* New York Times: Rate of nuclear thefts “disturbingly high”
* MI5 have intercepted up to 100 suspects posing as postgraduate students who aimed to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons material and expertise during the past year
1. Dangers ahead
2. “World faces growing risk of war: US intelligence chief” (AFP, Nov. 1, 2008)
3. “CIA’s loss of top spies ‘catastrophic,’ says agency veteran” (CQ, Oct. 17, 2008)
4. “Intel says Iran plans secret nuclear experiments” (AP, Oct. 30, 2008)
5. “Rate of nuclear thefts ‘disturbingly high’” (NY Times, Oct. 27, 2008)
6. “Terrorists try to infiltrate UK’s top labs” (The Observer, UK, Nov. 2 2008)
[Note by Tom Gross]
I attach five articles, below, about global threats. There are brief summaries by me first for those who don’t have time to read them in full. These warnings – coming from such internationally-respected figures and organizations (the IAEA, AP, The New York Times, etc) – should be of immediate concern to the incoming U.S. president. Let’s hope he’s up to the job.
If Barack Obama is elected tomorrow, one immediate thing to look out for will be his relationship with General David Petraeus, who last week formally became the head of U.S. Central Command. There are already reports in the Christian Science Monitor, the St. Petersburg Times (Florida) and elsewhere, that the two have begun to fall out over strategy.
Petraeus previously presided over the “surge” in Iraq, which is widely credited as being a huge success. If Obama and Petraeus are in dispute, a successful strategy in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere will be much harder to implement.
“LARGE CASUALTY TERRORIST ATTACKS MORE LIKELY”
In the first article below, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell warns that the world faces a growing risk of conflict over the next 20 to 30 years. The likelihood of “large casualty terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, or less likely, nuclear materials” will also increase during that period, he said.
QUTTING AT THE TOP OF THEIR CAREERS
The second article below reports that scores of the CIA’s most experienced spies – including those running a CIA unit responsible for preventing terrorists from getting nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – have quit the agency recently while at the top of their careers, i.e. at a time when the agency needs their skills the most.
It is estimated that the CIA is losing “25 or 30 station chiefs” (i.e. the top CIA representative in a country or major city) “or their equivalent” at headquarters, every six months.
“The effect in any time in history would be serious,” one outgoing station chief told Congressional Quarterly. “But at this time, when you’re trying to rebuild the agency from the cutbacks of the Clinton years, massively trying to catch up, at a time when you really need your most experienced people to run operations and mentor the new blood coming in, it’s catastrophic.”
An agency veteran who recently penned an unauthorized memoir under the pseudonym “Ishmael Jones” advised the CIA to “cut layers of management ruthlessly to speed operations and to put more spies on the street.”
IAEA: IRAN PLANS SECRET NUCLEAR EXPERIMENTS
In the third article below, the Associated Press reports from Vienna that intelligence provided to the 145-nation Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reveals that Iran has recently tested ways of recovering highly enriched uranium from waste reactor fuel in a covert bid to expand its nuclear program.
The alleged tests loosely replicate Saddam Hussein’s attempts to build the bomb nearly two decades ago, notes the Associated Press, which says that the intelligence report is drawn from Iranian sources within the country.
Efforts led by the Bush administration to implement tough U.N. sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend enrichment have been consistently blocked by Russia and China.
According to some sources, Iran may now only be six months away from developing nuclear weapons capability.
MOHAMED EL BARADEI WARNS ABOUT NEW NUCLEAR THEFTS
The fourth article below relates that Mohamed El Baradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that the number of reports of nuclear or radioactive material stolen around the world last year was “disturbingly high.”
El Baradei said nearly 250 such thefts were reported in the year ending in June.
“The possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear or other radioactive material remains a grave threat,” he said. His staff cautioned that the amount of missing material was not enough to build a nuclear bomb. But small amounts could be used in a so-called “dirty bomb.”
Most of the concern about thefts centers on the countries of the former Soviet Union, but they occur elsewhere too.
100 TERRORISTS TRY TO INFILTRATE UK’S TOP LABS
In the fifth and final article below, yesterday’s Observer newspaper in London (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), reports that Britain’s intelligence service MI5 has warned that al-Qaeda is seeking to recruit scientists who develop deadly viruses. The security services have intercepted up to 100 suspects posing as postgraduate students who aimed to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons material and expertise during the past year, writes the paper.
-- Tom Gross
“WORLD FACES GROWING RISK OF WAR”
World faces growing risk of war: US intelligence chief
Agence France Presse (AFP)
Nov. 1, 2008
The world faces a growing risk of conflict over the next 20 to 30 years amid an unprecedented transfer of wealth and power from West to East, according to the US intelligence chief.
Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, predicted rising demand for scarce supplies of food and fuel, strategic competition over new technologies, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
“What I’m suggesting -- there’s an increased potential for conflict,” McConnell said in a speech Thursday to intelligence professionals in Nashville, Tennessee.
“During the period of this assessment, out to 2025, the probability for conflict between nations and within nation-state entities will be greater,” he said.
Conditions for “large casualty terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, or less likely, nuclear materials” also will increase during that period, he said.
McConnell described a multi-polar world in 2025 shaped by the rise of China, India and Brazil, whose economies will by then match those of the western industrial states.
“In terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power, now underway, as noted from West to East is without precedent in modern history,” McConnell said.
Territorial expansion and military rivalries are not likely but cannot be ruled out, he said.
“We judge these sweeping changes will not trigger a complete breakdown of the current international system, but the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks and many, many challenges,” he said.
By 2025, China is likely to have the world’s second largest economy and to have emerged as a major military power, the largest importer of natural resources and the largest contributor to world pollution.
“China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country,” he said.
India will have either the third or second largest economy and will press to become “one of the significant poles of this new world,” he said.
Russia also will be part of that group but only if it expands and diversifies its economy and integrates it with the world global economy, he said.
“Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, demographics, access to natural resources, investments and technological innovation. There will be a struggle to acquire technology advantage as the key enabler for dominance,” he said.
HUGE PROBLEMS AT THE CIA
CIA’s loss of top spies “catastrophic,” says agency veteran
By Jeff Stein, Homeland Security correspondent
Oct. 18, 2008
Only a few months ago, Sam Faddis was running a CIA unit charged with preventing terrorists from getting nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Today, only 50, the equivalent of a full colonel at the top of his game, he has quit.
Scores more like him, Faddis says, spies with years of working the back alleys of the world, have walked away from the CIA’s Operations Directorate at the top of their careers, at a time when the agency needs their skills the most.
The directorate is losing “25 or 30 chiefs of station” – the top CIA representative in a country or major city – “or their equivalent” at headquarters, every six months, Faddis estimates.
That’s out of an estimated thousand or fewer case officers – the men and women who recruit and manage spies – worldwide.
“The effect in any time in history would be serious,” Faddis says, “but at this time, when you’re trying to rebuild the agency from the cutbacks of the Clinton years, massively trying to catch up, at a time when you really need your most experienced people to run operations and mentor the new blood coming in, it’s catastrophic.”
“It’s getting to the point where we just don’t have any experience on the ground,” Faddis maintained during several hours of conversation over the past two weeks.
“It bears emphasizing that, where during the Cold War, it was a catastrophe to be [unmasked as a CIA agent] and sent home, if you screw up now, people die. The tolerance for mistakes is less than ever,” he said.
Faddis declined either to confirm or deny that any CIA personnel have died combating terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the grim, mum faces of former spies I’ve asked about agency casualties since that day speak for themselves.
A former program manager in the Operations Directorate, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still does contracting work with the agency, agreed with Faddis.
“It’s comparable to the hemorrhage of junior officers from the Army right now, in the sense that these are leaders whose experience and hands-on ability right in front of their people on the front line is so critical,” he said.
The CIA has said that money is luring away its best old hands. And it’s true that a large number come back as private contractors, doing virtually the same jobs at twice the pay.
Some say there are more contractors filling desk in the directorate now than career officers.
But many don’t return, Faddis maintains. And, theoretically, he and other operations veterans say, contractors can’t take leadership positions that have been emptied.
The CIA flatly denies there’s a hemorrhage of senior personnel.
“Last year, for example, it was in the neighborhood of 7 percent of GS-15s in the National Clandestine Service,” spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.
“And that’s somewhat below what it had been in previous years,” he continued. “It’s all quite modest. The notion of dramatic losses at that grade, or any other, is simply incorrect.”
A CULTURE OF TIMIDITY
In any event, it’s not the money sending them into retirement, the veteran spies I’ve been talking to say.
It’s the directorate’s management, which they maintain rewards sycophants at headquarters over operatives who have been “carrying out aggressive operations in dangerous places,” as Faddis put it.
“I think that one of the things that they’ve tried to portray over the last several years is that everybody’s leaving for the money,” he said. “And that’s not true.
“I mean, the money makes it easier. Nobody joined the CIA to make money. If money was your driving force, you never would have been there in the first place,” Faddis said. “People leave because they’re just fed up. They leave because of the management structure. They say, ‘I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried to change this place, and it’s just never going to turn the corner and I’m done.’ That’s the sentiment.”
Virtually none of the team chiefs and case officers who led the first CIA units into Afghanistan and Iraq remain with the agency, said Faddis, who recently authored a memoir, “Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq.”
It’s because the DO is plagued by a culture of “timidity and risk aversion,” Faddis said.
“But frankly I think there are other factors,” he added. “There’s a general perception of cronyism, favoritism, that the way to get promoted – that the guys who are not being promoted are the guys who are doing aggressive operations in dangerous parts of the world. If you’re a chief of station in a dangerous part of the world running aggressive operations, and your contemporary is a staff aide sitting on the seventh floor in meetings, there’s no question of who’s getting promoted. It’s the guy standing next to the boss telling him what he wants to hear. It’s not the guy in a dangerous place really trying to take the fight to the enemy.”
An agency operation veteran who recently penned an unauthorized memoir under the pseudonym “Ishmael Jones” advised the CIA to “cut layers of management ruthlessly to speed operations and to put more spies on the street.”
“Accepting the CIA’s ploy that it just needs a few more years to hire the right people” is wrong, Jones said. “The CIA has used this ploy for decades. The CIA has all the qualified people it needs. The problem is that they are poorly led.”
Gary Berntsen, a former station chief who led one of the first CIA teams into Afghanistan after 9/11, agrees. He left in disgust over management.
In a new book, “Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism & National Leadership,” Berntsen writes that the agency’s personnel problems predated the Bush administration, but the president waited too long to double the size of the Operations Directorate.
“The act was welcome, but betrayed the fact that he had not sought an accurate understanding of the size and needs of he Clandestine Service during his first term in the White House.”
And still today, Berntsen says, “the most ambitious officers in the Clandestine Service have sought minimal time in the field and burrowed themselves in the CIA headquarters bureaucracy to attain advancement.”
According to some accounts, the CIA’s Predator drones and other new technologies are making up for the shortage of spies in the field. The veterans would take issue with that, but they also remind that the spy agency has other yawning missions: China and Russia, for starters.
The spy agency is “bleeding out” with the mass departure of veterans who learned how to spy the hard way, on the streets of hostile foreign environments, Faddis says. “There’s not enough people on the ground with any experience.”
“At minimum, what it means is that you can’t run certain kinds of operations,” he said. “You just can’t do it, you just don’t have – maybe you have the best and brightest coming in these days, and I don’t want to denigrate them – but there’s just no substitute for experience. At some point you need someone to clue you in on how to do this.”
His hair turning silver, but still youthful looking from days spent skippering his boat in the Chesapeake, Faddis says, “to me the real tragedy is there’s just a whole bunch of guys floating around here who are not in the building, but should be.”
IAEA: IRAN PLANS SECRET NUCLEAR EXPERIMENTS
Intel says Iran plans secret nuclear experiments
The Associated Press / International Herald Tribune
October 30, 2008
VIENNA, Austria: Iran has recently tested ways of recovering highly enriched uranium from waste reactor fuel in a covert bid to expand its nuclear program, according to an intelligence assessment made available to an intelligence assessment made available to The Associated Press. The intelligence, provided by a member of the 145-nation International Atomic Energy Agency, also says a report will soon be submitted to the Iranian leadership for a decision on whether to go ahead with the project.
The alleged tests loosely replicate Saddam Hussein’s attempts to build the bomb nearly two decades ago. But experts question the conclusion by those providing the intelligence that Tehran, too, is trying to reprocess the fuel to make a nuclear weapon. They note that the spent fuel at issue as the source of the enriched uranium is not enough to yield the approximately 30 kilograms (65 pounds) of weapons-grade material needed for a bomb. Still, they say that the alleged experiment appears plausible – if not as a fast track to weapons capability then as a step that could move it further along that path.
With Iran’s nuclear program already under international scrutiny, any new efforts by Tehran to increase its nuclear expertise and its store of enriched uranium would set off alarm bells – particularly if that stock was highly enriched. The higher the enrichment the easier it is to reach the 90 percent level used in the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
The 3-page intelligence report, drawn from Iranian sources within the country, says the source material would be highly enriched – some at above 90 percent, the rest at 20 percent. In contrast, Iran’s enrichment program under constant IAEA monitoring has churned out material that is less than 5 percent enriched, in line with the fuel needs of modern reactors.
“Procedures were evaluated for recycling fuel by dissolving fuel rods” for irradiated waste and then reprocessing the material into uranium metal, says the intelligence assessment. Uranium metal is used for nuclear warheads.
“Sufficient data was collected for planning production lines for recovering the fuel,” says the assessment, which gave Tehran’s Jaber ibn Hayan Laboratories, run by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as the location for the experiment.
Top officials of AEOI are “in the final stages” of writing a report for the Iranian leadership for assessment on whether to go forward with reprocessing, according to the intelligence.
The laboratories and the Tehran Nuclear Research Center, the site of the reactor, have figured in suspect experiments, including clandestine plutonium separation attempts uncovered by the IAEA.
If the information is accurate then Iran is “trying to get their nose in the tent” of reprocessing material potentially suitable for a warhead, said David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks suspect secret proliferators. “On the surface it may have nothing to do with making a bomb, but in the end that’s what it could be about.”
IAEA spokespeople were unavailable Thursday but an official of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog said the agency would not comment. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Both Albright and a senior Vienna-based diplomat agreed that the alleged experiment roughly jibed with Saddam’s efforts to chemically process research reactor fuel to recover enriched uranium – in the case of Baghdad, enough and at a sufficiently high level of enrichment to make a bomb.
Close to success, the Iraqis saw their plans fail with the destruction of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991.
“This is the ‘Iraqi scenario,’” said the diplomat, referring to the alleged Iranian experiment. He – like the source of the intelligence – demanded anonymity because their information was restricted. But both he and Albright noted that the purported source for the fuel – Tehran’s TNRC research reactor – was unlikely to have enough material for reprocessing into the core of a warhead.
The five-megawatt reactor initially ran on weapons-grade uranium fuel enriched to 93 percent that was provided by the U.S. in the late 1960s to the then pro-Washington regime. But measured in terms of potential proliferation, the amount was small – only 7 kilograms (15 pounds). Then, in the late 1980s, Argentina helped reconfigure the reactor core and provided about 115 kilograms (250 pounds) of uranium. In contrast to modern reactors that run on low-enriched fuel, that material was highly enriched to about 20 percent.
Albright said that even optimal reprocessing would probably yield less than about half of the 30 kilograms (65 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium needed for a bomb. That restriction makes it unlikely that Iran was looking to the TNRC reactor for that immediate purpose.
Instead, an Iranian reprocessing plans could be part of Tehran’s attempts to push the nuclear envelope.
U.S.-led efforts for tough U.N. sanctions for Iran’s refusal to suspend enrichment have been consistently blocked by Russia and China. Tehran also has support of developing countries traditionally suspicious of Washington.
Defying weak sanctions, the Islamic Republic has moved further through enrichment toward developing weapons capability – now anywhere from six months to several years away, depending on the source.
Iran may be banking on further international inaction if it announces it will reprocess, perhaps arguing that it will need it as a source for new fuel for the research reactor. If allowed to do so, it will have moved another step ahead on the path to being able to develop warhead material. “It’s the idea that Iran wants to slowly develop nuclear weapons capability under the tent and it does it slowly so that people will accept it,” said Albright. “It’s (a matter of) keeping your head down, moving slowly and deliberately and winning at each step.”
MOHAMED EL BARADEI: RATE OF NUCLEAR THEFTS “DISTURBINGLY HIGH”
Rate of nuclear thefts “disturbingly high,” monitoring chief says
By Neil Macfarquhar
The New York Times
October 27, 2008
UNITED NATIONS – Mohamed El Baradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a speech on Monday that the number of reports of nuclear or radioactive material stolen around the world last year was “disturbingly high.”
Dr. El Baradei, in his annual report to the General Assembly, said nearly 250 such thefts were reported in the year ending in June.
“The possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear or other radioactive material remains a grave threat,” he said. “Equally troubling is the fact that much of this material is not subsequently recovered.”
Members of Dr. El Baradei’s staff and outside experts cautioned that the amount of missing material remained relatively small. If all the stolen material were lumped together, it would not be enough to build even one nuclear device, they said.
It is also unclear if the rising number of reports of stolen material stems from a growing market for radioactive goods or more vigilant reporting of thefts by member states.
However, the idea that there might be a new market for such material is of concern, they said, especially if some of it were to end up in a dirty bomb.
The threat from such a bomb is less a health risk from radiation than from the panic an attack would probably cause, said Cristina Hansell, a professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in Monterey, Calif.
Most of the concern about thefts centers on the countries of the former Soviet Union, where nuclear programs were widespread, but they occur everywhere.
In a typical case, Ms. Hansell said, an oil company reported last May that a device containing radioactive material that was used in exploration in Sudan was missing.
It would take long exposure to the device to create any health risk, she said. “What will kill you from a dirty bomb is the immediate explosion, not the radioactivity,” she said, noting that the main concern was that despite the attention devoted to trying to police such material, the amount disappearing keeps rising. “There still seems to be quite a big problem.”
Aside from the issue of thefts, Dr. El Baradei said he hoped that North Korea, which left the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, would return, and he criticized Iran for impeding the agency’s attempts to verify whether it was developing nuclear weapons.
Sin Sang-chol, a North Korean representative to the United Nations, accused the monitoring agency of spying on his country at the behest of Washington and called its position “prejudiced and unfair.”
The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, defended his country’s nuclear development program as peaceful while lashing out at Israel for its creating a weapons program outside the nonproliferation treaty framework.
It is widely assumed that Israel has nuclear weapons, but the Israeli government has never acknowledged it.
Mr. Khazaee called the policy of trying to force Iran to stop nuclear enrichment before starting negotiations on economic and other incentives “an irrational and failed policy.”
TERRORISTS TRY TO INFILTRATE UK’S TOP LABS
Terrorists try to infiltrate UK’s top labs
November 2 2008
A British scientist wears a protective suit in a laboratory. MI5 has warned that al-Qaida is seeking to recruit scientists who develop deadly viruses. Dozens of suspected terrorists have attempted to infiltrate Britain’s top laboratories in order to develop weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and nuclear devices, during the past year.
The security services, MI5 and MI6, have intercepted up to 100 potential terrorists posing as postgraduate students who they believe tried accessing laboratories to gain the materials and expertise needed to create chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, the government has confirmed. It follows warnings from MI5 to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that al-Qaeda’s terror network is actively seeking to recruit scientists and university students with access to laboratories containing deadly viruses and weapons technology.
Extensive background checks from the security services, using a new vetting scheme, have led to the rejection of overseas students who were believed to be intent on developing weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Office spokesman said the students had been denied clearance to study in the UK under powers ‘to stop the spread of knowledge and skills that could be used in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery’. He added: ‘There is empirical evidence of a problem with postgraduate students becoming weapons proliferators.’ The overseas students, a number of whom are thought to be from ‘countries of concern’ such as Iran and Pakistan, were intercepted under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme, introduced by universities and the security services last November.
The findings raise questions over how many terrorist suspects may have already infiltrated the UK’s laboratory network. Rihab Taha, dubbed ‘Dr Germ’, who worked on Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program, studied for her PhD in plant toxins at East Anglia University’s School of Biological Sciences in Norwich. In addition, a number of well-educated Iraqi scientists - funded by Baghdad - infiltrated several British microbiology laboratories in the run-up to the Gulf war of 1990-91. Britain has about 800 laboratories in hospitals, universities and private firms where staff have access to lethal viruses such as Ebola, polio and avian flu or could acquire the technology and expertise to develop deadly weapons. Whitehall sources remain concerned about the number of countries intent on acquiring the materials and knowledge to develop a nuclear or biological warfare capability.
John Wood of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control said: ‘Any scientist would say it’s important that we know who is working in our laboratories, and also why they are working there.’
The trial of two NHS doctors, Mohammad Asha, 27, a Jordanian national, and Bilal Abdulla, 29, from Iraq, who allegedly plotted widespread carnage through car bomb attacks in London’s West End and Glasgow airport last year, has intensified scrutiny on the radicalization of students. Named in the plot is 27-year-old Indian PhD student, Kafeel Ahmed, who drove a Jeep laden with gas canisters into Glasgow Airport’s main terminal building but died several weeks later from severe burns. Ahmed studied for his PhD in the technology department of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said the security scheme had so far proved effective. He added: ‘It is important to protect the UK from people who may wish to use technology and materials here inappropriately.’
Michael Stephens, head of security at the Medical Research Council, which runs some of Britain’s most sensitive laboratories, said they took the issue of biosecurity ‘extremely seriously’.
Concern that al-Qaeda is intent on developing a more sophisticated weapons capability moved the former director-general of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, to warn publicly that terror attacks in Britain could involve weapons of mass destruction. She said: ‘We know that attempts to gather materials are there, we know that attempts to gather technologies are there.’
Extremist groups are known to have targeted students, offering to fund courses in return for using their newly acquired expertise. It is unclear if any of those denied ‘clearance’ to study in the UK during the past year were funded by grants from host governments such as Tehran.
A Foreign Office spokesman said ‘efforts’ on scrutiny of foreign postgraduate students would continue with only a few of the 20,000 applications rejected for security reasons. In the US, draft legislation advocates banning all non-Americans from laboratories which possess potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses, a measure the UK government believes is too draconian.
Professor George Griffin, chairman of the advisory committee on dangerous pathogens, has warned of the lack of a national standard required for people to work in high-security laboratories.
The move comes as the government considers plans to build a new pathogen research facility in central London, between King’s Cross station and the British Library. Experts have warned that a terror attack would prove catastrophic to the surrounding area.