Thursday, July 12, 2007

THE CURSE OF DHIREN BAROT: 'Dirty Bomb Vulnerabilities' report and Congressmen cite Barot's smoke detector plan as illustrative example of al Qaeda desire and capability

"Congressional investigators set up a bogus company with only a postal box and within a month obtained a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that allowed them to buy enough radioactive material for a small 'dirty bomb,'" read a story on A11 in today's Los Angeles Times.

Today the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released "Dirty Bomb Vulnerabilities."

Put together as a staff report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, it is described as part of a bipartisan investigation, ongoing since 2003, "into US government efforts to prevent a nuclear or radiological attack on US interests."

"In addition," it reads, "PSI has [with the assistance of the Government Accounting Office], probed certain vulnerabilities in the US government's practices and procedures for issuing licenses to possess radiological materials."

All well and good.

However, it's perfectly obvious the war on terror has set a precedent in the misuse, by authorities, of news about dangers to the United States.

Time and time again, government men and experts cite examples of terror plots as justifications for their reasoning, their policies and their actions. But when the details of such things are examined closely, they often simply don't hold up.

And it is not confined to national nausea-inducing whoppers like the reasons for attacking Iraq.

From top to bottom in war-on-terror threat assessment, there has been a chronic distortion and twisting of information on terror plots to fit various agendas.

These agendas can be political, business-oriented, or simply to lend a handy reason for ratcheting up security another notch and silencing debate.

It reveals a steady practice -- sometimes corrupt and intentional, sometimes simply the product of a combination of laziness and ignorance -- that too often completely ignores disagreeable and complicated collections of facts which get in the way of a premise or a story-line on the presence of terror capability.

What results is not risk assessment but a cherry-picking of headlines from the news to support various flavors of it's-a-scary-world and we're working to fix it for you.

For one very new example, let's take a look at the Senate/PSI/GAO report.

"Dirty bombs pose an ongoing threat that the United States must be prepared to counter," reads the beginning of its "Executive Summary."

The report then goes on to cite two examples from the newsmedia.

The first is a very brief piece from the Associated Press in 2006: "Al Qaeda in Iraq Beckons Nuclear Scientists."

It was short news story on an audiotape released in Iraq, one in which a terror leader in that country called on nuclear scientists to join the fight. It was not a grand and detailed description of a capability but a vague request for technical assistance in making weapons, one apparently never repeated.

The 20-minute tape also included exhortations to begin kidnapping people.

While it was an insignificant item, worse was the Senate subcommittee's use of a story published by TIME magazine in 2004 entitled "London's Dirty Bomb Plot."

"...[Would-be] terrorists arrested in London in August 2004 reportedly sought to construct a crude radiological dirty bomb," reads the report.

And so the cracked plans of Dhiren Barot were again introduced into a terror assessment and vulnerability study in order to bolster arguments contained therein.

Readers will try not to gag when their friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow shows them facts from the war on terror have once again been edited out of all thinking.

Barot's stupid and unworkable plans for dirty bombs -- there really is no other honest way to describe them -- included using thousands and thousands and thousands of smoke detectors. Another plan for a radiological attack involved throwing used exit signs containing tiny amounts of the radioisotope of hydrogen -- tritium, into buildings.

Indeed, Dhiren Barot never made any dirty bombs; he just had fanciful and nonsensical blueprints for them. And these plans were released by London's Metropolitan Police under the heading of Operation Rhyme late last year. These plans, as .pdf files taken from a seized laptop, are now hosted on the website of the Federation of American Scientists.

However, back in 2004, TIME's David Zagarin and a colleague wrote an exciting and breathless tale of terror nipped in the bud and this is what the Congressional subcommittee chose to cherry-pick from the historical narrative.

Zagarin's sources were anonymous -- "senior US law enforcement officials." They were perhaps also in no position to comment accurately.

"Reports on the British investigation, now circulating among U.S. law-enforcement agencies, assert that the group was trying to construct a crude radiological dirty bomb," TIME intoned.

"The arrests turned up a cache of household smoke detectors, which the British suspect the group wanted to cannibalize for their minute quantities of americium-241, a man-made radioactive chemical."

Barot was not much of a man of firm action and at the time he was arrested by British authorities there was little or no material evidence against him. It was only later that his electronic journals were seized.

"Officials tell TIME it's extremely unlikely that enough americium could be harvested from smoke detectors to create a device potent enough to inflict radiation sickness, let alone kill people. But others argue that spewing even a small amount of radioactive material into a crowded stadium or subway station could trigger sensitive radiation sensors, incite panic and cause long-lasting contamination."

The Congressional report did serve a small purpose in pointing out that US government employees posing as a dummy company were able to obtain -- without inspection -- and alter an NRC license for the purchase of industrial moisture density gauges containing small amounts of radioactive materials.

On the other hand, in its citation of Dhiren Barot's dirty bomb plot, the investigation and framers of it revealed a complete lack of interest in actually putting its vulnerability study into the context of real intelligence on the capability of the subject cited.

Instead, the usual "it's not a matter of if, but when" thinking seemed to be the order of the day.

"The former head of Britain's MI-5 intelligence has said 'it is only a matter of time' before a dirty bomb strikes a country in the west," read one statement by Senator Susan Collins.

Senator Daniel Akaka also invoked Barot, taking scary words for effect from a common news story on the case.

Akaka: "I would like to remind the subcommittee of an another al Qaeda operative, Dhiren Barot, who told a British court in May about his plans to attack the UK and US using a dirty bomb comprised of 'A few grams of cobalt 60 with several pounds of explosives ... enough to close off an area the size of Manhattan.'"

Akaka gets the context of this quote wrong and also misrepresents it.

From Barot's journal: "A few grams of cobalt 60 with several pounds of explosives are enough to close an area the size of Manhattan."

However, Barot concludes immediately: "Another problem with cobalt is in its retrieval."

At this point, since Barot feels he cannot get cobalt-60 and that it is too dangerous to handle, anyway, he goes on to recommend making the dirty bomb from smoke detectors.

Although Barot seems to have an inkling that this will not work, "Americium [the radioisotope present in minute quantity in a smoke detector] meets the criteria I have set."

"Availability -- smoke alarms are available from most stores..."

In other words, the facts about Dhiren Barot's so-called dirty bombs weren't important, just the impression that they have something to do with what the Congrssional investigative team was trying to show.

In fact, Dhiren Barot's dirty bomb plot -- the one that wouldn't work -- required no purchase of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license through a dummy company, "smoke alarms [being] available from most stores..." in the words of its author.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledged that more checking was needed in [its] licensing ... " read the Times story. "We've fixed the problem," said the NRC's commissioner, Edward McGaffigan, for the news article.

"It is clear that terrorists are interested in using a dirty bomb to wreak havoc in this country," reads the Senate report near its end. "[It] could be a 'nightmare scenario.'"

However, it is also abundantly clear, from reading the journals of Dhiren Barot, that his interest in dirty bombs was something of a consequence of reading the writings of experts in the United States who have been stating for years that they are easy things to make -- not a reflection of his ability to duplicate such claims in real life.

Dhiren Barot's dirty bomb plot.

The files of Dhiren Barot.

Senate hearing: Dirty Bomb Vulnerabilities.


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