For the first time ever, the United States will use a ship-based missile to take out a satellite. In the next day or two, the world will witness a modified weapons capability that will have significant policy implications. But it's the "how" story behind the scenes that has Russia sweating.
The spy satellite malfunctioned hours after reaching orbit in December 2006. When re-entry became imminent beginning in January of this year, the U.S. Navy got busy computer coding. The Navy can now outfit a standard missile (SM-3) that was designed for intercepting other missiles with a new brain that gives it the ability to target spacecraft. In this instance, the missiles will come from an Aegis cruiser, but ground-based missiles like the ones the United States wants to put in Poland can be larger and have farther range.
Theresa Hitchens, director of the space security program at the Center for Defense Information, noted the comments of General James E. Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in a press conference that it took the Navy three weeks to reconfigure the new targeting software. The implication? Hitchens told me:
If [the United States] wanted to develop that type of software (that could be downloaded into the missiles that would be placed in Poland), we could in a very short period of time. So I understand why the Russians might be pretty nervous about this."
A little software change, in other words, could end up posing a big threat to strategic spacecraft in the future. General Cartwright insisted this new capability will be executed on a "one-time reversible basis." But there's no way the U.S. military would throw away the keys to a new generation of missiles. The Russians would probably prefer that this Pandora's box not be opened, but once it is, all space-faring countries are going to have a new threat to worry about.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a U.S. spy satellite that had gone haywire and might need to be shot down. I noted how diplomatically sensitive it would be for the United States to do so after telling China that anti-satellite tests are a big no-no. Some commentators downplayed the possibility that the United States would really shoot the satellite down, but now comes word that it's gonna happen: The U.S. military will use its missile-defense system to blow the errant satellite to smithereens.
Mind you, a missile-defense system is not supposed to be a dual-use satellite killer. U.S. officials have pledged compliance with space and weapons treaties by giving other countries advance notice before shooting off space missiles. They also insist the move is necessary to prevent contamination from toxic substances and is not a showcase of U.S. weapons capability. Still, in the wake of the Chinese satellite missile hoopla, it smacks of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
What's more, shooting the satellite down could create orbital debris, which was a major point of criticism after the Chinese experiment. U.S. officials insist the Chinese test was different in nature as it was higher in altitude and the resulting debris poses a much longer-term threat. They estimate the mess from the U.S. operation will fall to the Earth within a few weeks, whereas debris from the Chinese test will be a danger for decades.
Meanwhile, Russia and
Back in September, the experts surveyed for FP's Terrorism Index ranked Pakistan as the country "most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists." With 74 percent of the vote, this clearly wasn't a tough call. But according to two Pakistani military officers, it's the United States that has the problem with nuke security. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports on a press conference in Islamabad from a few days back:
... Pakistani Brig. Gen. Atta M. Iqhman expressed concern about U.S. procedures for handling nuclear weapons. Iqhman, who oversees the safety and security of the Pakistani nuclear force, said that U.S. protocols for storing and handling nuclear weapons are inadequate. "In Pakistan, we store nuclear warheads separately from their delivery systems, and a nuclear warhead can only be activated if three separate officers agree," Iqhman said. "In the United States, almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still sit atop missiles, on hair-trigger alert, and it only takes two launch-control officers to activate a nuclear weapon. The U.S. government has persistently ignored arms control experts around the world who have said they should at least de-alert their weapons."
Iqhman also said the Pakistani government would be willing to provide assistance and advice on nuclear handling and security. U.S. officials, unsurprisingly, had no comment. While there may be legitimate concerns about the hair-trigger launching procedure for American nukes, it's doubtful U.S. military officials have much to learn from A.Q. Khan's homeland on this issue. Or do they? Iqhman's deputy, Colonel Bom Zhalot, added this twist:
We also worry that the U.S. commander-in-chief has confessed to having been an alcoholic. Here in Pakistan, alcohol is 'haram,' so this isn't a problem for us. Studies have also found that one-fifth of U.S. military personnel are heavy drinkers. How many of those have responsibility for nuclear weapons?"
Definitely read the whole article for Col. Zhalot's thoughts on religion, Hiroshima, and the sanctity of life. It only gets better.
Update: Looks like I was taken by those pranksters at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article turns out to be a satire, and a brilliant one at that. In retrospect, the MSNBC reporter named "Jay Keuse" probably should have tipped me off. In my defense, this sort of pushback seems totally plausible coming from the Pakistani military, which has been adamant that its nukes are secure.
This past weekend, 40 Qassam rockets fell on
Sderot's mayor stepped up the pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to act, saying,
Sderot's mayor stepped up the pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to act, saying,"It's got to be a direct war -- killing Mr. Haniya, killing his deputy, killing all his staff, his house, his government house." (That would be the first time a Seven Questions interview subject was assassinated.) But Olmert, who seems to have become more level-headed since his widely criticized attempt to neutralize Hezbollah in
The shadow of Winograd is apparent, yet it sounds like expanded action is likely against
The White House quietly revealed this week that the United States is cutting $193 million in funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations, mainly in Africa. The cuts will affect ongoing operations in Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire and others. This is on top of the $500 million the U.S. already owes the U.N. for peacekeeping. The timing of the announcement could not be worse as Bush prepares for a seven-day tour of the continent beginning on Friday.
But it's not that America is stingy on African defense. It just has its own ideas about how to provide it. Sharon Weinberger writes over at Wired's "Danger Room" that the State Department is currently negotiating a five-year, $1 billion contract with three private security contractors to provide military assistance in Africa. Notice a trend?
Bush plans to leave office next year on a very high note - the highest in U.S. history, in fact. His final full budget, unveiled today, rings in at $3.1 trillion, the highest 12-month spending figure in U.S. history.
What's up: Military spending and projected deficits. What's down: Just about everything else.
The new budget will call for $515 billion for the Pentagon, the largest military budget (when adjusted for inflation) since World War II.
Bush claims that his spending plan will balance the budget by 2012. That forecast, however, only includes $70 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 and zero dollars thereafter. The Congressional Research Service estimates that Iraq alone already costs more than $10 billion a month. In other words, it's highly unlikely that $70 billion is going to cut it next year, and the president's critics are calling the proposal a financial sleight of hand.
But don't think that Bush isn't all about saving dollars when he can: In a "moneysaving measure," the White House refrained from printing 3,000 copies of the mammoth budget for Congress and the media. It's online instead.
A U.S. spy satellite has gone rogue and will likely come crashing down to the surface sometime in the next month or two. That's bad news, as the satellite is roughly the size of a school bus and may contain hazardous material. (The largest historical instance of "uncontrolled entry" was Skylab, which crashed and burned in 1979 in the Indian Ocean and the western Australian outback. Luckily, nobody was hurt.)
The satellite's fall to Earth presents an interesting dilemma for the U.S. administration. Let gravity take its course, and there's a chance innocent people could get hurt. Shoot it down, and the Bush administration might get into diplomatic trouble with China and create an unintended international precedent. Remember when, after China's anti-satellite missile test last January, the United States was harshly critical of the Chinese government? If the United States is now forced to shoot its own satellite down, it may only reinforce the impression abroad that America just does whatever it wants in space, but looks askance at strategic space activities by other countries. Beijing may leap at the chance to accuse Washington of promoting a double standard.
This is exactly why it's time to push for an international treaty banning space weapons, opponents of the weaponization of the final frontier might argue. I don't want space missiles from other countries pointed at my house any more than the next guy, but I do wonder if a space arms race isn't the more likely outcome. The capabilities space affords corporations and governments are just too powerful to leave unprotected, unfortunately, and the Chinese probably see "Star Wars" as one area where they can catch up with the United States.
Conspiracy theorists who believe that the World Bank secretly controls governments and financial markets can let down their guard a little bit today. The institution's Washington offices are closed due to a bomb scare:
January 17, 2008 - World Bank Group Corporate Security is investigating a bomb threat received by telephone. The Bank is working with law enforcement officials to determine the validity of the threat.
As a precautionary measure, Bank Group management has decided to close all World Bank Group leased and owned buildings in Washington on Friday, January 18th.
In the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's visit, it appears that more violence, rather than the hoped-for peace, is breaking out in the Palestinian territories. Israeli Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has promised to step up the assault on Gaza militants who have been attacking southern Israel with Qassam rockets:
Even as we stand here, Qassam fire continues. The [Israel Defense Force (IDF)] will continue in its ongoing operation and deepen it in order to strike at the perpetrators, until the firing stops… It won't be easy, it won't happen this weekend, but we will bring an end to Qassam attacks on Sderot."
To add to the chorus, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had this to say:
The answer to the Qassam rocket attacks is an uncompromising war on terror which originates from Gaza, and not only through dialogue and negotiations. [Israel] must be clear: when speaking of a Palestinian state, we are talking about two parts—Gaza and the West Bank."
The Hamas government in Gaza has reportedly agreed to try and stop the rocket fire, but tellingly warned that it would be difficult to do so if Israeli military assaults continue.
Honestly though, how can anyone ask people on either side to negotiate for peace while bombs are falling on their civilians? It sounds like the roadmap needs a detour: Get Gaza under control, then talk about what comes next.
The Guardian reports on a proposal by the FBI to setup an international database for "major criminals and terrorists":
The US-initiated programme, "Server in the Sky", would take cooperation between the police forces way beyond the current faxing of fingerprints across the Atlantic. Allies in the "war against terror" - the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - have formed a working group, the International Information Consortium, to plan their strategy.
Here I was naively assuming that we already had a shared computer database for this type of thing. I mean, they really fax fingerprints nowadays?
Yet another black eye for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation:
Telephone companies cut off FBI wiretaps used to eavesdrop on suspected criminals because of the bureau's repeated failures to pay phone bills on time, according to a Justice Department audit released Thursday.
I never really quite understood the rationale for having to switch off all electronic devices during airplane takeoffs and landings. The stated reason for the ban is that the devices could somehow interfere with the plane's operation or ignite a fire after a crash.
But Boeing apparently has some more serious kinks to work out with its newest jet, the 787 Dreamliner, which already has 800 advance orders ahead of its November launch. The Federal Aviation Administration fears that a new feature on the plane that allows passengers to connect their mobile computers to the Internet may allow a terrorist to disrupt the plane's control systems. This is especially worrisome, as we know that many terrorists have advanced engineering degrees and could be familiar with how to carry out just such an operation. The Web sites of jihadist sympathizers are often very professionally done and have sophisticated encryption features.
With airport security bans as stringent as they already are, I wouldn't be surprised if an outright ban on electronic devices in the cabin were instituted in the near future. That ought to boost the approval ratings of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
It might not surprise you to learn that Big Brother looms large in places like China and Russia. But Britain and the United States are near the bottom of the heap too. According to a new study of 47 countries by Privacy International, a human-rights watchdog based in London, those four countries fall in the bottom tier of countries where government surveillance is used extensively. Other locales in the bottom group, labeled "endemic surveillance societies," are Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The only place where Privacy International considers there to be "adequate safeguards against abuse" is Greece. And the only country where the surveillance situation is improving for citizens is Slovenia.
Granted, the vast majority of Africa is not included in the study, and much of Latin America is overlooked too. Nevertheless, countries where you'd think civil liberties would be the most protected don't do so well. Australia, France, and most of Scandinavia fall in the category where there is a "systemic failure to uphold safeguards." Interestingly, places that were once part of the Soviet bloc perform relatively well. Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia are cited for having "some safeguards but weakened protection." Where does your country fit in? Click here to find out.
One of my favorite characters in Charlie Wilson's War (the book, not the schlocky Hollywood flick) is Michael Vickers, the wonkish ex-Green Beret and CIA paramilitary officer who, at the tender age of 31, masterminded the weapons and guerrilla warfare strategy used by the Afghan mujahedin to fight the Soviets. By all accounts, Vickers is brilliant, and he was critical to the success of the CIA's covert program, in which the United States funneled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons through Pakistan's intelligence services. Though the CIA never funded al Qaeda and the Taliban did not yet exist, many people blame U.S. policy—in which Vickers played such a key role—for fanning the flames of Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan that later came back to bite the United States on 9/11.
For years, Vickers toiled away on boring but influential reports for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. But as of July 2007, Vickers is now an assistant secretary of defense with an enormous portfolio: winning the war on terrorism. Vickers oversees Special Operations Command, whose budget has recently doubled to $6 billion in 2008, and he's especially concerned about... Pakistan's growing Islamic radicalism. Funny, that.
Testifying before Congress back in March 2006, before moving to the Pentagon, Vickers predicted that the future of the global war on terrorism (GWOT) would "likely be a protracted, indirect and clandestine fight in scores [of] countries with which the U.S. is not at war." He added:
The GWOT is an intelligence and special operation-intensive war. Getting this aspect of interagency organization right, and making full use of special authorities to wage the indirect and clandestine fight, is imperative. Particularly important in this regard is leveraging the CIA's Title 50 authority for [Special Operations Forces] operations through flexible detailing of SOF personnel to the Agency.
What Vickers is reportedly doing now as assistant secretary, described in Friday's Washington Post, seems to reflect the same approach:
Vickers's plan to build a global counterterrorist network... is focused on a list of 20 "high-priority" countries, with Pakistan posing a central preoccupation for Vickers, who said al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the country's western tribal areas are a serious threat to the United States. The list also includes Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia and Iran, and Vickers hints that some European countries could be on it. Beyond that, the plan covers another 29 "priority" countries, as well as "other countries" that Vickers does not name.
Since 9/11, there have been occasional tensions between U.S. diplomats on the one hand, and the DoD and the CIA on the other, over clandestine activities that have gone on without the knowledge of the ambassador. If Vickers is inserting more special ops teams around the world, those tensions are bound to increase.
One of Vickers's former colleagues says he "tends to think like a gangster." It's a mindset that has served Vickers well in the past, yet it carries risks. If Vickers's teams nail Osama bin Laden in northwest Pakistan, he'll be hailed as a genius. If, on the other hand, they cause an international incident...
Facebook has become a popular platform for public figures to reach out to supporters and fans. Presidential candidates, for instance, can use the hugely popular social-networking site to build official profiles and post updates from the campaign trail. The Facebook gods therefore frown on pranksters who attempt to impersonate celebrities by creating a fake profile. They also encourage legitimate users to report alleged impostors in order to maintain the integrity of the site.
The trouble is, it's often difficult to determine whether a celebrity profile is indeed a fake. This is exactly what happened to British MP Steve Webb, who recently discovered that he had been locked out of his own account and had his profile removed from the site. Several e-mails to Facebook were able to convince the company that the 10-year member of the House of Commons was no impostor. (Facebook eventually reinstated his account and issued the MP an official apology for the confusion.)
I'm surprised that this type of thing doesn't happen more often. But Facebook, as far as I can tell, does a pretty decent job weeding out the fake profiles that seem ubiquitous on other social networking sites. They do it so well, in fact, that perhaps the Department of Homeland Security could contract Facebook to run the"No Fly List." I'm sure Ted Kennedy would be happy to sponsor the necessary legislation.
Via Radar Online, here's a revealing chart of U.S. government spending on paper-shredding over the past seven years:
The chart comes from usaspending.gov, a very slick new Web site put together by the folks at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Interestingly, they hired one of their fiercest critics—OMB Watch—to help build it. That must have taken guts, but the end product is a journalist's dream. It's fully searchable, sortable, and chock full of information that takes hours to pull together by other means.
Just something I noticed: The top contractor for "paper shredding services" is not some corporate behemoth, but rather a place called National Industries for the Severely Handicapped. NISH's Web site suggests cites identity theft as the main reason one would want to shred documents, but I think the obvious explanation based on the chart is the Iraq war, which involves reams and reams of classified documents that must be destroyed.
Earlier, this year, I attended Jane's U.S. Defense Conference, an annual event packed with security analysts and the defense contractors who love them. One of the more interesting topics discussed was the trend of Western militaries relying increasingly on commercial—rather than exclusively military—supply chains. In practice, this means that, say, U.S. combat vehicles include more and more parts that are manufactured by firms that aren't strictly "defense contractors." In some cases, it can mean that such vehicles even share parts with commercial, non-military cars, trucks, and planes.
This can be cheaper for American taxpayers and more efficient for the military, but it comes with risks. Consider this: The London Times reports that hackers based in China recently tried to break into the IT systems of Rolls Royce, which manufactures engines for British, U.S., and NATO combat platforms and in fact claims to be the "number two military aero engine manufacturer in the world." Notably, Rolls Royce engines are to power the advanced Joint Strike Fighter, the U.S. Air Force's new baby. There are obvious implications for the military balance of power here. China's jet fighters are getting better, but they're still behind. But manufacturing airplane engines is notoriously difficult, and the Chinese are no doubt eager to learn trade secrets from Western firms.
And Rolls Royce could be just the tip of the iceberg. Internet security firm McAfee reports that China is foremost among 120 countries that are experimenting with cyber warfare capabilities. And firms that supply parts to Western militaries obviously represent fat targets for Chinese snoops or saboteurs. Rolls Royce has supplied the British Royal Air Force for many years, so presumably it is no stranger to the security game; but when it comes to more recent entrants, do we really know how secure these supply chains are?
I'm in Brussels this week, making the rounds at the EU and NATO. Yesterday, I had a meeting with Franco Frattini, the European Commissioner for Justice, Peace, and Security. Turns out he's getting ready to introduce a series of counterterrorism proposals to the European Parliament next month. His action plan, which he plans on officially introducing on November 6, will have three parts:
1. Tracking explosive materials: Frattini will make a series of recommendations for public institutions and private companies to work together to better track explosive materials. He also thinks that there needs to be a more specific definition of "conspiracy."
2. Creating a register of non-EU visitors: Frattini wants to create a Passenger Name Record (PNR), similar to the one that the United States has, with information about non-EU citizens on flights in and out of the EU.
3. Blocking certain Web sites: Frattini thinks Internet providers should shut down sites that provide information about making bombs or otherwise incite violence.
Get my take after the jump.
Russians must be feeling a tinge of nostalgia today, the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. But while the days of immense public curiosity and excitement for space exploration are about as over as the Soviet Union, the space race is still alive and kicking. In this week's list, FP takes a look at some of latest frontiers in space research and the unexpected cosmic challengers who are gearing up to take on American space dominance. From Mars to space weapon, the race is on.
But we left off a few out-of-this-world ideas that might just belong on the pages of a science fiction novel:
Going up? Forget loud, jarring rockets. Imagine taking a smooth ride up a 62,000-mile cable into space on a cosmic elevator. Although I couldn't explain the physics behind it for the life of me, scientists have been looking at possible plans for a space elevator constructed of carbon nanotubes. NASA and the Spaceward Foundation are holding a competition in Utah this month for the best design.
Greening outer-space Despite the rush to wean the world off dirty energy sources, space-based solar power is still waiting on the sidelines. The vision is quite simple: Platforms that capture sunlight are put in space and the resulting energy is then beamed down to Earth. Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith, space-based solar panels' biggest fan, spearheaded a study (without any funding) for the National Security Space Office in an attempt to convince the Pentagon of the technology's feasibility. To add to the geek appeal, he then gave his presentation in Second Life.
Five-star accommodation $4 million for a three-night hotel stay? Only if it's in orbit. Xavier Claramunt plans to have Galactic Suite, the first space hotel, up and running by 2012. Of course, there is a lot of planning that goes into accommodating people in a zero-gravity atmosphere, like figuring out how guests can shower. Claramunt's solution: a spa room where bubbles of water will float around you.
Of course, we can debate whether spending millions of dollars and unquantifiable amounts of brain-power into these kinds of space endeavors is really the most prudent use of our resources. And for countries like China and India, there are countless terrestrial causes that could benefit from the investment otherwise going into establishing massive space programs. But if anyone is offering a free ride on a space elevator and a stay at the nearest galactic hotel, sign me up.
The inaugural Ibrahim Index of African Governance was released today. The survey, financed by the Sudanese mobile-phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, ranks sub-Saharan African countries according to security, rule of law, human rights, and development. Two tiny island nations, Mauritius and the Seychelles, came out on top. Botswana, Cape Verde, and South Africa are the best-governed countries on the mainland, while unsurprisingly, Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia were the worst. Ibrahim is also planning to give a $5 million prize next month to a former African head of state who exemplified good governance. The BBC examines some of the top candidates here.
One of the strengths of the index is that it includes retroactive data dating back to 2000, which allows readers to examine trends over time. Rwanda was the most improved nation, jumping 18 spots to 18th place. In fact, one American businessman has called the country "the most undervalued 'stock' on the continent and maybe in the world." Rwanda, however, is still categorized as "not free" in the most recent Freedom House Freedom in the World survey, which criticizes President Paul Kagame's government for its crackdowns on the press and opposition groups. This should raise some interesting questions about the role of democratization in good governance and whether it is even possible or advisable to fully democratize a country that still has the ethnic and recent historical baggage of Rwanda.
One of the index's weaknesses is that it only includes data as recent as 2005. Two years can be a lifetime in African politics, which partially explains Liberia's abysmal showing at 43 out of 48. In 2005, Liberia was still under the transitional government that followed the country's civil war and Charles Taylor's removal from power. It will be interesting to see what effect the presidency of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who took over at the end of that year, will have on the country's future ranking. Liberia was the most improved country in the 2007 FP Failed States Index.
Aren't MIT students supposed to be smart?
An MIT student wearing what turned out to be a fake bomb was arrested at gunpoint Friday at Logan International Airport and later claimed it was artwork, officials said.
Star Simpson, 19, had a computer circuit board and wiring in plain view over a black hooded sweatshirt she was wearing, said State Police Maj. Scott Pare, the commanding officer at the airport. [...]
The battery-powered rectangular device had nine flashing lights, and Simpson had Play-Doh in her hands, Pare said.
The phrases "Socket to me" and "Course VI" were written on the back of her sweatshirt, which authorities displayed to the media. Course VI appears to refer to MIT's major of electrical engineering and computer science.
Deborah D. Avant, professor of political science and director of international studies at University of California, Irvine, and author of Think Again: Mercenaries from a few years ago, has this to say about the Blackwater contretemps in Iraq:
Is it accidental that the Iraqi government's reaction to the latest Blackwater incident comes on the heels of U.S. criticism of Iraqi progress?
The United States sent in an army of private-security contractors (PSCs) with only a whiff of controversy as the insurgency mounted in Iraq—contrasting sharply with the hoopla over the so-called surge. But this week's media frenzy demonstrates the political pitfalls of a reliance on companies like Blackwater. The Iraqi government is certainly justified in raising questions about how these companies operate, especially regarding the still unclear legal status of PSC personnel. But the Iraqi government has reacted mildly to the dozen or so previous incidents that have reached the Western press, making Maliki's outraged calls for the expulsion of Blackwater and a review of all PSCs working in Iraq seem puzzling at first. One wonders, though, if Maliki’s reaction to this incident is driven by a desire to take the spotlight off the Iraqi government's failures and buy it some bargaining room, both in domestic circles and with the Americans. Practically, the United States cannot operate in Iraq without PSCs—and Maliki knows this. The chance to point a finger at one of the more controversial elements of U.S. strategy and put the United States on the hot seat even while sticking up for Iraqi sovereignty in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad is probably too good for him to pass up.
Something didn't smell quite right in Glenn Kessler's recent story in the Washington Post about a possible nuclear link between North Korea and Syria. It looked to me like déjà vu all over again. So I asked Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, and a frequent FP contributor, to weigh in. Here's his take:
This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined "White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection." This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.
Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted "intelligence" to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.
Few reporters appear to have done even basic investigation of the miniscule Syrian nuclear program (though this seems to be filtering into some stories running Friday). There is a reason that Syria is not included in most proliferation studies, including mine: It doesn't amount to much. Begun almost 40 years ago, the Syrian program is a rudimentary research program built around a tiny 30-kilowatt research reactor that produces isotopes and neutrons. It is nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel. Over a dozen countries have aided the program including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States (where several Syrian scientists trained) as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If North Korea gave them anything short of nuclear weapons it is of little consequence. Syria does not have the financial, technical or industrial base to develop a serious nuclear program anytime in the foreseeable future.
Nor is there anything new about Syria being on the U.S. "watch list"; it has been for years. Unfortunately, this misleading story will now enter the lexicon of the far right. For months we will hear pundits citing the "Syrian-Iranian-Korean nuclear axis" and complaining that attempts to negotiate an end to North Korea's program are bound fail in the face of such duplicity, etc., etc.
The real story is how quickly the New York Times and the Washington Post snapped up the bait and ran exactly the story the officials wanted, thereby feeding a mini-media frenzy. It appears that nothing, not even a disastrous and unnecessary war, can break this Pavlovian response to an "intelligence scoop."
For information on the Syrian nuclear program that any reporter should have read, see the Web site of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
UPDATE: Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler responds via e-mail:
I think the world of Joe Cirincione. So I obviously take his concerns seriously.
All I can say in response is that I (and a number of uncredited colleagues) spent more than week knocking on doors of many agencies, seeking answers. No one tried to wave us off the story, including people who normally I thought would have tried their best to prevent us from printing it. I did note a number of caveats and explained that Syria never had much of a nuclear program. There appears to be a connection to the Israeli raid, which is now the subject of some of the tightest censorship in years. We will keep pursuing the story in hopes of providing greater clarity for our readers--and especially experts like Joe.
... more here from Kessler, who reports that the State Department's Chris Hill doesn't expect negotiations with North Korea to be derailed by this.
Last week, the Pentagon admitted that a B-52 had mistakenly flown nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the United States. And worse, for almost fourteen hours no one—at the base of departure, on the bomber itself, or at the base of arrival—had any idea something was wrong. Officials have assured the public that there was no danger of a nuclear explosion, even if the plane had crashed.
The specific warheads carried by U.S. cruise missiles belong to the W80 family, in this case the W80-1. (Other versions of the W80 are designed for use with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are launched from submarines.) There are about 1,450 of these warheads in the active stockpile, with another 360 or so in the inactive stockpile. They have "dialable" (variable) yields of up to 150 kilotons, or about 10 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. And, as mentioned by the Pentagon, they have several safety measures built in to prevent accidental detonation.
First, the actual detonation system is physically protected by an "exclusion zone," which isolates it from electric (and to some extent physical) shocks. The exclusion zone can be connected to the rest of the warhead’s electronics by a "strong link," which does not physically connect until the warhead is armed.
An accident—fire, lighting strike, crash, etc.—could breach either or both of these safeguards, so the electronics inside the exclusion zone also contain safeguards, called "weak links." These are electronic links designed to fail under lower stress than either the exclusion zone or the strong link. This ensures that, for instance, if the exclusion zone collapses, the weak links will as well and the nuclear core will remain inert.
And beyond those nested safety systems, most U.S. warheads have other safeguards, including insensitive high explosives that will not detonate easily due to mechanical shock. The biggest worry with this incident was not technical, but organizational: How did nuclear warheads get loaded onto a plane and flown across the country before anyone even noticed they were gone?
It doesn't get much more audacious than this. Cast and crew of a popular TV comedy show in Australia were arrested today after driving through police checkpoints in Sydney posing as a Canadian motorcade. Two "Canadian" motorcycles and three cars made it through two police checkpoints before being halted at the Intercontinental Hotel, where U.S. President George W. Bush is staying for the APEC summit. But it gets better. When the "Canadians" got out of their vehicles, one of them was "dressed in a white tunic and cap and wearing a long fake Osama bin Laden-style beard."
The producers of the show, "Chaser's War on Everything," clearly didn't set out to harm anyone. As Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer put it, "They presumably were, as is the nature of their show, aiming to humiliate a lot of well-known people." Mission accomplished.
This is hardly the first time Chaser's has ridiculed Australia's approach to security and terrorism (but it may be the last). Check out this amusing YouTube clip from their show:
With the rise of China and India upending the world's consumption patterns, protecting increasingly tight oil supplies is proving to be no small undertaking. By some estimates, a major supply disruption could send oil prices spiraling above $100 a barrel.
In our September/October issue, FP took a closer look at moves by Russian oil giants Gazprom and Rosneft to establish their own private armies, equipped with machine guns and anti-riot gear, to guard their goods.
And now Saudi Arabia, a politically fragile country perched atop some 25 percent of the world's oil reserves, has stepped up its own efforts to protect oil plants and pipelines—the kingdom's economic lifeline—from potential attacks. After spending an estimated $5 billion and setting up a 35,000-strong security force, the Financial Times reports, Saudi Arabia will have more people guarding its petroleum than protecting the country's skies (Air Force: 18,000) or seas (Navy: 15,500) combined. Compared to a chaotic Nigeria and a stubborn Russia, Saudi Arabia has been a very reliable oil supplier. And the Saudis are keen on staying that way.
The kingdom's fears are not unfounded: This past February's foiled al Qaeda plot to blow up the Abqaiq oil center, which handles two-thirds of the country's oil supply, exposed potential security gaps. Plus, Osama bin Laden has been calling for attacks on the Arabian peninsula's oil installations since 2004. And the Saudis are no doubt expecting blowback from seasoned jihadis returning from Iraq.
Any substantial disruption to Saudi oil production would send shock waves through the global economy, and particularly the gas-guzzling United States. Accordingly, U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin is actively training 5,000 Saudi personnel to use such nifty technology as laser security and satellite imaging. And how does Saudi Arabia plan on ensuring that a force this large will be impervious to radical infiltration? The FT says that recruits are being "heavily vetted" and sought from outside the country's existing security forces. That's going to involve a heckuva lot of background checks.
Earlier this week, Passport brought you the inaugural flight of the Vatican's new airline, which will ferry eager Catholics to holy sites across Europe.
But so far, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for the heavenly voyagers. Pilgrims returning home from the shrine at Lourdes in the south of France were told by airport security officials that they couldn't take more than 100 ml of holy water on board with them.
Sorry folks, even the big guy upstairs can't get you out of anti-terror security regulations. You'll have to take off your shoes just like the rest of us.
Wired's Noah Shachtman has the goods:
For years, the military has been warning that soldiers' blogs could pose a security threat by leaking sensitive wartime information. But a series of online audits, conducted by the Army, suggests that official Defense Department websites post material that's far more potentially harmful than blogs do.
The audits, performed by the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell between January 2006 and January 2007, found at least 1,813 violations of operational security policy on 878 official military websites. In contrast, the 10-man, Manassas, Virginia, unit discovered 28 breaches, at most, on 594 individual blogs during the same period.
The difference may be that soldiers blogging in combat zones are instinctively more careful than the desk jockeys back in Washington. As Army spokesman Gordon Vlan Veet put it:
Often these bloggers are stationed in the combat areas and they more than anyone understand the importance of security and the potential impact any OPSEC violations could have on themselves and their fellow Soldiers, Airmen and Marines."
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