Iraqi Chemical Weapons Found…at the UN? Don’t Panic!

Hey, we found the Iraqi WMD’s. They were being stored at the UN! I am sure it will be all over the news by tonight, but it is astonishing how fast the press was all over what really amounts to an act of stupidity, and most certainly not a large public hazard. Sure, one can’t even begin to fathom how disorganized the UN must be to actually lose track of vials that contain chemical weapons (even small amounts), but do a few handful of containers with dangerous chemicals that have been stored in a cabinet for over a decade deserve to be a headline story?

The details are not completely clear yet, but it appears as if there were only a few containers of which, at least one contained liquid phosgene. The UN staff learned of the vials on Friday while they were cleaning out storage cabinets, but it took them until Wednesday to figure out what they were, report them and get them out of the building. These containers have been around since 1996 and are not an imminent threat to public safety because of the small amount of agent reported to be in question.

So we are left with the bizarre fact that someone thought it would be OK to store them in a cabinet at the UN and then somehow they lost track of them. It’s embarrassing to the UN, for sure. Fodder for the Tonight Show monologue? Absolutely. The point should be made that chemicals far more dangerous than a few vials of phosgene (or whatever other chemical weapon they contained) are trucked in and out of cities and stored in large quantities every day. It is the aura of their previous purpose that the press finds sexy, not the true threat. Perhaps it is the culture of fear and panic that we have cultivated in the US that I abhor, but I would much rather spend my time avoiding stories about Lindsey and Paris than another over-hyped story about terrorism or media-perceived danger to the citizenry.

Through the Indian Looking Glass

In an earlier blog (see below), I discussed how, during the Congressional debate about the US-India nuclear deal, even those members of Congress opposed to the deal bent over backwards to declare their support for closer ties between the world’s two largest democracies. And everyone agreed the deal is generous, opens long-closed doors, and sets minimal and perfectly reasonable expectations of India.

So what are we to make of the brouhaha in New Delhi? According to reports in both the Indian and western press, the US-Indian nuclear deal is being denounced, mostly by the communist and allied parties, as an unacceptable constraint on Indian sovereignty. (I want to thank Leonor Tomero for her extremely helpful India news summary.)
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Administration Increases Submarine Nuclear Warhead Production Plan

The slim Mk4A reentry body for the W76-1 warhead. The administration plans to produce 2,000 between 2007 and 2021.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Bush administration has decided to more than double the number of nuclear warheads undergoing an expensive upgrade for potential future deployment on the Navy’s 14 ballistic missile submarines, according to answers provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration in response to questions from the Federation of American Scientists.

The decision preempts a debate in Congress about how the United States should size its future nuclear weapons arsenal.

The upgrade concerns the W76, the most numerous warhead in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The Clinton administration decided to upgrade 25 percent, but the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in 2001 recommended that significantly more warheads had to be upgraded. An assessment completed by the Department of Defense in 2005 increased the plan to 63 percent of the W76 stockpile, corresponding to an estimated 2,000 warheads.

More than just a refurbished weapon, official sources indicate, the new weapon will have significantly increased military capabilities against hard targets.
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CRS on “The Protect America Act”

The controversial amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that were enacted under intense Administration pressure earlier this month are reviewed section-by-section in a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

The legislation, dubbed the “Protect America Act of 2007,” removed legal impediments to the interception of foreign communications that pass through the United States. But it also redefined the terms of the FISA so as to permit increased surveillance of communications involving persons in the United States while curtailing judicial supervision.

The new CRS report offers a careful reading of each provision of the Act.

But instead of fully clarifying its impact, the report serves to highlight just how unclear and indeterminate the new law actually is.

Thus, one provision “could conceivably be interpreted” to apply to parties within the United States. Another provision “might be seen to be susceptible of two possible interpretations.” Still others “appear to” or “would seem to” or “may also” have one uncertain consequence or another.

In other words, the new law bears the hallmarks of its hasty, poorly considered origins.

The new CRS report may help to identify some of the questions that Congress will examine when it revisits the legislation next month.

A copy of the report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “P.L. 110-55, the Protect America Act of 2007: Modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” August 23, 2007.

CRS on Various Topics

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include these (all pdf).

“Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Transformational Diplomacy,” August 23, 2007.

“U.S. Foreign Aid to East and South Asia: Selected Recipients,” updated August 22, 2007.

“The Role of National Oil Companies in the International Oil Market,” August 21, 2007.

“The War Crimes Act: Current Issues,” updated July 23, 2007.

“Manipulating Molecules: Federal Support for Nanotechnology Research,” updated August 2, 2007.

The FBI as an Intelligence Organization

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has increasingly supplemented its traditional law enforcement role with new intelligence and counterterrorism functions, now says its paramount objective is to “prevent, disrupt, and defeat terrorist operations before they occur.”

New domestic intelligence collection activities that have been adopted in pursuit of this goal are described in unusual detail in the Bureau’s 2008 budget request (pdf).

Special attention is given to cultivating human intelligence sources.

“The FBI recruits new CHSs [confidential human sources] every day,” the budget request notes. But without increased budget support, the FBI says it will not be possible to validate these sources and to determine the credibility of the information they provide.

“With current resources, the FBI is unable to reach a point where all CHSs are successfully subjected to the CHSV [confidential human source validation] process.”

The budget request refers in passing to “more than 15,000” confidential human sources requiring validation (page 4-24).

The FBI also seeks new funds for intelligence collection training and operations.

“Without this training, the FBI would lack the full capacity to provide SAs [special agents] the comprehensive tradecraft, procedural, legal and policy direction needed to execute the significant and constitutionally sensitive domestic intelligence collection mission with confidence,” the budget document states (page 4-27).

The FBI’s budgetary focus on expanding its human intelligence capability was first reported by Justin Rood of ABC News. See “FBI Proposes Building Network of U.S. Informants,” July 25.

The same FBI budget document provides significant new detail on other FBI intelligence and counterterrorism activities, as well as the FBI open source program, the National Virtual Translation Center, and other initiatives.

The Washington Post reported that there were nearly 20,000 positive matches of individuals seeking to enter the United States who were flagged by the Terrorist Screening Center, according to the FBI budget request. Despite the surprisingly large figure, only a small number of arrests resulted.

See “Terror Suspect List Yields Few Arrests” by Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 25.

Domestic Use of Spy Satellites Questioned

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee scolded Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week for failing to notify him of plans to expand the use of intelligence satellites for homeland security applications.

“Unfortunately, I have had to rely on media reports to gain information about this endeavor because neither I nor my staff was briefed on the decision to create this new office prior to the public disclosure of this effort,” wrote Rep. Bennie Thompson in an August 22 letter (pdf) to Secretary Chertoff (who has been mentioned as a possible nominee to replace Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General).

“I need you to provide me with an immediate assurance that upon its October 1st roll out, this program will be operating within the confines of the Constitution and all applicable laws and regulations,” Chairman Thompson wrote.

“Additionally, because I have not been informed of the existence of this program for over a two year period, I am requesting that for the next six weeks, you provide me with bi-weekly briefings on the progress of the [National Applications Office] working groups.”

The Thompson letter as well as the new homeland security initiative were first reported in the Wall Street Journal.

A Washington Post editorial said that any use of spy satellites for domestic monitoring “must be accompanied… by robust protections for privacy and civil liberties.” The failure to properly advise Congress was “not a comforting start for a landmark change.”

See, relatedly, “Politician blasts Chertoff on spy satellite plans” by Carol Eisenberg, Newsday, August 24.

Army JAG Issues Operational Law Handbook

A comprehensive introduction to military operational law is presented in a new edition of the Operational Law Handbook (pdf) published by the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General.

The Handbook, intended for the use of judge advocates, describes tactics and techniques for the practice of operational law.

Along the way, it provides a useful survey of the laws of war, human rights law, prisoner detainment policy, the use of contractors alongside military forces, and intelligence law, among other topics.

“Because intelligence is so important to the commander, operational lawyers must understand the basics of intelligence law, including how law and policy pertain to the collection of human intelligence, such as interrogation operations,” the Handbook states.

See “Operational Law Handbook,” The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, July 2007 (667 pages, 6 MB PDF file).

Uranium spill hidden from public because of NRC policy

A very disturbing report in yesterday’s Guardian details how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sealed records for two companies that manufacture and store highly enriched uranium in 2004. This was after some “protected information” regarding the Navy’s nuclear program were found on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website. I am not sure what “protected information” is, but it apparently included “papers about the policy itself and more than 1,740 documents from the commission’s public archive.” This in effect hid from the public both information regarding their Navy work and records unrelated to the Navy’s work including the plant’s safety records.

YIKES! One incident hidden from the public was a rather disturbing spill of 9 gallons of uranium in 2006 at privately owned Nuclear Fuel Services Inc located in Erwin, Tennessee. While it is unclear how concentrated the liquid was, it is unlikely that it was enough to spontaneously detonate at the kiloton level, but certainly could have caused a nuclear chain reaction and explosion. It really depends upon how much uranium was in the liquid. To the NRC’s credit they later decided that this was a significant enough of an incident that they overrode the policy to make sure that Congress was made aware of it in their annual report, which included reference to three “abnormal occurrences.” In total there were nine violations or test failures that were hidden from the public since 2005 at the company, which has been supplying nuclear fuel to the Navy since the 1960’s.

From the Guardian:

“While reviewing the commission’s public Web page in 2004, the Department of Energy’s Office of Naval Reactors found what it considered protected information about Nuclear Fuel Service’s work for the Navy. The commission responded by sealing every document related to Nuclear Fuel Services and BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, Va., the only two companies licensed by the agency to manufacture, possess and store highly enriched uranium.”

Not really an open book: What I find astonishing is that even after the cat was out of the bag, neither the NRC nor the Department of Energy posted information relating to the incident or the policy on their websites. I certainly understand the principle of not making bad news a bigger story than it already is, but if history tells us anything we know that it is much better to come clean about these things before you get embarrassed by the press.

History of violations: Nuclear Fuel Services seems to have a history of problems that go back some time. On July 30 of this year a “confirmatory order” was published in the Federal Register that details some of this history and the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had to go into arbitration with the company over the issues.

From the Federal Register:

“Given the number and repetitive nature of some of the apparent violations, the parties acknowledged that: (1) Past disposition of violations via the enforcement policy had not resulted in NFS’s development of corrective actions capable of preventing recurrence of violations; (2) a deficient safety culture at NFS appeared to be a contributor to the recurrence of violations; and (3) a comprehensive, third party review and assessment of the safety culture at NFS represented the best approach for the identification and development of focused, relevant and lasting corrective actions.”

The order was originally issued in February of this year, but was not released because of the NRC policy. For what it is worth, the company issued a public response to the order on their web page.