~e; nuclear sensors on alert
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
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
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
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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electromagnetism / infrastructure / civilization