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Nuclear shadow

PART 3

Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 6/9/2002

   
A series of occasional articles on the most worrisome threat in an age of terror.
 THE SERIES

Part 1
Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims

Part 2
Russia has loose grip on nuclear stockpiles

Part 3
Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats

Part 4
Russia's scattered tactical arms a temptation for terrorists

Part 5
Anti-American mood poses a security risk

 GRAPHICS

How Iran's new reactor would breed plutonium

How NEST searches for radioactive material

Russia's sprawling nuclear arsenal

Tracking Russia's nuclear capability

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 Support Team.

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.''

NEST teams take on more duties, missions

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 not comment.)

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 zone.

'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 exercises.

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 federal government.''

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 simulate it?

''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.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/9/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.