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  • A Nuclear 9/11: Can we Defeat Nuclear Terrorism by Securing the Ports?

    Posted on September 27th, 2010 Helian No comments

    In a word, no.  Anyone who wants to smuggle the key ingredients (highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium, otherwise known as special nuclear material, or SNM) needed to make a nuclear weapon into this country can easily do so, and the installation of any combination of the most sophisticated radiation dectection devices on the planet at our ports will do nothing to alter the fact.  The idea that lots of expensive detection equipment at our ports, or any other ports, will significantly reduce the terrorist nuclear danger is based on a fallacy:  that terrorists capable of securing enough SNM to build a bomb will be brain dead.  They would have to be brain dead to try to sneak SNM past sophisticated detectors when there are a virtually unlimited number of ways one could get it into the country without taking that risk.  It’s not necessary to smuggle a nuclear weapon in one piece.  It could be brought in broken down into small components and assembled at the target.  The SNM could be smuggled across our borders in pieces small enough to be virtually undetectable by backpackers, on commercially available mini-submarines, light aircraft, small pleasure boats, or what have you.  The SNM could then be assembled and easily fabricated into any desired weapons configuration in place.  The whole debate about defeating nuclear terrorism sounds like it’s being conducted in a lunatic asylum.

    For example, The Daily Caller (hattip Instapundit) cites a GAO report to the effect that, ”

    The nation’s ports and border crossings remain vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 despite a $4 billion investment since 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a number of programs aimed at preventing nuclear smuggling around the world.

    Senators similarly admonished DHS in a recent Senate hearing for failing to uphold its end of the bargain with the American people.

    “Terrorists have made clear their desire to secure a nuclear weapon,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said at the Sept. 15 hearing. “Given this stark reality, we must ask: what has the department done to defend against nuclear terrorism on American soil? The answer, unfortunately, is not enough… not nearly enough.”

    The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for the domestic aspect of DHS’s nuclear terror deterrence, received approximately half of the $4 billion investment, which it spent deploying over 1,400 radiation monitors at the nation’s seaports and border crossings in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

    But these radiation monitors have a serious flaw: they can only detect radiation from lightly shielded radiation sources.

    The only problem is that spending billions more to fix this “flaw” won’t help, unless you happen to have invested your nest egg in detection equipment.  The article continues,

    The GAO report uncovered a bureaucratic nightmare involving DNDO and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which resulted in the failure to properly develop and deploy detection equipment that could detect radiation from heavily shielded sources.

    DNDO began working shortly after its founding in April 2005 on what it called the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) and the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) ̶ intended to automatically detect radiation from heavily shielded sources in a user-friendly fashion in order to screen cargo containers in the nation’s ports and border crossings.

    In the first place, radiation detection equipment doesn’t come in just two flavors; “good for heavily shielded sources” and “not good for heavily shielded sources.”  There are a great number of different types, all with their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of sensitivity, energy resolution, etc.  In the second place, it doesn’t matter what kind are installed at the ports, because terrorists will simply bypass them.  The whole port security paradigm is based on the premise that our opponents, in spite of their ability to acquire SNM in the first place, will be bone stupid.  They won’t, and there are much more effective ways to spend all the money we are throwing down this particular rathole.

    The article goes on to cite Cato Institute budget analyst Tad DeHaven, who plays a familiar broken record to demagogue the sheep:

    They are not subject to market forces and other controls, so they can screw up federal money,” DeHaven said. “There are not going to be any angry shareholders, and in most cases you are not going to lose your job, so the incentives for the federal government to efficiently and effectively procure goods … are poor.”

    One wonders if he reallly gets paid to churn out such hackneyed stuff.  Tell me, Tad, do you actually know anything about the people who work for DNDO?  Did it ever occur to you that many of them might be ex-military, that they might be highly motivated and dedicated to their country’s welfare, and that it’s not out of the question that they care a great deal about working to “efficiently and effectively procure goods”?  You might actually try meeting and talking to some of them.  They work just down the street from you.  Did it ever occur to you that the problem might not be their lack of patriotism and dedication, but the fact that they’ve been given an impossible task?  And BTW, no, I don’t work for DNDO or DHS.

    The article concludes in a somewhat more sober vein,

    Heritage Foundation homeland security analyst Jena Baker-McNeill instead blames Congress for setting what she sees as an unrealistic goal of inspecting every container that passes through the nation’s ports and border crossings. Congress imposed the goal for political reasons without considering its practical implications, she said. Baker-McNeill believes more emphasis should have been placed on increased intelligence aimed at intercepting nuclear smugglers abroad due to the volume of cargo that enters the country and limited resources.

    It seems to me Ms. Baker-McNeill might be on to something.  If we’re going to spend money to defeat nuclear terrorism, I suspect it will be much better spent on finding ways to keep terrorists from getting their hands on SNM in the first place.  Once they do, we can install the most efficient radiation detectors with the most clever software ever devised at all our ports, and it won’t deter them in the slightest.  We will only have bought ourselves a dangerous sense of false security.

  • Homeland Security: The Left and the Right Converge

    Posted on September 8th, 2010 Helian No comments

    We live in an age of political conformity. The orthodoxies of the Left and Right are constantly reinforced in the echo chambers of the Internet and the other media of mass communication. Read a fragment of someone’s opinion on any of the hot button issues of the day, and, assuming they take an active interest in politics, you will know their opinion on every other hot button issue as well. One rarely comes across manifestations of independent thought. The phenomenon is familiar to students of our species. Humans are predisposed to belong to an “in-group,” and react to those who don’t belong, or, in other words, to the “out-group,” with hatred and loathing. Human culture has advanced a great deal in the last several thousand years. Now the in-groups and out-groups are no longer limited to neighboring bands of primitive hunter-gatherers, but can be global in scope, with millions of members. No matter, the basic behavioral trait is still the same, and is as characteristic and predictable as ever.

    It is therefore of surpassing interest to find the Left and the Right agreeing on anything. The neutered mummies of ideas they represent are usually carefully manicured to conflict, not converge. Still, it seems to me I’ve found an example in a recent article about Homeland Security by Fareed Zakaria on the Left, which was answered with all the usual overblown indignation and outrage by N. M. Guariglia on the Right.

    The point of apparent agreement is the excessive and wasteful nature of the government’s response to 911. As Zakaria puts it:

    Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet—the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built—at a cost of $3.4 billion—to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.

    After running on in the same vein for awhile, he concludes with a pro forma appeal to the Founding Fathers:

    Surely this usurpation is more worrisome than a few federal stimulus programs. When James Madison pondered this issue, he came to a simple conclusion: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germs of every other … In war, too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended…and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.”

    Guariglia couches his agreement with the fundamental thesis of the article within a furious attack on Zakaria, who, as usual, is found to be both evil and stupid for daring to meddle with the boards of the ideological box he lives in. For example, by suggesting our response to 911 has been exaggerated, he is agreeing with all the fools who don’t realize that Saddam’s finger was within a hairs breadth of the nuclear trigger:

    …nobody believed Saddam had a “nuclear arsenal” in the 1990s. That’s because after we defeated him in 1991, we discovered he was but six months to a year away from developing an atomic bomb.

    He is an honorary dupe of Soviet Communism, even though the Soviet Union has been dead and buried for nigh on two decades:

    Soviet expansionism was real: Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola, Romania, martial law in Poland. Communist insurgencies had sprung up around the world. Eastern Europe was under the Politburo’s dominion. Dissidents were kidnapped and thrown in gulags. Hell, if it weren’t for a disobedient colonel in 1983 they would have nuked us! (Unsurprisingly, the article he links completely debunks this claim).

    He is a bleeding heart idealist for opposing torture, which must be a wonderful thing, because, after all, the torturers assured us that it was quite effective:

    Obama knows water-boarding worked and saved American lives, and he knows Americans would be supportive of the practice in such a case, so he would therefore rather keep this issue in the dark than vindicate the worldview of Dick Cheney and the Weekly Standard.

    …and so on in response to the similarly fossilized and homogenized pronouncements of Zakaria. However, in the midst of it all he says,

    There’s some truth to these last points. Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security could have been put in the FBI. Perhaps the director of national intelligence could have been put in the CIA. Perhaps the federal government could be fighting this war far more effectively — and cost-effectively. But all this speaks to government incompetence, mismanagement, and red tape. It says nothing of our “overreaction” to 9/11.

    In other words, he’s in substantial agreement with the main point Zakaria is trying to make. He just considers it heretical to admit that the overreaction was really an “overreaction.” Whatever. Surprisingly enough, I, too, concur in this furious agreement. The next time we have to deal with a national emergency, I suggest we resist the usual urge to create another massive government bureaucracy to “save” us. Such efforts are not likely to be any more effective in the future than they have been in the past.