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Friday, December 30, 2005

A Lie or a Hoax: Part Two

Micah Sifry often says that first thing to remember about writing for the public is that the public will always know more than you do. Even in areas where you think you know something, this remains true. Yesterday, I cross-posted Hoax or Lie over at Daily Kos and was pleased, and very surprised (and equally gratified), to see my post rank tops in the "Recommended Diary" list. This brought close to two hundred comments (several of which are my replies) on the targeting of mosques, the overall war on terror, and the progress of physics in the last twenty years.

The wonderful thing about blogging is that this all occurred in real-time - rather than firing off a letter to the editor of some newspaper and waiting if the author would correct the mistakes that were exposed. There were, in fact, mistakes. In my defense, they were honest ones and the more physicist-y commenters agreed that, working on twenty year old knowledge, that I had pegged a real problem. However, newer technologies have made it possible to detect a single proton escaping a concrete block and determine from what type of atom it escaped. So, my apologies to Michael Mason, the director of Field Operations for the FBI in Washington, for my assertion that he was either lying or perpetrating a hoax. My apologies, as well, to everyone who was mis-led by my statements to that effect.

The commentors also brought up a different matter that I believe is deserving of attention. Several news stories or related personal stories of people who had set off radiation moitoring equipment after having been treated for cancer with nuclear isotopes. With the twenty year old equipment with which I am familiar, that is understandable. With the use of spectrometry - the newer technology - it isn't.

I live about a mile away from the Holland Tunnel - a main artery to NYC through which millions of cars pass each day. Truck traffic is diverted up to the Lincoln Tunnel or the George Washington Bridge. Security at these vital transportation sites has supposedly been upgraded, and - at least at times - includes radiological monitoring. More than once, this monitoring has led to false positive alarms from cancer patients. My first question, once the technical nature of things had been overcome, was: Why is this technology not deployed for the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and G.W. Bridge? When reports of false alarms at border crossings were related, I had to wonder why the best technology was not deployed there, as well.

I do believe, as John Kerry stated:

Mr. President, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the most important issues facing the United States today. Since the end of the Cold War, we have made great strides in reducing the danger to the American people of the vast nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union. But the nuclear danger persists, and the job of nuclear arms control is far from finished. Multiple nuclear tests detonated by India and Pakistan emphasize the need for greater U.S. leadership on this critical issue--not less.


That was in 1999, by the way - so don't dismiss it as Presidential candidate-speak.

That proliferation has to include, not only formal nuclear weapons, but also what the Navy taught me to refer to as "Loss of RAM" - anytime RadioActive Material was not properly contained and controlled. In other words, it isn't enough to monitor silos to make sure weapons remain encased, but you have to make sure that small amounts of material is not taken from them and sold off on the blackmarket. You also have to look at the possible loss of legitimate medical radioactive technologies - such as the x-ray sources used all over the place - as a possible source for black market material.

There are few things in the world that a person with a lot of money cannot acquire if they set their mind and wallet to doing so. Nuclear material is no different in this respect than any other controlled substance. Not only do we have to make it as difficult as possible for people to acquire this material if they have no legitimate use for it, but we must also plan for contingencies where such legitimate material is lost or stolen.

So, I don't find it to be alarming that the FBI was monitoring suspected sites for radiation. I think it would be a dereliction of duty to not do so. There are a few things that still bother me - though I freely admit that it may simply be a lack of access to classified information. I'm not saying that every citizen should have access to every security measure, either. A good part of maintaining security is keeping some of your security measures visible - a show of force - and some secret - so no one can plan in advance how to subvert them.

From a security standpoint, monitoring a single mosque - or even several hundred of them - is of limited use. All it can tell you is that there is nothing to be concerned about at this specific time (though there may be some residual radiation from inadvertant contamination). It can't accurate guarantee the past and there is no way to guarantee the future - for that, you have to have continuous monitoring.

From a perpective terrorist's point of view, this makes it somewhat easy to foil - simply avoid storing material in the mosque. Security that is easy to foil is simply one of two things - a hoax or a lie.

It makes more sense to use your best equipment at the point where it will do the most good - which means putting it someplace where it will actually monitor multiple potential threats. Logically, the first line of defense would have to be the borders and shipping ports. There are thousands, if not millions, of entry points into the country. However, the number of places to hide nuclear material once it is inside the country are at least a thousand-fold more numerous -meaning there are probably billions (if not trillions) of places to hide stuff inside the country. If our laws and regulations are doing an adequate job of monitoring and controlling nuclear material generated within the country (and I'm not sure if they are or not); then the logical step from that point is to stop outside sources from coming in.

There are some indications that this sort of project may not be getting the type of funding it needs to be successful. While it's great to force Latin American ports to get tougher on nuclear monitoring, it does no good if our own ports are unprotected.

The only references I can honestly find to nuclear monitoring at the NYC tunnel/bridge crossings has to do with the Republican National Convention. Is NYC really that much less of a target without the RNC? I know the tunnels at Baltimore and Norfolk are busy and strategically important - as are the Golden Gate, the Verrazano Narrows, and Brooklyn bridges (to begin naming a few). Each of these is an entryway to a large population of people, business, and/or military targets for terrorism. Each of them would provide an opportunity to screen innumerable numbers of possible carriers of nuclear material more than any single structure, or group of structures.

Perhaps all of these measures are already being taken and we are just unaware of them. It is possible that the false alarms came during transition periods when second-rate equipment was deemed better than no equipment at all. At this distance from 9/11, however, the onus of protection - and proof - lies fully on the shoulders of the Bush Administration. Frisking Al Gore and monitoring mosques may be part of an overall plan, but a deterrant effect is not achieved unless enough measures are known to discourage potential criminals. At this point, no one is the Bush Administration has hinted at such plans - or even at the desire to make such plans and implement them.

This renders the flurry of activity over spying and unwarranted monitoring one of two things: a lie or a hoax.

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