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How good are government intelligence agencies?

By onyxruby in News
Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 12:22:38 PM EST
Tags: News (all tags)
News

The BBC has reported police in Turkey have arrested 2 men for selling over a kilogram of weapons grade enriched Uranium to undercover agents. This arrest is in addition to six people arrested in August alone for selling nuclear material.

Famous failures of just the last few years range from terrorist attacks, to India and Pakistan joining the Nuclear age, to the Tamal Tiger attack on Sri Lanka's Gunaratna airport. Can the public count on government intelligence agencies to protect the public from WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction)?


According to the article in the BBC the men who were arrested were an ambulance driver and his friend. It is said that they bought the material from a "Russian" man several months ago. If a an ambulance driver in Turkey can get something like this, what's to keep someone like Bin Laden from doing so?

Clearly this isn't the only such sale. According to the Observer police in Pakistan seized more than 8 kilograms of Uranium from a refugee camp. There is no question that Bin Laden wants nuclear weapon capability, or that he would use it on innocent civilians. What if anything can be done to stop him?

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Poll
How to stop Bin Laden from going nuclear
o Give him everything he wants 10%
o Beg his forgiveness 0%
o Nuke him first 20%
o Air strikes 0%
o Ground troops in Afghanistan 14%
o Turn the job over to Isreal 26%
o Increase intelligence funding 2%
o Increase international intelligence cooperation 26%

Votes: 49
Results | Other Polls

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o Also by onyxruby


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How good are government intelligence agencies? | 20 comments (19 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Paranoid ravings... (4.60 / 10) (#1)
by Carnage4Life on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 11:50:10 PM EST

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I'd be surprised if every terrorist group that can raise a decent amount of cash has been able to get their hands on Russian nukes. A few weeks ago I heard that not only are a lot of their nuclear scientists underpaid but they are owed a serious amount of back pay. There is no way the CIA, NSA and FBI (or whatever 3 letter acronym intelligence agency operates in your company) can track all of these illegal trades. Heck, the US military constantly loses inventory let alone somewhere like Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But really, so what?

A nuclear program is an expensive undertaking, with serious strategic and logistic issues, especially when one can considers that a significant amount of damage (both psychological and physical) without resorting to such expensive techniques. If you are going to worry yourself into a frenzy, why not worry about your mail being contaminated by anthrax by sharing the same mail route as that of a letter with the lethal powder that was being sent to someone of note or about your city's water supply being contaminated. It's not like I waste my time worrying about these things but I believe if you are going to spend time worrying you should worry about things that are likely to happen as opposed to scenarios that are likely to occur in spy novels but not in the real world.

BOTTOM LINE: The CIA can't keep track of all the sales of enriched uranium or nukes from the old Soviet Union. Neither can they keep track of the locations of all the ex Soviet nuclear and biochem scientists. Worrying yourself about this is not going to change anything except make you more likely to fall ill from some stress related illness.

The point is (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by greenrd on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 08:35:56 AM EST

The US can do something about this, and that's provide aid to Russia specifically to shore up the security around their nuclear installations, as an issue of global (i.e. not national, global) security. In fact they were doing this, until Shrub cut back the aid program. Why did he do this? Because he's a moron, that's why!

Of course, the cat is out of the bag now, as this article shows...


"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

The US tried aid and it backfired (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by Carnage4Life on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 10:21:24 AM EST

The US can do something about this, and that's provide aid to Russia specifically to shore up the security around their nuclear installations, as an issue of global (i.e. not national, global) security. In fact they were doing this, until Shrub cut back the aid program. Why did he do this? Because he's a moron, that's why!

The US tried giving money to Russia to prevent their nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands and what ended up happening was that a lot of the money was mismanaged or ended up in the hands of the Russian mafia.

Short of colonizing Russia and the other former Soviet states or at least taking over their militaries there is little the US can do to guarantee that nukes and fissionable material are not falling into wrong hands.

Of course, the cat is out of the bag now, as this article shows...

The cat has been out of the bag for years. Simply because this is your first time reading about it doesn't mean it hasn't been occuring and getting reported in the past. I remember reading about missing Russian nukes and nuclear scientists in the mid-nineties.

Even then, if the US could keep track of all the Russian nukes, how about bio-chemical weapons and scientists that were involved in those fields?

[ Parent ]
Not the point.. (4.50 / 2) (#16)
by DeadBaby on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 11:15:30 AM EST

Nuclear weapons are no longer THAT expensive to make. There's no reason to buy a black market Russian nuke when you can build a bomb yourself and just buy enough nuclear fuel (in whatever grade or form you can get) to make it work..

Iraq for instance was found to have 5 completed nuclear bombs, except they didn't have any fuel. Nuclear weapons are quickly trickling down into the hands of every nut that wants them and has a big enough bank account or enough political power.

If we've caught 1 person selling it, we need to assume there are 100 more who have successfully sold it already. I doubt this was a one time event.


"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us." - Carl Sagan
[ Parent ]
Some points to consider (4.80 / 5) (#2)
by babylago on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 12:48:26 AM EST

We don't actually know the extent of intelligence capability. We don't actually know what our government considers to be worthy of tracking. We don't know the resources that are available to do this. We have all sorts of little bits of information from the press that allow us to partially answer some of these questions, but let's face facts here: Unless you are directly involved in the operational or intelligence chain, you have no reliable way of gauging the effectiveness of intelligence organizations. Based on what I know of thwarted Millenium plots, they're actually quite good if you're measuring save percentage.

Unfortunately the question isn't "Are they good?" because good isn't enough with WMD. They would have to be perfect, which isn't possible. In other words, given enough time and resources, a WMD event is virtually guaranteed to make it through the intelligence protective perimeter.

That general point being made, let's look at the bin Laden nuclear issue. First of all, you make no points about the usefulness of 1kg of enriched uranium. Is that fissionable mass? What would be required to turn it into a nuclear weapon? Why would bin Laden bother with trying to create his own nuclear weapon if he could more easily seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

The problem with Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and with any nuclear weapon created by bin Laden in Afghanistan, is fundamentally one of delivery. Pakistan, according to my inexpert knowledge, does not have ICBM capability. Their delivery systems, as I recall, are medium range platforms, designed as a strategic deterrent against possible nuclear attack from India. Other than India, what could you hit from Pakistan? How about Israel? Because it's certainly not realistic to expect that bin Laden will be able to hit the US with a nuclear missile if he doesn't have a nuclear missile. In that sense the intelligence community doesn't have to worry too much, even if uranium is circulating around the middle east like this month's Playboy.

---
[ Blog | Hunnh ]

Good points, have answers (4.66 / 6) (#4)
by onyxruby on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 01:14:21 AM EST

Based on what I know of thwarted Millenium plots, they're actually quite good if you're measuring save percentage.
In general I would have to agree with you just based on thwarted terrorist plots that have made the news in the last few years. I am sure for every one that makes the news, there are probably several that can't be publically declared for security reasons. It's kind of like being the company security officer, nobody knows about all the attacks that you thwarted, just the one that got through.

I had originally intended to provide examples of various intelligence agencies recent success's in this article, but was unable to find sufficeint quality links to backup my statements to that effect. Try searching for "intelligence success" on a search engine or news site, you don't get much (I tried about 8-10 news sites / search engines)

First of all, you make no points about the usefulness of 1kg of enriched uranium. Is that fissionable mass?
An oversite on my part, it takes about 15 kilograms to achieve critical mass.

The problem with Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and with any nuclear weapon created by bin Laden in Afghanistan, is fundamentally one of delivery.
From a conventional nation-state stance I would absolutely agree with you. The potential difficulty is one of smuggling such a weapon into a city or port. One could easily hide something like this in a cargo container of a ship bound for a large city and detonate it in the harbor before customs could even have a chance to check the ship. I don't believe Bin Laden would try to use a nuclear weapon (if he was able to assemble one) in a conventional sense. I believe it would be smuggled into the target locality and detonated.

The moon is covered with the results of astronomical odds.
[ Parent ]

USians can feel safe. (4.50 / 4) (#7)
by Tezcatlipoca on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 06:23:26 AM EST

Anti missile defense system will take care of .. er .. .. forget it.
---
Sigintentionallysmalltosavebandwith.

[ Parent ]
One alternative (4.00 / 1) (#6)
by Best Ace on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 06:16:15 AM EST

'Other than India, what could you hit from Pakistan? How about Israel?'

He could avoid the problem of delivery by exploding it in Kabul or somewhere else in Afghanistan, and then blaming it on the US. Somehow I doubt much of the Muslim world would believe American protestations of innocence.

[ Parent ]

Shortsighted (4.00 / 2) (#8)
by bil on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 06:42:31 AM EST

Because it's certainly not realistic to expect that bin Laden will be able to hit the US with a nuclear missile if he doesn't have a nuclear missile. In that sense the intelligence community doesn't have to worry too much, even if uranium is circulating around the middle east like this month's Playboy.

Unless they are the Indian intelligence community, or the Iranian one, or the Saudis, or the Russians, or... but you get the idea.

Saying "we dont have to worry about it because they cant hit us" when the US expects everyone to help it get the WTC attackers smacks of "if they attack us, you must help, if they attack you we wont give a damn". This is not a policy to make you popular worldwide.

Anyway turning Saudi Arabia into a nuclear wasteland would do immense harm to the US (think of all those US troops stationed over there, all that oil that would glow in the dark etc etc).

bil


bil
Where you stand depends on where you sit...
[ Parent ]

One scenario (5.00 / 7) (#9)
by jabber on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 07:43:41 AM EST

A freighter owned by a company which employs at a high level (captain or so) a sympathizer of Al Qaeda is scheduled to arrive in New York on a Tuesday.

The freighter is met by a Scarab rented from an NJ marina for the week. The frighter has a few militant stowaways on board whose presence is secured and kept secret by the sympathizer captain.

The militants are in posession of enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb.

On Monday, the militants board the Scarab with the bomb and make for a section of shore where there isn't much attention - someplace along the New Jersey shoreline.

If they are discovered, they can dump the bomb overboard and appear to be out for a bit of boating in the legally rented Scarab.

Assuming they arrive on shore, the renter of the boat goes to return it, while the others are met by a rented Ryder truck.

They load the bomb onto the truck and park it in front of the UN building, or anywhere in Manhattan, since it really doesn't matter, with a timer attached, or maybe with a manual trigger.

150 miles away, I see a bright flash, a floating mushroom, and all hell breaks loose.

An ICBM is not the only means of delivery for a nuclear bomb. It is simply the best one for people not willing to do it by hand.

Bribing a ship captain from Turkey to let a few people and their baggage hitch a ride is much cheaper than developing an ICBM program. The money saved would certainly buy and deliver enough bombs onto USian shores to take out each state Capitol and most other major cities. And with enough patience and two hundred or so fanatics, it could all be done in unison.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
[ Parent ]

Some days... (4.00 / 3) (#18)
by DangerGrrl on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 07:04:10 PM EST

I think you are in the wrong business. You are either so jaded by world events that you always have to see the dark side of everything...
Or you are so paranoid that you consider every possible threat...
Or you are a stratigical genius and our government boys should be calling you any day now and offering you a new name and a 6 figure salary.

Here's to the day you post something that will actually be conducive to a good nights sleep.

[ Parent ]
*pat pat* There, there, dear... (none / 0) (#19)
by jabber on Fri Nov 09, 2001 at 04:04:16 AM EST

Imagine little puppy dogs with stubby tails and fuzzy kittens so small that their heads are still much too big for their ears. Imagine pretty flowers and non-violent, gossamer butterflies fluttering gently all about a schoolyard. Imagine all the people, living life in peace.. Imagine buying the world a Coke and teaching it to sing in perfect harmony..

*THWACK!* Now wake the hell up and take a good lung-tearing whiff of caustic reality. Disillusionment is a gift. You may be right on all three fronts.

But, as I recall, Cassandra didn't pull down a buff salary for her insights and warnings. Quite the contrary.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
[ Parent ]

U-235 critical mass (4.75 / 4) (#3)
by sigwinch on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 01:12:02 AM EST

This page says that the critical mass for U-235 is 15 kg, when using a neutron-reflective tamper. That's consistent with other sources I've read.

That's for prompt criticality (i.e., it goes *BANG* right away). Using a moderator and reflector, you can probably cause a radioactivity disaster with a far smaller amount of fissile material. A radioactivity weapon would be cheaper and more reliable, as you can assemble it from ordinary materials at leisure, then pour in the moderator/pull out quencher from a safe distance. So don't go thinking "Oh, we're safe because they didn't have enough for a bomb" just because they only had a kilo.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.

Radioactive dust (4.00 / 3) (#5)
by jarndt on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 05:02:52 AM EST

Another possibility is a bomb that just scatters a buch of radioactive dust. It would contaminate an area so badly that it would be nearly impossable to clean up.

Many water treatment plants have been put under extra security. An attacker could pump radioactive dust down a fire hydrant.

[ Parent ]

Not U-235 (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by ana on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 10:11:40 AM EST

You're not going to use weapons-grade uranium for that; anything radioactive would do. This uranium would have been (very expensively) processed to increase the fraction of 235U from the natural 0.57% to about 90%.

You could use the leftover 238U ("depleted uranium") for stuff like this; it's also useful as anti-tank artillery rounds, since its almost twice as dense as lead. But you get more (radioactive) bang for the buck in contamination scenarios with shorter-lived radioactive substances (more decays per gram per second).

Years go by; will I still be waiting
for somebody else to understand?
--Tori Amos

[ Parent ]

Not Uranium. (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by physicsgod on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 02:52:57 PM EST

All Uranium isotopes are alpha-emitters with rather long half-lifes, they're not going to emit much radiation in the body, and the body is rather good at flushing uranium out. The elements you need to worry about are the ones that occur in the body or can stay there like plutonium, cesium, iodine, potassium. If you get the shorter half-life ones you might cause some damage. But Chernobyl released 324 Megacuries, equivalent to a half-billion tonnes of natural uranium. The result of this was 30 radiation deaths over 15 years (28 immediatly after, 2 in subsequent years. 2 people died in the actual explosion and 9 people who suffered acute radiation poisioning have died since then from such things as strokes, heart attacks, etc.)

--- "Those not wearing body armor are hereby advised to keep their arguments on-topic" Schlock Mercenary
[ Parent ]
Deterrence (4.66 / 3) (#10)
by wiredog on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 08:22:40 AM EST

5,000 civilians killed in the US, and look what's happened. Bombing on Afghanistan. ~90% support in the US for the war. And that's with 5,000 dead. Can you imagine the US reaction if a nuke killed 50,000? Every country in the world can. That acts as a deterrent. If any country found out that a group it supported was planning such an attack, it would act. That, at least, is the theory of deterrence. The deterrence against bin Laden is the Israelis. If he set off a nuke in the US, the US would let the Israelis off the leash, and the Palestinian problem would be solved. The Israelis have a history of active self defense against nuclear threats. Ask the Iraqis about Osirak, for example.

How good are the intelligence agencies? All we ever hear about are the failures. This gives the impression that the agencies are, at best, incompetent. This is deliberate. If the agencies are thought to be highly competent, then their targets will take every possible measure to protect themselves. If the agencies are thought incompetent, then the targets will relax. Which makes the job of the agencies easier.

The idea of a global village is wrong, it's more like a gazillion pub bars.
Phage

the nature of intelligence (none / 0) (#12)
by buridan on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 09:40:30 AM EST

the major question that hits my mind is "what good is intelligence, or for that matter secrets, if you act in such a way that demonstrates that you know it?" You can't go around before a predicted incident and say much at all, for a wide variety of reason, such as protecting your sources in case of escalation, etc. You can use the intelligence to perhaps do some minor things in preparation, but if you do too much, and nothing happens, then you have basically revealed your hole card to the whole table, and that is something you don't do.

Secret Information (none / 0) (#20)
by dbc001 on Mon Nov 19, 2001 at 02:27:56 PM EST

My understanding is that organizations like the government, FBI, CIA, DEA, etc reveal only the information that they believe is necessary. I've also heard that they almost never reveal all of their information, just so that they always more options.

(This may or may not apply to the bin Laden case, I'll let you decide) Say one of these secret organizations has 5 pieces of evidence that incriminates you. There is a good chance that they can get the job done (successfully bringing charges against you, stopping your plans, whatever) without revealing all of their information. So while you (or whoever the target may be) get the chance to refute/defend against the information that they've made public, you simply cannot prepare to defend yourself against information that hasnt been revealed. So they would be wise to reveal only what is absolutely necessary.

-dbc

How good are government intelligence agencies? | 20 comments (19 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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