ranking official said, "The more you gather information, 
the more our concerns increased about al Qaeda's focus on weapons of 
mass destruction of all kinds."

In "tabletop exercises" conducted as high as Cabinet level, President 
Bush's national security team has highlighted difficult choices the 
chief executive would face if the new sensors picked up a radiation 
signature on a boat steaming up the Potomac River or a truck heading 
for the capital on Interstate 95.

Participants in those exercises said the gaps in their knowledge are 
considerable. But the intelligence community, they said, believes 
that al Qaeda could already control a stolen Soviet-era tactical 
nuclear warhead or enough weapons-grade material to fashion a 
functioning, if less efficient, atomic bomb.

Even before more recent discoveries, some analysts regarded that 
prospect as substantial. Some expressed that view when the 
intelligence community devoted a full-day retreat to the subject 
early last year in Chantilly, Va., according to someone with 
firsthand knowledge.

A majority of those present assessed the likelihood as negligible, 
but none of the more than 50 participants ruled it out.

The consensus government view is now that al Qaeda probably has 
acquired the lower-level radionuclides strontium 90 and cesium 137, 
many thefts of which have been documented in recent years. These 
materials cannot produce a nuclear detonation, but they are 
radioactive contaminants. Conventional explosives could scatter them 
in what is known as a radiological dispersion device, colloquially 
called a "dirty bomb."

The number of deaths that might result is hard to predict but 
probably would be modest. One senior government specialist said "its 
impact as a weapon of psychological terror" would be far greater.

These heightened U.S. government fears explain Bush's activation, the 
first since the dawn of the nuclear age, of contingency plans to 
maintain a cadre of senior federal managers in underground bunkers 
away from Washington. The Washington Post described the features of 
the classified "Continuity of Operations Plan" on Friday.

Bush's emphasis on nuclear terrorism dates from a briefing in the 
Situation Room during the last week of October.

According to knowledgeable sources, Director of Central Intelligence 
George J. Tenet walked the president through an accumulation of fresh 
evidence about al Qaeda's nuclear ambition. Described by one consumer 
of intelligence as "an incomplete mosaic" of fact, inference and 
potentially false leads, Tenet's briefing raised fears that "sent the 
president through the roof." With considerable emotion, two officials 
said, Bush ordered his national security team to give nuclear 
terrorism priority over every other threat to the United States.

Tenet told Bush that Pakistan's nuclear weapons program was more 
deeply compromised than either government has acknowledged publicly. 
Pakistan arrested two former nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin 
Mahmood and Abdul Majid, on Oct. 23, and interrogated them about 
contacts with bin Laden and his lieutenants.

Pakistani officials maintain that the scientists did not pass 
important secrets to al Qaeda, but they have not disclosed that 
Mahmood failed multiple polygraph examinations about his activities.

Most disturbing to U.S. intelligence was another leak from Pakistan's 
program that has not been mentioned in public. According to American 
sources, a third Pakistani nuclear scientist tried to negotiate the 
sale of an atomic weapon design to Libya. The Post was unable to 
learn which Pakistani blueprint was involved, whether the transaction 
was completed, or what became of the scientist after discovery. 
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is believed to include bombs of relatively 
simple design, built around cores of highly enriched uranium, and 
more sophisticated weapons employing Chinese implosion technology to 
compress plutonium to a critical mass.

At the October briefing, Bush learned of a remark by a senior member 
of al Qaeda's operational command. The operative had been an 
accurate, though imprecise, harbinger of al Qaeda plans in the past.

After U.S. bombing began in Afghanistan, an American official said, 
the same man was reliably reported to have said "there will be 
another attack and it's going to be much bigger" than the one that 
toppled the World Trade Center and destroyed a wing of the Pentagon 
on Sept. 11.

"What the hell did that mean?" the official said, recalling the 
stunned reaction of those briefed on the remark. Other reports 
reaching Washington described al Qaeda references to obtaining, or 
having obtained, special weapons. "The benign explanation is bucking 
up the troops" with false bravado, the official said, but the Bush 
administration took the report "extremely seriously."

Searches of al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan, undertaken since 
American-backed forces took control there, are not known to have 
turned up a significant cache of nuclear materials.

The New York Times reported that U.S. personnel in Afghanistan sent 
three suspected samples to American labs for analysis but found no 
significant radioactive source.

There is evidence that some of al Qaeda's nuclear efforts over the 
years met with swindles and false leads. In one case, officials said, 
the organization was taken in by scam artists selling "red mercury," 
a phony substance they described as a precursor, or ingredient, of 
weapons-grade materials.

If al Qaeda has a weapon or its components, U.S. officials said, its 
whereabouts would be the organization's most closely guarded secret. 
Addressing the failure of American searchers to find such materials 
in abandoned Afghan camps, one policymaker noted that "we haven't 
found most of the al Qaeda leadership either, and we know that 

The likeliest source of nuclear materials, or of a warhead bought 
whole, is the vast complex of weapons labs and storage sites that 
began to crumble with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia has 
decommissioned some 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons since then, but 
it has been able to document only a fraction of the inventory.

The National Intelligence Council, an umbrella organization for the 
U.S. analytical community, reported to Congress last month that there 
are at least four occasions between 1992 and 1999 when "weapons-grade 
and weapons-usable nuclear materials have been stolen from some 
Russian institutes."

Of those thefts, the report said, "We assess that undetected 
smuggling has occurred, although we do not know the extent or 

Victor Yerastov, chief of nuclear accounting and control for Russia's 
ministry of atomic energy, has said that in 1998 a theft in 
Chelyabinsk Oblast made off with "quite sufficient material to 
produce an atomic bomb."

An American official, commenting on that theft, said that "given the 
known and suspected capabilities of the Russian mafia, it's perfectly 
plausible that al Qaeda would have access to such materials." The 
official added, "They could get it from anybody they could bribe."

Col. Gen. Igor Valynkin, chief of the Russian organization 
responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons, said on Oct. 27 that 
any claim Russia has lost an intact warhead is "barking mad."

The U.S. government is not accepting that assurance at face value. 
"We don't know with any confidence what has gone missing, and neither 
do they," said one American official.

Thefts of less threatening nuclear byproducts, especially isotopes of 
strontium, cesium and partially enriched uranium, have been reported 
more frequently. In November 1995, Chechen rebels placed a 
functioning "dirty bomb" using dynamite and cesium 137 in Moscow's 
Izmailovo park. They did not detonate it. Al Qaeda is closely aligned 
with the Chechens.

There are limits, "governed by the laws of physics," as one official 
put it, to American technology for detecting these materials. In 
broad terms they have to do with sensing radioactivity at a distance 
and through shielding, and with the balance between false positives 
and false negatives. There are classified Energy Department documents 
that catalogue what one of them called "shortcomings in the ability 
of NEST equipment to locate the target materials which if known by 
adversaries could be used to defeat the search equipment and/or 
procedures." The Post has agreed to publish no further details.

A division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, known as NIS-6, is 
leading efforts to build an improved generation of sensors. Some will 
use neutron generators to "interrogate" a suspected object, and 
others are planned for long-range detection of alpha particles.

A measure of the government's grave concern is the time devoted by 
top national security officials to developing options for a crisis 
involving nuclear terrorism.

One hypothetical scenario, participants said, began with a sensor 
detecting what appeared to be the radiation signature of a nuclear 
weapon amid a large volume of traffic on a highway such as I-95.

According to two participants, the group considered how the Energy 
Department's NEST teams, working with Delta Force, might find and 
take control of the weapon without giving a terrorist time to use it.

Roadblocks and car-by-car searches, for example, would create chaos, 
require hours, and give ample warning to those hiding the device. But 
without roadblocks the searchers might fail to isolate the weapon 
within a radius defined by the limits of sensor technology. If 
commandos found the device, they could expect to encounter 
resistance. Would the president delegate to on-scene commanders a 
decision that might result in nuclear detonation? Which officials, 
meanwhile, should be evacuated? Would government inform the public of 
the threat, a step that would wreak panic without precedent in any 
country and complicate the job of finding the weapon?

"Evacuation is one of those issues you throw your hands up and say, 
'It's too hard,' " said one participant in a tabletop exercise. 
"Nobody wants to make that decision, certainly not in advance."

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