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With the war in Gaza, focus is also returning to the issue of Iran and its nuclear weapons program. Elections in Israel (February) and Iran (June) are critical. In the former, hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu had been seen as the frontrunner but the Gaza conflict will shape the attitudes of the electorate. Just how can not be determined, but the level of casualties Israelis take is important. In Iran, while President Ahmadinejad is struggling with a sick economy and far lower oil prices, he continues to be the pick for June. In the end, though, it’s all about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. If he wants Ahmadinejad to get another term, Khamenei will give his blessing and a win will be assured. If Khamenei sees the costs of an Ahmadinejad victory outweighing the benefits, then the Ayatollah will throw his support to former President Mohammad Khatami. Regardless, as I note in my “Week in Review” column of 1/3/09, Israeli President Shimon Peres does not want a President Obama negotiating with Iranian leaders until the June vote. Peres is afraid Obama would be legitimizing Ahmadinejad.
On the nuclear front, specifically, a major concern of the United States with Iran’s program is that a bomb and/or enriched material could wind up in the hands of terrorists. U.S. officials believe any nuclear-armed terrorist organization will receive the weapon or key parts from a nation rather than through its own efforts, and thus the response to an act of nuclear terrorism is dependent on determining where the weapon originated.
Intelligence historian Jeffrey Richelson writes in a new book “Defusing Armageddon,” that technological advancements have helped to prepare the U.S. to identify the source.
“Not only can intelligence help prevent a nuclear terrorist attack, but also in the event one occurs, it may be able to identify the entity responsible and those who contributed, particularly by providing a bomb or components,” Richelson writes.
As Robert Windrem reported on MSNBC recently concerning Richelson’s findings:
“Should a nuclear strike occur, heat-detecting Defense Support Program satellites and Global Positioning System satellites would be used to find the exact location of detonation. An Air Force WC-135 equipped with radiation sensors and sampling technology would be used to collect debris from the event; Richelson noted, though, that the number of operating aircraft has dropped from 10 during the Cold War to one today.
“A nuclear-signature database, produced through U.S. intelligence efforts, could help identify the nation of origin of the highly enriched uranium or plutonium used to fuel the bomb.”
“The possibility of attribution stems from the fact that every nuclear device has distinct signatures. These include physical, chemical, elemental and isotopic properties that provide clues as to what material was in the weapons and its construction. The shape, size, and texture of the material would determine the bomb’s physical signature. The bomb’s unique molecular components would determine the device’s chemical signatures.”
So by comparing the hard evidence with a database, you narrow the field of viable suspects tremendously, and, with other available intelligence, probably nail the source, and in fairly short order. It should not be hard to determine whether the device was from an extremist organization producing a bomb without outside support, or a nation.
Human intelligence thus becomes critical and the nuclear databases are key to the detection effort, Richelson says. If that does not occur, “confidence that the United States does not have samples of a country’s nuclear DNA might make that country willing to provide terrorists with a bomb or nuclear material.”
Both Vice President-elect Biden and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton have supported additional funding for U.S. nuclear forensics and detection efforts.
Today, though, Richelson concedes “It may be easier to determine who was behind a terrorist nuclear attack than to prevent it.”
Personally, I just hope some of our best and brightest who may have gravitated towards the financial industry in the past now look to careers in our intelligence and scientific apparatuses.
In a related piece by Elaine M. Grossman of Global Security Newswire and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, she writes that “The U.S. Army’s ability to help restore public order after a large-scale domestic terrorist attack – a mission the president could assign to federal troops during a crisis – is in doubt, according to a number of critics.
“The Defense Department, deeply cognizant of public aversion to martial law, has generally been reticent to discuss the possibility that federal troops might be ordered to patrol U.S. streets following a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.”
Instead, the states would rely on local police and National Guard forces and only in cases where a governor specifically requested federal help “for overwhelmed first responders, or if a president determined such assistance was necessary, would federal military forces play a potential law-and-order role, according to U.S. officials.”
But as Elaine Grossman writes, “a new 4,700-troop unit – formed under an unwieldy moniker, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-yield Explosive Consequence Management Response Force – would not assume any law-enforcement role, command officials emphasized.”
The Northern Command has U.S. homeland security responsibilities but critics say it hasn’t spent enough time preparing federal troops for a role in patrolling the streets. “The concern is that without proper training, federal troops could unwittingly compound an already intense situation with inappropriate applications of force.”
I have to admit I just assumed the military, beyond the National Guard, was ready to fill in where needed in the event of a large-scale nuclear or chemical attack. I was aware, for example, of the Posse Comitatus Act you’ve all heard of, that normally prevents the U.S. military from conducting day-to-day operations. But Ms. Grossman notes:
“A law dating back to 1807 gives the president the authority to assign active-duty soldiers a law-enforcement role on U.S. soil only under very narrow circumstances, when a state requires assistance in subduing violence. The Insurrection Act’s terms have been invoked just a handful of times over the past 50 years.
“In 1992, President George H.W. Bush exercised the law when he sent federal troops to respond to riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict.”
What’s clear is that in our new world, Congress hasn’t defined under what circumstances the military can be called in and, in turn, the Northern Command needs to do a better job of identifying the troops that could move in quickly and train them for a different role than they’re used to.
Incidentally, James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation homeland security expert, believes up to 60,000 skilled and equipped troops would be needed to respond to a massive incident in the first 72 hours. “That is the time frame in which the most lives can be saved, he said.” [Elaine Grossman]
President George W. Bush next week.