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Dirty radiological(sic) bomb

2002-06-10 18:16:16+00 by Dan Lyke 22 comments

So Emmanuel Goldstein Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, but from Eurasia Moscow, John Ashcroft announces that they've caught a terrorist planing to build a dirty radioactive weapon, or who might have had training in building such a device, or... well, anyway, bad people are being put in jail, good people are looking out for you, no need to fear, Citizen.

[ related topics: Politics Current Events WTC/Pentagon attacks ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-06-10 21:23:21+00 by: sethg

Read the fine print -- he was arrested on May 8[Wiki]. I'm willing (so far) to give Ashcroft the benefit of the doubt that there was probable cause to arrest the suspect, and there may be even sound legal reasons for treating him as a POW instead of a conventional criminal. But is there any reason, other than PR for the FBI, that the fact of the arrest was announced today[Wiki]?

#Comment made: 2002-06-10 23:21:47+00 by: John Anderson [edit history]

One (plausible?) reason: they were keeping the arrest secret because they thought they had an opportunity to arrest additional people, who would have gone to ground if they heard of the arrest?

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 00:41:26+00 by: Dan Lyke

So has anyone revealed where this two bit street punk was going to get the radioactive material for this device?

And remember when they were telling us "Tribunals are only for non-citizens", affirming that in the Executive Order? If anyone wants to know why I start screaming when the slippery slope looks anything but absolutely level, this is it.

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 00:53:55+00 by: John Anderson [edit history]

To continue my devilish advocation: but the guy had visited Pakistan, and (give me this one for the moment) collaborated with The Enemy. There is legal precedent for collaborators losing civil rights, is there not?

My argument is that they didn't pick up J. Random Citizen and start denying him normal procedures, but rather identify someone who has "crossed over" and begun to actively help The Other Side.

(However, once I stop my devilish advocation, I'll be the guy slightly behind and to the left of you at the scream-fest...)

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 01:01:25+00 by: Pete

To continue my devilish advocation: but the guy had visited Pakistan, and (give me this one for the moment) collaborated with The Enemy.

How do you know he has? You don't really. If only we had a means of testing evidence and weighing facts before stripping people of their rights... Wait, we do! They're called courts! Whoah, wait until the Attorney General hears about those! I'm sure he'll be excited by the news!

for anyone keeping track, this is the third time today I've used this same paragraph. carry on.

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 02:51:39+00 by: John Anderson [edit history]

How do you know he has?

What part of "give me this one for the moment" did you fail to parse? I realize that it's entirely possible that we're being sold a bill of circumstantial goods about this guy and his connection with any terrorist organization. I was trying to make the point that if he had done what they claim he has done, then there is precedent for doing what they're doing.

Would I feel more comfortable if they'd presented evidence to an impartial judge and let her decide on the citizen vs. "enemy combatant" status, rather than getting the no-doubt-extremely-partial Bush (or whoever was working the puppet that day) to make the call? Hell, yeah. But that wasn't the hypothetical I was trying (and failing, it appears) to set up.

It seems like to me that if the main or only point of this exercise was to inflame more fear, justify draconian crackdowns, and take the focus off the "good gnu, what was the US intelligence apparat doing, for fsck's sake?" story, then they'd get just as much milage out of busting J. Random Arab. Why go through the extra hassle of busting an American unless there is really some reason to? </naivety>

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 11:46:39+00 by: Pete

if he had done what they claim he has done

You are 100% correct that I have failed to yield to your request for an assumption of guilt. May it always be so.

It seems like to me that if the main or only point of this exercise was to inflame more fear, justify draconian crackdowns, and take the focus off the "good gnu, what was the US intelligence apparat doing, for fsck's sake?" story, then they'd get just as much milage out of busting J. Random Arab. Why go through the extra hassle of busting an American unless there is really some reason to?

If you're working with the idea that the feds are out to instill fear and keep people from wanting to be noticed and wanting to keep the peons in line, then what better way than to demonstrate the vulnerability of the kind of people they're trying to subdue than by randomly crushing the occasional victim, with great public spectacle?

I don't want to think that's what's happening, but God DAMN do I hate that my government has even made that kind of interpretation available. I hate that my Attorney General, the Nation's highest law enforcement officer, shows so little respect for due process and the rest of the rights he is sworn to uphold.

Why does the ATTORNEY General evince so little faith in the courts? It's not like the feds have been shy about frying traitors. So what is the reason?

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 12:21:23+00 by: Dylan

I'm far less terrified by the dirty radiological weapon than by the implications of Bush as "constitutional" dictator. And by the implications of the tribunals...especially but not only when a citizen is involved. The idea that we can defend a nation founded on concepts of personal liberties by revoking those liberties is beyond distasteful, it's disturbing. I want the WTC planners to fry as much as the next guy, but for fuck's sake I want us to do it right, as an example to the world of what a nation built on the concept of civil liberties and individual rights should be...we haven't been that for a long time, and that slope is looking slipperier all the time.

Oh please Lord, protect my nation from itself.

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 14:22:19+00 by: petronius

Where would he get the radiological material? I'd find a company that serviced or installed radiotherapy machines and break in and grab the Cobalt-60 or Cesium. There is a lot of this stuff around. I know a dermatologist in Springfield IL. who owns a piece of radium that he keeps in the office safe for treatment of skin tumors. His late partner purchased it in the 1950s.

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 14:31:51+00 by: Dan Lyke

This is probably why the follow-up is saying things like "bomb's impact would be mostly psychological". Increasing radiation levels in a wide area isn't too hard, doing more than bringing the radiation levels up to even that of many Nevada towns would be difficult.

In more comforting news, the new Department of Homeland Security plan sends 80% of Lawrence-Livermore's funding to the new department, but only 4% of the workers. Presumably they're going to make up the slack with ex-Enron execs?

#Comment made: 2002-06-11 20:49:36+00 by: Dan Lyke

"Our interest is not in trying him and punishing him," says Donald Rumsfeld. The article continues:

"This was still in the initial planning stages," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "It certainly wasn't at the point of having a specific target. He had indicated some knowledge of the Washington, D.C., area, but I want to emphasize again there was not an actual plan. We stopped this man in the initial planning stages."

So, let me get this straight:

"Dude, like what if, you know, we knocked over, like, some dentists office and scattered the X-ray machine parts..."

"Whoah. Righteous."

But whatever, this took the heat off the incompetent bumbling for a few days.

I'm not saying that such a device isn't a threat, I'm saying that by all accounts this guy probably didn't get much further with his plot than we under-acheiving miscreants in high school did with similar schemes for large scale destruction.

#Comment made: 2002-06-12 14:55:26+00 by: sethg

Quote from today's NYT:

"Officials say the Bush Administration moved Mr. Padilla into military custody after Justice Department officials concluded they could not bring a winnable court prosecution, largely because the evidence against him was derived from intelligence sources and other witnesses the government cannot or does not want to produce in court."

Yeah, that right to cross-examine your accusers in a public trial really sucks, doesn't it?

Bonus from the same article: The judge in the trial of Richard Reid, the guy who tried to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoes, threw out one of the charges against Reid, because the USA PATRIOT Act, one of the antiterrorism laws that Reid was charged with violating, does not include airplanes in its definition of "vehicle". Oops!

#Comment made: 2002-06-13 01:00:35+00 by: meuon

X-ray machines are only radioactive when 75+K volts is applied to the anode, and the filiment is lit.. It's a poor weapon even when activated. I've made lighting INSIDE a building at 6+Million volts with a linear accelerator, when the waveguide had a fissure, it also makes a small amount of radiation and can be applied over a few minutes to kill 'weaker' cancer cells.

Your dermatolgist friend probably eventually lost his fingers... but such an isotope specimen is very rare, and is probably very 'low grade'. I still would not want it vaporized within a few miles upwind..

Real medical grade 'sources' are very tightly controlled, and are supposed to be locked up when not in use. The box they are stored in it pretty neat, it opens only when inserted in the 'arm'.

Still.. pack 5000 pounds of radioactive ore in a Ryder truck, blow it up with conventional exposives and it's a mess, both psychologically and for real. Mix in some low grade biologicals and some chemicals just for fun...

[knock] [knock] ... open up... it's the feds.. [Whumph!] (the door just blew open) down on the ground.. you are arrested for your posting on Flutterby.com...

#Comment made: 2002-06-13 01:24:58+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, the X-ray machine was chosen deliberately for that example.

On the practicality of the whole thing, remember the tale Ron told of the customer of his oil well sensing device who found that the load he had wouldn't fit, so he tossed it in the lathe, and was stopped within some small distance of leaving his house? To make this thing effective you have to have something more potent than uranium ore, and you have to be able to machine it moderately fine, at least to sand sized particles. A few thousand uranium fuel pellets, for example, would just be so much shrapnel. So even if you managed to hit up a hospital, or a food processing plant, you'd still have to take it somewhere to reduce it to powder, and then following that process, if you hadn't died of radiation burns (because anything potent enough to cause more of a risk than, say, the pollution of a few extra cars on the road, is going to be pretty nasty), you'd have to transport it to the detonation site. I'm *way* more concerned about a couple of drums of bleach and a few of ammonia, or a bunch of pesticide sprayers full of gasoline, than a radioactive weapon that isn't at least trying to be a fission bomb.

#Comment made: 2002-06-13 21:46:41+00 by: meuon

I don't know about Ron's story, but I'd like to. BTW Ron seems to have done OK in the world at last. I'm afraid to discuss the things I have come up with if I were to become a terrorist, and the things that don't require me to survive are really scary. Dirty bombs are effective because the mass hysteria that one could create, not because of the damage. A weapons grade dirty bomb would be a mess though...

#Comment made: 2002-06-13 22:22:19+00 by: Larry Burton

I've been thinking about this dirty bomb thing and the exaggerations that Ashcroft has been guilty of. If I used an old circa 1950s clock with a radium dial as the timer of a bomb would I be accussed of setting off a dirty bomb?

#Comment made: 2002-06-13 22:28:56+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oooh. I hadn't thought about old clocks... or taking apart smoke detectors...

#Comment made: 2002-06-15 14:28:22+00 by: meuon

The "Homeland Internet Security Task Force" has probably listed Flutterby as a potential Terrorist Web Site.

My worst non-nuclear nightmares: About 5 people with 'sawzall's' and a shovel, at strategic places, could down most of our telecomunications networks. Add a few sniper shots into some microwave tower waveguides and it gets worse. Then a couple of hazardous material semi-truck accidents at key places, and a couple more train derailments at the same spots you broke the fiber lines. Time it with a leak about threats to airlines and they shut down the skyways. Next blow up an oil and gas pipeline, and they'll shut all the others off. Drive a truck through a couple of major electric power distribution points. Hack CNN.com (poison the DNS records and point it elsewhere) and put up even more FUD, but it should look real.

It could be done by one person, and does not need more than a handful (6-8) to make it work. if it all happened at the same time, the result would be absolute chaos and it would be easier and more effective than a couple of 'dirty' bombs.

#Comment made: 2002-06-15 21:45:01+00 by: meuon

And now, they have a second dirty bomb suspect in custody.

#Comment made: 2002-06-16 04:51:22+00 by: Pete

meuon, the MAE's are not the be-all-end-all's they once were. Modern peering is much more distributed.

#Comment made: 2002-06-16 17:19:09+00 by: Shawn

Are the MAEs even still around. I seem to remember seeing a work report a year or two ago stating that Mae West was being taken down to be replaced with something else.

#Comment made: 2002-06-17 00:01:16+00 by: meuon

Who cares about the MAE's.. they are spread out and well protected and are data centric. 100 feet from where I sit are some of the biggest fiber communications backbones in the country. At the physical layer there are exactly 3 bundles: LightNet (WilTel/WorlCom/UUnet/MCI/Sprint/Excel...), Williams (Global Crossing, X0..) and on the other side of the track: Qwest (BellSouth's LD, Frontier, US Carrier, GTE..). they all follow exactly the same paths through lots of remote areas. Dispite what they say in the marketing drivel, experience shows that when catastrophic failure happens to large fiber bundles, feces occurs. The reason we had a T1 backup through AT&T was because they used to go out of town on the highway right of way. Now even that diversity is lacking locally, although they still have microwave links as backups.