Monday, January 02, 2006

The Hunt For Nukes

The hunt for nukes
Radiation detection efforts widespread in U.S., Canada

Top level

G2 Headlines

© 2005 G2 Bulletin

Publishing date: 02.01.2006 04:59

WASHINGTON – When U.S. News broke a story the day before Christmas about radiation detection efforts taking place in the capital of the United States, most of the attention such a startling development might have received was diverted by the timing and the emphasis on whether such monitoring might in some way violate civil rights. But the real story is that a massive government operation is under way to find terrorist nuclear weapons within North America in an effort to thwart a decade-long plot by al-Qaida to kill millions of Americans – the so-called “American Hiroshima” plan.

G2B first reported on al-Qaida's plans to detonate nuclear devices in seven to nine major U.S. cities simultaneously. The most interesting development is that the U.S. government has been monitoring radiation levels at more than 100 mosques, homes, businesses and other sites in and around the nation's capital and at least five other cities since Sept. 11, 2001, providing further evidence law enforcement officials suspect terrorists have secreted nuclear or radiological weapons inside the country.

The nuclear surveillance program began in early 2002 and has been run by the FBI and the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support Team, or NEST, according to the report. The other cities monitored include Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York, and Seattle. As G2B reported, former FBI consultant Paul L. Williams has described how al-Qaida has already purchased some post-Soviet mini-nukes and hired Russians to help them operate them. Al-Qaida's prime targets for launching nuclear terrorist attacks are the nine U.S. cities with the highest Jewish populations, according to captured leaders and documents.

As reported in G2B, Osama bin Laden is planning what he calls an "American Hiroshima," the ultimate terrorist attack on U.S. cities, using nuclear weapons already smuggled into the country across the Mexican border along with thousands of sleeper agents. The series of attacks is designed to kill 4 million, destroy the economy and fundamentally alter the course of history. At least two fully assembled and operational nuclear weapons are believed to be hidden in the United States already, according to G2B intelligence sources and "The al-Qaida Connection:

International Terrorism, Organized Crime and the Coming Apocalypse," a book by Williams. The captured terrorists and documents also suggest smaller attacks may take place on American soil before the nuclear incidents. They may include some involving automatic weapons at schools and shopping malls, but will not include any airplane hijackings.

Why? Because bin Laden does not want any failed efforts to overshadow "the success of Sept. 11." There will also not be any attacks on U.S. nuclear power plants. The rationale? The nuclear power plants can act as force multipliers when the weapons of mass destruction are detonated. Another requirement dictated from the top at al-Qaida is that the attacks take place in daylight, so that the whole world will be able to see the images of a mushroom cloud over an American city. One of the sources for the information is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, who is now in U.S. custody.

As previously reported by G2B, al-Qaida has obtained at least 40 nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union – including suitcase nukes, nuclear mines, artillery shells and even some missile warheads. In addition, documents captured in Afghanistan show al-Qaida had plans to assemble its own nuclear weapons with fissile material it purchased on the black market. The plans for the devastating nuclear attack on the U.S. have been under development for more than a decade. It is designed as a final deadly blow to the U.S., which is seen by al-Qaida and its allies as "the Great Satan." At least half the nuclear weapons in the al-Qaida arsenal were obtained for cash from the Chechen terrorist allies.

But when the latest disclosures about nuclear radiation detection efforts under way in Washington to thwart an “American Hiroshima” plot were disclosed, it was the U.S. government’s defensive measures that got most of the scrutiny. Warning that constitutional rights were under threat, the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the monitoring of mosques in the nation’s capital without court approval as illegal and discriminatory. "All Americans should be concerned about the apparent trend toward a two-tiered system of justice, with full rights for most citizens, and another diminished set of rights for Muslims," the council said in a statement.

Somehow, radiation monitoring to prevent a nuclear disaster in the nation’s capital was being equated with eavesdropping and monitoring of communications.

But radiation detection efforts are spreading throughout the U.S. and Canada. The New York City health department announced just after Christmas it plans to spend nearly $1.4 million equipping hospitals with radiation detection devices that might become essential if terrorists detonated a "dirty bomb." The equipment, largely paid for with federal grants, could help medical centers diagnose the thousands of people who likely would flood hospitals after such a blast, the department said. "In the event of an incident in New York City involving radioactive contamination, hospitals will be on the front lines of receiving potentially contaminated persons with and without injuries," the department said in a statement.

The devices would go to public and private hospitals, whose staff members would be trained how to recognize and treat radiation injuries, and how to protect and decontaminate themselves while dealing with patients who may have been exposed. The program, to be implemented in the coming months, is part of a nationwide effort to prepare for possible attacks with nuclear material. Unlike nuclear weapons, which create huge fireballs fed by nuclear chain reactions, dirty bombs would use conventional explosives to scatter radioactive material. That type of blast would not be particularly powerful and would be unlikely to cause many deaths, experts say, but the fear of contamination could spark panic.

Land and buildings hit with radioactive particles might be unusable for years. Tens of thousands of people likely would besiege hospitals, wondering whether they had been contaminated by radiological material. Earlier this year, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases issued more than $47 million for grants and contracts aimed at making it easier to diagnose and quickly treat dirty-bomb attack victims. As part of that program, Columbia University is leading a consortium of researchers developing new technologies that would allow doctors to rapidly screen large numbers of people for radiation exposure.

Those who tested positive could then get quicker treatment. Meanwhile, some officials are suggesting that not enough Homeland Security grants are being used for this front-line of defense. While the U.S. government has launched an investigation into a New York port-security program under fire for awarding grants to dinner-cruise lines and small ferryboats, a state official who heads New York’s homeland security effort said he wants to see more resources go to radiation detection. "If you're going to take money and give it to cruise lines, then you're not going to be investing in these kinds of technologies, and they need to be," said state Sen. Michael Balboni.

At the same time, a report issued by House Homeland Security Democrats concluded that only two of the nation's seaports currently have the ability to screen all incoming cargo for nuclear material. Every port could begin nuclear screening for $280 million, but the administration hasn't requested the money and Congress hasn't provided it, they said. Also last month, Canadian officials announced they have installed the nation’s first radiation detector at the port of Saint John in New Brunswick in a bid to protect the country against nuclear terrorism.

All major Canadian ports will soon be equipped with the anti-terrorism technology. The radiation detection program is a key part of Ottawa's $172 million plan to beef up marine security -- all stemming from the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The devices, which have been in use for two weeks in Saint John, detect radiation inside containers. The detector is located on two large concrete columns. The containers are driven through the scanning portal after they have been loaded on trucks.

Earlier last month, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that efforts to stop nuclear terrorism through international non-proliferation policies had failed and that the time is right for greater emphasis on defensive measures such as radiation monitoring. Under Secretary of State Robert Joseph said the spread of weapons of mass destruction by rogue states and terrorists is widely recognized as the greatest security threat facing the nation.

“We have placed new emphasis on protection from, and response to, the use of these weapons against us or our friends and allies. We are building the counter-proliferation capabilities -- from missile defense to detection of chemical and biological agents in the field -- to deter, defend against, and defeat weapons of mass destruction in the hands of our enemies,” he said. “And we are acquiring the ability to contain and reduce the potentially horrific effects if these weapons are used against us, in terms of casualties and other costs, such as from biological attacks against our population centers.”

But critics say the U.S. still needs to tighten port security, particularly scrutiny of containers, which "can be filled overseas at many different locations and are transported through complex logistical networks," as the Government Accountability Office recently reported. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, warned that a terrorist still could use fake documents or a bogus company to hide an explosive device in a container. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., recently called for searching a greater percentage of containers.

Collins said some of the post-9/11 improvements in port security "appear to be hollow." Container ships have been detained off New Jersey and Los Angeles after Coast Guard boarding teams detected radioactive cargo. The New Jersey vessel, whose searchers included Navy Seals, turned out to be carrying faintly radioactive clay tiles in a container below deck. The hot reading on the Los Angeles ship came from a small gauge used to test the vessel's firefighting system. Off New York in the summer of 2004, a ship carrying tons of fresh lemons was detained for a week on the basis of a tip that the lemons were biologically contaminated.

The lemons turned out to be fine, but they rotted at sea. In 2002, ABC News penetrated the port security system in Los Angeles by successfully smuggling 15 pounds of depleted uranium into the U.S. in a container, inside a lead box. The container was targeted for closer examination, but the examiners did not find the uranium and sent the container along. Federal officials say their detection system has improved since then, but critics say it is still ineffective at finding enriched uranium, which could be used to build a nuclear device.

While the U.S. is still behind in efforts to install radiation detection equipment at domestic ports, the government is active in assisting other countries with their efforts to thwart nuclear terrorist attacks. Last month, the U.S. and Israel signed an agreement to begin a joint effort to help detect the smuggling of radioactive materials. The agreement is the latest part of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Agency's Megaports Initiative which installs radiation detection equipment and trains law enforcement officials at seaports throughout the world.

It is part of the U.S.' broader Second Line of Defense Program which works with foreign partners to equip border crossings airports and seaports with the equipment.

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