This is just laughable:

In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities, U.S. News has learned. In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program. Some participants were threatened with loss of their jobs when they questioned the legality of the operation, according to these accounts.

Forget the civil liberties aspect of this (passive monitoring is defensible in certain situations, and I have nowhere near enough interest to even try to find out whether it was justified in this case. I'm a techno and policy wonk, not a law wonk).

No, what bugs me about this is the sheer technical ignorance of such a scheme. Where to begin? It's like keystone cops with respect to misconceptions about what radiation is, how it is produced, how nuclear bombs work, the details of their construction and transportation, etc. No such thing as a suitcase nuke exists within the technical capability of the United States, let alone a group of secretive raghead nutjobs in a stripmall mosque. And monitoring of what energies of radiation? Does anyone in this bonehead, incompetent, utterly inept Administration even understand what radiation signatures to look for? Can they even distinguish between a nuclear bomb and someone who just had brachytherapy?

I'm just venting really - I'm not interested in drafting a basic Radiation Detection Physics lecture on the spot. But it is probably par for the course that the same crew in charge that has unlimited power to detain citizens, torture them, spy on communications without even FISA rubber-stamp warrants, deny habeus corpus to known innocents, and all the other assumptions of executive privelege in the name of our "security", couldn't even justify it's case against Jose Padilla or even acquit Sami al-Arian of anything despite his entire defense consisting of the single sentence, "the defense rests".

The War on Terror - at least on the home front - is just sound and fury and signifies nothing. I much preferred it when the grownups from the last Administration were in charge. Much like the FEMA director, the people in charge seem to be in over their head, and that means we are less safe, not more.

UPDATE: the detectors were worn on belts. There's no way that they could detect radiation from a nuclear device. It has to have been "dirty bomb" concerns, which the Padillacase was supposed to have been the signature case. If they could even point to a single case where these extreme measures actually resulted in a conviction of a terrorist, I'd be far less critical.


Dean Esmay said...

I always assumed it was dirty bomb stuff they were looking for, not suitcase nukes. And the worry with such things generally has more to do with the panic they'll cause than the actual damage they'd do. All some people have to do is hear "radiation" or "uranium" and they freak completely out of proportion.

I'm more angry that details of these things are leaking, which they shouldn't be, but whatever. I doubt if the career people at FBI and the Department of Energy are really all that incompetent, and they're generally the ones that would make the technology recommendations. Are you suggesting that if someone was holding a couple of kilograms of uranium, that wouldn't be detectable? You know more about this stuff than I do but that doesn't sound right.

Thomas Nephew said...

I bow to your better knowledge of such things, but isn't it possible the belt items were just sampling devices, not analytic devices?

Until reading your update, I assumed it was *not* dirty bomb stuff because as I understand it it doesn't take that much to create a dirty bomb: just lace a regular bomb with medical isotopes or other radioactive materials or waste and presto -- enough to create the panic effect at the heart of the stratagem. I have therefore assumed that less material was needed than for the critical mass of a fission bomb, and that the latter might in principle be more detectable.

None of this is to say I approve of searches without probable cause, or blanket suspicions of an entire religious community.

Mr. Esmay is not clear on which 'details' he objects to knowledge of -- belt-worn devices? DC area? Or simply that *any* knowledge of the program has become public?

Were this administration not a serial abuser of human rights and the public trust, I might have once agreed with him. That might have been wrong in principle, but OK in practice. But as it is, I think this kind of information is the only disinfectant we have against an administration that has forfeited any trust (of mine, anyway) in its competence, motives, or honesty.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

Dean - I understand that you consider it wrong for newswpapers to report things related to war. If we were talking about a journalist blowing the whistle on the fake landing site for the Normandy invasion, I would be fully in agreement. Treason, unquestionably.

However, Islamist terrorists are simply not going to be "materially" aided in teh same way by the civil liberties debate. If anything, having that debate in the open, ion our media, will be perceived by the people in the middle east as an example of what a free society - imbued with principle - can promise. The debate over civil liberties informs and helps the war effort, not hinders it. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X I am reminded of the intense interest paid to the civil rights movement by developing nations in Affrica during X's visit there after Hajj; I believe that when al-Jazeera reports the debate in our US public sphere about rights and liberties that the net effect is the same.

The bottom line: I don't agree with you as you have never made a case for just how (ie a specific mechanism of action) the Times story (and other stories in the past that you've likewise dismissed as treason) actually do harm. I in fact believe tha they do a great deal of good.

(I'd post these thoughts over at DW but I havent had time to properly sort them out and organize them; they will have to just remain as a comment for the time being.)

As to the program of monitoring, if they are looking for dirty bomb material, then they are truly inept. My charge of Incompetence is even stronger.

Yes, if someone had a few kilos of uranium, it woudl be detectable. But not easily. You could store it in a bathtub full of water and mask it quite well. Isnt it worth asking though exactly how someone would go about obtaining a few kilos of uranium ?

Look, terrorists will always make bombs, But a nuke - or even a dirty bomb - is something else entirely. You might as well assign the FBI to spy on Chinese homes because one might have a MIG-15 in their garage. I mean, okay, granted IF they had a MIG in their garage it would be a threat etc. But its a ludicrous waste of time.

It would be very easy to create a dirty bomb, Thomas. I know enough about how easy it is that I dont dare put that knowledge into print :)

But the right way to prevent a dirty bomb attack is to maintain safeguards of radioactive material. And those safeguards are in place. They could be stronger, but if you're worried that someone out there who already has the raw materials is building one, I'm sorry to say that no monitoring scheme is going to work. You may as well try to stop someone from a Molotov cocktail attack.

Prevention is wise. But it has to be upstream of the ASSEMBLY phase of the device. What teh Administration is doing is a waste of time, money, and yet another show of false security to perpetuate an illusion of safety and Doing Something.

When teh Administration proposes stricter NRC rules fo rstorage of medical waste II will be impressed and say "they are genuinely trying to prevent a dirty bomb attack". Instead we have the Padilla farce.

Osama Saeed said...

I had to LOL at this story. The image of Muslims coming into the mosque and walking blindly past a nuclear warhead as if it was part of the furniture is an amusing one.

I don't know what mosques in the US are like (I'm in Scotland) but the ones here are incapable of mobilising for anything in the world today, apart from a mosque extension if they are really active.

Stories like this monitoring business just show how little understanding there is of Muslims. The country has a totally different image of what goes on in our mosques.

Jonathan Versen said...

It would be nice if they were concerned with the depleted-uranium related radiation they left in Iraq, especially near(and in) hospitals, mosques, etc.

For that matter,I imagine the US soldiers would like to know what they've been exposed to as well. You'd think you could get the US press to be interested in that, at least.

Morningdew11 said...

LOL. yeah I guess they're just walking around with a Geiger Mueller detector, or a Berthold. And anyone having any sort of recent procedure like a nuc med stress test, would be of suspect, since they'd be radioactive for at least 2 days!!! And what about those that've just had I-131 thyroid therapy?!?!? They'd be emitting high levels of radiation for months! Hmm...maybe they'd be smart enough to look at medical records of people before making any assumptions.

Steven Den Beste said...

Just wanted to toss in a few facts to clarify this discussion:

U-235 and Pu-239 are alpha emitters. Alpha radiation can't penetrate a piece of paper, let alone the wall of a building. I don't believe that those responsible for this monitoring program would be unaware of this fact, and thus we can conclude that they weren't looking for fissionables.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

Steven, agreed that ifthis monitoring program was designed for nuclear weapon material, it's a laughable joke. Then why does the defense of the program invariably come back to the nuke scenario?

And if it is for dirty bomb material, then again, how do they distinguish between those and legitimate radioactive signatures such as gammas emitted during nuclear medicine therapy? Iodine seeds can remain active for a day or so after treatment, and will easily set off a detector.

Even in that case, the dirty bomb material is simply not that much of a threat. The moment you throw the stuff into a water supply or try to aerosolize it, it will be diluted past the point of any actual threat. I don't see any real way to use radioactive material in a dirty bomb to cause actual *mass destruction*. If you can conceive of such a weapon, then do email me, as I would like to see what you had in mind. From what I have learned in my training, I simply dont see a real threat.

My entire point is that the surveillance program - as described, and as defended - is ludicrous and a complete waste of time. I am not as concerned about civil liberties on this point as I am about "placebo" measures desiogned to probve to some political appointee that We Are Doing Something.

Steven Den Beste said...

The goal wasn't to prevent attacks of "mass destruction". Given the way the media hypes damned near any terrorist attack these days, even a minimally destructive attack would have been trumpeted all out of proportion by press coverage, so the goal was to prevent any attack at all.

Which is legitimate anyway.

This screening would not have been able to differentiate between "legitimate" radiation signatures and illegitimate ones, or at least not definitively. That would have been left to further investigation to determine.

I don't think it's valid to criticize this as a "placebo" program, a case of posturing, given that they tried to keep it secret. The current airline passenger screening program is posturing, but this wasn't.