Federal law enforcement officials are investigating whether sleeper cells or freelance agents of Osama bin Laden may have smuggled small, portable nuclear weapons or radiological bombs into the United States.
Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House subcommittee on national security, says, ?It?s possible, and it?s very scary. If you asked me if bin Laden really had these weapons, I would say probably not, but, on the other hand, I wouldn?t be the least surprised if there were a nuclear explosion in Israel or the United States.?
One report currently being investigated by U.S. intelligence officials came from Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) sources who conducted an interrogation of a terrorist suspect in early November. Under coercion, the suspect said that agents of bin Laden had smuggled two portable nuclear weapons into the United States.
A U.S. government expert who had access to the Pakistani investigation said ISI provided ?the highest levels of the U.S. government? with materials from their interrogation, including a summary of the suspect?s confession. The summary did not give the specific dates of the smuggling, the method, or time of entry. The suspect said only that the smuggling had been carried out.
?What was disconcerting about the (suspect?s) information was that he knew details of the activation of the weapons and their construction that are not in the public domain,? says the U.S. expert. It could be a nuclear backpack weapon ?or some other Russian portable nuclear weapon.?
Rep. Shays says official records confirm that Russia produced 132 such weapons and that currently 48 remain unaccounted for. All disappeared from Russian arsenals. He says, ?We know that bin Laden made strenuous efforts to buy these weapons, we know that security at some Russian nuclear arsenals was terrible, we know that some Russian officials were corrupt. We are told of attempted thefts and of plots that were foiled, but we are never told of the plots that succeeded.?
Peter Probst, formerly of the Pentagon?s Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict says that there is ?a great fear? within the Bush administration of a strike by bin Laden aimed at deactivating the U.S. government, using either a finished nuke or a radiological device — a core of conventional explosive wrapped inside nuclear waste such as iodine 131. He says, ?It would seem probable that some (bin Laden) deals for purchasing weapons did go through.?
On December 4, the FBI put 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies on ?highest alert? because intelligence culled from sources around the globe indicated the United States could expect a new bin Laden attack between mid-December and the holidays. The alert continues. Since the September 11 attacks, Continuity of Government procedures have been in place that ensure that the president and vice president never occupy the same spot at the same time. They also provide for the orderly succession of power should a top U.S. leader be killed.
The FBI is monitoring the major port cities of the United States mainland including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They are checking any suspicious cash rentals of trucks or leases of private aircraft, including flight plans, since a small, portable nuclear weapon could be dropped by terrorists via parachute into a remote area and retrieved by other cell members. Air freight is also being carefully monitored because, according to Probst, ?25 percent of air freight is carried by passenger aircraft and is never inspected.?
Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, ?The United States has 16,000 ships entering its ports every day. Adding in shipments entering by truck, train or air freight, the total of import shipments to the United States is 21.4 million per year. You could put a nuclear or a chemical weapon in a container aboard a ship leaving Karachi, and that ship will land at Vancouver or Oakland, San Francisco, or the Gulf Coast, and we would never know the difference.? He says that only 3 percent of ship containers ever get inspected.
Stefan Leader, president of Eagle Research and consultant for the Department of Energy, says bin Laden is known to own 23 ships registered to various companies in various countries. Once on the high seas, ?such ships are really difficult to find from a defense point of view,? he says.
Russian backpack weapons are a priority in the current alert. Says one former senior CIA official, ?It?s not a big reach at all to say that it?s probable that bin Laden has been able to obtain this system.? The Soviet nuclear backpack system was made in the 1960s for use against NATO targets in time of war. It consists of three ?coffee can-sized? aluminum canisters, which must be connected before detonation.
According to information derived from Soviet defectors, the three aluminum canisters are carried in green canvas cases with pockets on the outside. All three must be connected to make a single unit in order to explode. The detonator is about 6 inches long and carried in a ?knife-like sheaf.? It has a 3-to-5 kiloton yield, depending on the efficiency of the explosion. It is kept powered during storage by a battery line connected to the canisters.
During the first week of October, Israel?s Mossad was reported to have detained a Palestinian attempting to enter Jerusalem from Ramallah who was wearing such a system on his back. The item was contained in a CIA Daily Threat Report. Initially, there were conflicting reports as to whether the pack contained a radiological weapon or a nuclear system. Sources who saw the Daily Report insist that the weapon was nuclear, not radiological.
Was the Palestinian been carrying a segment or the whole system? Israel has refused to comment, but a former senior CIA official says, ?The system is very small and could be easily carried and used by one person.? There would be ?no necessity to take it in segments.?
Probst says of the Mossad item, ?I don?t discount the report at all. If bin Laden were going nuclear, a backpack weapon is the way he would go.?
The backpack system remains classified and is not the same as a nuclear suitcase bomb. A suitcase bomb is ?as large as two footlockers,? said former CIA countererrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro. ?Bin Laden hasn?t got any suitcase bombs. That?s just total crap.?
According to former Soviet military intelligence officer Stanislav Lunev, suitcase bombs are actually Soviet-made RA-115s that can?t be transported by suitcase. According to an article titled ?Osama Suitcase Bombs and Ex-Soviet Loose Nukes? written by Cary Sublette for the Federation of American Scientists, ?They weigh about 60 pounds and have a yield of one kiloton. The dimensions of the suitcase bomb are 24?x16?x 8.? They are difficult to set up, says Lunev, because a small current of power is needed to store the weapon safely near its detonation site. This means the operator of the weapon would need to run a fine wire up to a power line. If someone discovered the wire powering the weapon and tried to trace it back, the wire is so fine it would break. If the battery in the weapon runs low, then the bomb is programmed to send a signal to a Soviet satellite or the nearest consulate. If any one tampers with it, the nuclear materials are disabled.
Shays says the Soviets even made small nuclear weapons ?that look like rocks,? a fact confirmed by Lunev.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official, says that while there should be concern over any nuclear threat, he believes that the present concerns are ?exaggerated. It?s not like a nuclear weapon has an eternal shelf life. If you don?t use one by such and such a date, you?re likely not to be able to use it at all. Look at your lawn mower that you left in the garage all winter — it requires some work before you can use it again.?
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