Location: United States

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Hoax or Lie?

One of the reasons I began to study politics was that I know some things that the general public doesn't. I don't mean I've witnessed any sort of secret discussions on government conspiracies or anything. I simply mean that I am a graduate of the US Navy's Nuclear Power School and that I have knowledge that people who haven't been in that sort of program do not have. I'm sure everyone who reads this can say that about something, so I'm not claiming that I'm so much smarter or better anyone. I just want to establish that I do have a fairly good understanding of the technical part of the topic I'm about to discuss with you.

The Bush Administration has admitted that it has circumvented legal channels to place wiretaps to listen to certain individuals' private conversations. It has also admitted that it monitored mosques for radiation. Nuclear power school didn't prepare me to comment on the technical nature of wire-tapping - though I was trained as an electrician, and it's fairly easy to tap a phone. It did give me a basic understanding of methods used to monitor radiation sources. It is this understanding that leads me to conclude that someone in the Bush Administration is simply lying about monitoring mosques.

To understand what I'm talking about, you may want to read this article. In it, the Bush Administration claims that it monitored mosques without targeting based on faith.

Excuse me? Am I missing something? Are there Christian mosques out there? Hindu mosques? Pagan mosques?

Isn't the word "mosque" used solely to describe places set aside for Islamic worship?

So right there, it's an outright lie.

A more honest answer would be "We targeted mosques because every single one of the hijackers on 9/11 worshipped at a mosque. All of our intelligence indicated that mosques might be used as part of a black-market shipment system. However, faith was not the only criterion used to determine which mosques should be monitored."

Before I go on, I'll say that I believe the government was right to consider mosques (and temples, synagogues, churches) as legitimate locations for surveillance. I also believe that, if specific intelligence said nuclear material was being held or moved, that radiation monitoring is the right step to take.

I don't believe that they would have to circumvent the legal protections afforded people and the institutions they comprise. I also don't believe this statement:

"We have not violated the law; we have not violated the Constitution; we have not gone on private property," Mason said.

"Mason" is Michael Mason, who oversees the Washington Field Office of the FBI.

Mason's statement is either a lie or a statement of incompetance. You cannot adequately monitor a building for dangerous radiation without going into it. Let me explain why.

First, understand that we are talking about monitoring gamma waves. The way an area is monitored is that a device is placed in the area that contains material that interacts with gamma waves. The renown "Geiger counter" is one type of such device, generally refered to as dosimeters (because they "meter" the "dose" of radiation). If you use the wrong kind of dosimeter, you will get a false reading - so you have to know exactly what isotope your are checking for.

Now, it is possible that Agent Mason is actually telling us that they have a room next-door to a mosque that is well-equipped with several different types of dosimeters to ensure proper measurements. Possible. That still wouldn't give too accurate of a reading, though.

Why? Because there are three things that lower dosage of radiation: time, distance, and shielding. Time should be self-explanitory. A radioactive isotope emits particles because bits of its atomic material are breaking free. Eventually, a lump of any radioactive material will simply cease to be radioactive. You just have to wait a few million years for most of them.

Shielding is another matter. Just like visible light can penetrate some materials (lamp-shade) but not others (concrete wall), gamma waves can also penetrate some material better than other materials. In general, materials that are dense and/or have higher atomic numbers are harder to penetrate - meaning they are better shields. That's why the X-ray tech stands behind that stupid wall to zap your bones (as well as being the reason that your bones show up when it is done).

Just as decay-rates are measured by half-lifes, shielding is measured by the thickness of a material that will cut the exposure in half, which is called "half-thickness". In general (and there are exceptions) lead's half-thickness is 1 inch, about 2.5 inches of concrete, about 3.5 inches of packed dirt, around 24 inches of water, etc.

So, let's say you are in a brick building that is built adjacent to a mosque that is also made of brick. A standard masonry brick is about 2.5 inches thick - roughly one half-thickness (for shielding purposes, a brick is very close to concrete). That means there are two half-thicknesses minimum between a potential source in a mosque basement and the adjoining basement where the monitor is. That means that any potential radiation from that source is cut to at least one-fourth of what it would otherwise be. If they simply put a lead shield up, then it would be halved again.

Here's the rub, though. Anyone who put a gamma source on a table and walked away from it uncovered is simply begging for sickness and a painful death. They would at least cover it in a lead box that would be a minimum of one inch thick. If it was two inches thick; then the radiation right next to the box would be quartered. The FBI monitor on the other side of the basement wall would be trying to detect radiation at one-sixteenth the level of the source.

Here's another problem. To properly detect anything, the dosimeter has to be zeroed out - it has to be calibrated to not count background radiation. There is always background radiation, too. You can't get away from it. So if you zero it out in the room you are monitoring from, then you are going to detect nothing. If you zero it out somewhere else, then you run the risk of getting a false reading. Dosimeters are susceptible to being shaken - meaning that you can force it to detect radiation if you shake it hard enough. That's the whole reason why you have to re-calibrate it with every use.

The best way to test is to get into the suspect room and walk around (in protective gear) with a personal broad-range dosimeter. That, however, would definitely require going onto private property.

There are ways to compensate for all of these problems. The point is that you have to already know what you are looking for to jump in and search for it. Otherwise, you end up with a false sense of security that can be dangerous, even life-threatening. The only thing worse than violating the Constitution to keep us safe would be to violate the Constitution to keep us safe and end up not protecting us at all. Incompetence heaped upon illegal and, quite possibly, unethical behavior does no one service.

Or, it's all just a cruel lie.


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