- Jeff - Here is confirmation of radiological surveys and
searches being done in New York City, Washington D.C. and other cities
as we discussed on your program more than a month ago. A Department of
Energy drawing depicting a radiation detecting helicopter and its sensor
pod is attached. I've been to similar radiological exercises as mentioned
in the report at Fort Indiantown Gap near Annville PA.. Initial responders
can't do much but evacuate the area. In the event of a spent reactor fuel
truck crash - they can only dump sand until special units arrive.
- Nuclear Shadow - Mobile Teams Hunt For Atomic
- By Fred Kaplan Boston Globe Staff
- NEW YORK - In the days and
months following Sept. 11, helicopters hovered more intently than usual
over New York City's docks and bridges - and, in Washington, over the
Capitol and White House.
They looked like ordinary helicopters, but inside them scientists from
the national nuclear-weapons laboratories were scanning the landscape with
invisible beams that they hoped would detect the radioactive elements
of a terrorist's nuclear bomb.
The helicopters and the scientists are among the main assets of a little-known
agency inside the US Department of Energy called the Nuclear Emergency
NEST is a small program with a $77 million budget. Its scientists, who
number about 750, are all volunteers from the Energy Department's weapons
labs, working on rotating call. But their mission - to protect the countless
bridges, tunnels, ports, skyscrapers, and monuments in American cities
from a terrorist's nuclear strike - is almost imponderably daunting in
this era of permanent alert.
It is a task complicated by the bureaucratic thicket that has encircled
the agency throughout its 28-year history. Rooted in the Energy Department,
NEST assists the FBI and reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency
and the Pentagon. (President Bush's reorganization would place it in the
new Department of Homeland Security.)
Still, if terrorists ever try to sneak a nuclear weapon or a ''dirty bomb''
- a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material - into the
country, NEST will form the front line of defense.
''I don't know how effective this would have been if there had been a bomb
somewhere,'' a senior law-enforcement official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said of NEST's post-Sept. 11 activities. ''You can't search
everything, and there are ways to shield nuclear materials from detectors.
The fact is, we're a wide-open society. We're vulnerable. There's only
so much you can do, but you've got to do what you can.''
- Since Sept. 11, NEST has been doing much more. Besides
the helicopter patrols, teams have been driving around urban areas in vans
known as ''Hot Spot Mobile Labs,'' armed with instruments that detect
alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron radiation. Other teams are equipped with
backpacks that hold smaller detectors.
Last October, when intelligence agencies warned that a ''dirty bomb'' might
be placed in lower Manhattan, NEST technicians stood with FBI agents and
police, waving hand-held hazardous-material detectors across the thousands
of trucks that were stopped and searched.
''We put a lot more hand-held detectors out on the streets after that report,''
the law enforcement official said.
Though the effort has relaxed somewhat since the October scare, one official
said NEST units still go on random, weekly search missions in different
cities, focusing on ports, warehouse districts, and other locations where
a smuggled weapon might be housed.
NEST was started in 1974 after an extortionist threatened to explode a
nuclear bomb in Boston if he didn't receive $200,000. The threat turned
out to be a hoax, but federal officials were horrified that they had no
way of responding had it been real.
Since then, NEST scientists have been deployed on occasional real-life
patrols - in Washington, D.C., during the Bicentennial and in Atlanta and
Salt Lake City during the Olympics. However, not until recently have they
conducted so many missions on such a far-flung, prolonged basis.
Since September, NEST's budget for radiation-detectors has doubled, and
the nation's weapons labs - Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia
- are developing and rapidly deploying smaller and more refined models.
As of the middle of last year, NEST had only four helicopters and three
fixed-wing aircraft based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Andrews
Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. (One official said he had heard that
the fleet has been enlarged, though a spokesman for the program would
The teams are on 24-hour call, and more of its members are now stationed
in the field. Still, it could take several hours to fly them to a threat
`Mirage Gold' exercise tarnished by insider tips
Time was not especially crucial in the 20 simulated field exercises that
NEST and other agencies jointly conducted from 1986 to 2001. But the scenarios
for those war games were based on a pre-Sept. 11 premise: terrorists,
usually domestic militia groups, threatening to detonate a weapon if they
didn't get a substantial amount of money. Nuclear-emergency teams had
days to respond. In a threat involving a group like Al Qaeda, every minute
of response time could matter.
Whatever the circumstances of a real threat, the field exercises have been
less than reassuring to the officials who analyzed them. In March 1996,
a Senate subcommittee chaired by then-Senator Sam Nunn held hearings and
reached what the panel called ''disconcerting'' conclusions about the
The main problem, according to the panel's staff report: ''Our agencies
are still suffering from their own inability to transcend age-old turf
battles ... Problems with coordination and information-sharing among government
agencies continue, despite recent efforts to resolve them at the highest
levels of the CIA and FBI'' - a finding echoed in recent revelations about
interagency foul-ups just prior to Sept. 11.
Nunn's subcommittee focused mainly on ''Mirage Gold,'' a five-day exercise
in October 1994 that involved more than 1,000 officials and played out
a scenario in which members of a fictitious militia group, the Patriots
for National Unity, threatened to explode a nuclear bomb in New Orleans.
The test's organizers claimed that the bomb was found and defused. But
an official report by Rear Admiral Charles J. Beers Jr., then a deputy
assistant secretary of defense, found that the exercise was ''conducted
in a manner to `stack the deck' in favor of unrealistic success.'' Specifically,
the game's players were ''inappropriately leaked'' information about the
bomb's location and technical features.
''Basically, we lost New Orleans,'' John Sopko, the Senate panel's former
chief counsel, recalled in an interview last week about the exercise,
The Beers report prompted a comprehensive review of NEST by Duane C. Sewell,
a former assistant secretary of energy, who concluded that the agency
needed more money, more field exercises, and a more streamlined bureaucracy.
Some of the suggestions were followed. In the decade before Nunn's hearings,
NEST had taken part in just four field tests. Over the next five years,
it would take part in 16 - four times as many tests in half the time.
Exercise underscores lack of communication
The biggest of these exercises, ''Operation Topoff,'' was a five-day exercise
in May 2000 mandated by the Senate at a cost of $3.5 million. Chaired
by top officials of the Justice and Defense departments and involving
more than 300 other officials, Topoff simulated three simultaneous terrorist
strikes: chemical weapons in Portsmouth, N.H., biological weapons in Denver,
and a dirty bomb in Washington, D.C.
Several officials pronounced Topoff a success. At a July 2000 meeting of
the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think
tank, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, then a counterterrorism specialist at the National
Security Council, called Topoff ''nearly flawless'' and proclaimed that
''After the exercise, I'm now one of the most optimistic people in the
A senior Senate staff member who closely followed Topoff while it was going
on laughed when told of this remark. Topoff, the staff member said, ''was
a patchwork of different agencies going off into their own ether worlds,
with no centralized strategy or plan to put it all together.''
He also said no ''after-action report'' was written, or at least none was
provided to the Senate, which had ordered and funded the exercise.
However, a former high-ranking Pentagon official said the Justice Department
did complete such a report last year. ''It's a huge document,'' the official
said, but the Bush administration ''won't let it get out of the building.''
The former official agreed with the Senate staff member's assessment of
the exercise. ''Were there problems involving interagency coordination?''
he said. ''Sure. They were huge.''
He also said, ''Topoff is not a realistic assessment of how these things
really work. Any time you get a politically-ordered exercise, the people
who conduct it are not going to fail.''
As with Mirage Gold, though not so blatantly, the test was set up in a
way to maximize the chances of success.
''For instance,'' the official said, ''six weeks before this supposedly
`no-notice' exercise, the FBI leased 11 T-1 phone lines and installed them
in an empty warehouse that it planned on using as a command post.
''Now there are two ways to interpret this,'' he added. ''The cynical interpretation
is that they prearranged things so there'd be no snafus. The charitable
interpretation is that when you're doing an exercise, you're not going
to order AT&T's global communications network to install all these
lines, but you might be able to do that in a real emergency, so why not
''Both interpretations are probably true,'' he said. ''This is a basic
problem with all these tests. You can't avoid artificiality. How much does
that distort your results? It's hard to say.''
Analysts say agencies are making strides
Another uncertainty, which no exercise could fully resolve, is whether
NEST scientists can neutralize a terrorist bomb after they find it.
According to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security
Archive, a private Washington-based research center, weapon-lab scientists
have several ways to perform this delicate task. They can detonate small
explosives around the bomb. They can blast it into small pieces with a
30mm cannon. Or, before exploding it, they can build a huge nylon tent
around the bomb, then pump in 30,000 cubic feet of thick foam to block
the dispersal of radiation.
NEST scientists built a nylon tent around the bomb at the end of the 1994
exercise, Mirage Gold, but they were denied permission to detonate it,
partly because the FBI and FEMA disagreed over which agency had the authority
to grant it.
The consensus, even among skeptics, is that NEST and other federal agencies
have vastly improved their ability to deal with a terrorist bomb in the
past six years, even more so in the past six months. The technology is
better. The agencies have had practice at working together more smoothly.
Detailed emergency plans, which once barely existed, are now in place
in dozens of US cities.
However, this consensus is theory; even the war game-planners realize that
the reality won't be known until it happens. In September 1999, NEST and
40 other agencies took part in a two-day exercise in Annville, Penn.,
called ''Vigilant Lion.'' The scenario had terrorists pumping Strontium-90
into an office building's ventilation system, then threatening to explode
a dirty bomb.
The official after-action report said the players did their jobs well,
and concluded that the US government ''has the ability to deal with the
terrorist incident that was simulated.'' Those last three words were key.
The implicit caveat is that no one knows how it will deal with incidents
that have not been simulated.