Yesterday evening, an Antares rocket built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded shortly after liftoff. The rocket was intended to ferry supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. Orbital and Spacex have taken over some of the duties supplying the space station since the termination of NASA’s shuttle program.
In the early aftermath of the explosion, word came out that the crash site had to be secured because sensitive cryptographic equipment was on board:
The Cygnus mission was non-military, but the company’s Antares program manager, Mike Pinkston, said the craft included “some classified cryptographic equipment, so we do need to maintain the area around the debris in a secure manner”.
That initially struck me as odd. The International Space Station has a large number of cooperating countries, including Russia. It’s hard to imagine that the US would put sensitive equipment into the hands of cosmonauts right now, given the cool state of US-Russian relations. Of course, it would make sense for ISS communications to be encrypted in order to prevent meddling by hackers, but movement all the way to classified (and presumably military or NSA-level) encryption seems to be excessive.
This morning, we are seeing walk-back on the presence of classified equipment:
Shortly after the explosion, CNN quoted a launch director as saying that the spacecraft contained classified “crypto” equipment, but early Wednesday a NASA spokesman said by email that “We didn’t have any classified items on board.”
In trying to make sense of what could have been behind these strange statements, I ran across this interesting announcement of a new cryptographic technology that European scientists have proposed evaluating in an experiment on the space staion:
A team of European researchers have proposed a series of experiments that, if successful, could turn the International Space Station into a key relay for a quantum communications network.
The key basis of physics underlying quantum communications is entanglement. Entangled particles are connected in a way that pretty much defies common sense. If you change the spin of one of the particles, the spin of its entangled counterpart will change – even if they’re miles apart. And that change happens nearly instantaneously – at least four orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light, according to a recent experiment.
Another remarkable aspect of this technology that sounds almost too good to be true is its potential security. After noting that quantum networks are quite fragile, the Forbes article continues:
But why bother with these networks at all if they’re so fragile? The answer is pretty simple – because they’re almost perfectly secure. Here’s how it works. Let’s say that I want to send a message to New York City. My message is going to travel through normal channels, but it will be encrypted with a key. That key is transmitted via the entangled photons – so the changes I make to entangled particles on my end almost instantly show up in the particles in New York. We then compare the measurements of what I changed in my photons to those states in New York City.
Those measurements then comprise an encryption key for our communications. So even if our communications are bugged, nobody can read them without knowing that encryption key. And here’s the important thing: if somebody were to try to eavesdrop on the quantum entanglement, they would alter the spin of the photons. So the measurements I make and the measurements made in New York would be out of sync – thus letting us know that we have an eavesdropper. It also prevents us from creating an encryption key, so we don’t send any communications. Theoretically, a quantum encrypted network is almost perfectly secure. (That said, they’re not perfect, and there are some exploits.)
The announcement from the European group that they wished to carry out the experiment based on what Einstein called “spooky action over a distance” came last April. Then, in June, it was announced that China had carried out a key demonstration of concept experiment back in 2010 but waited four years to publish the result.
With China announcing progress on the technology, one would think that the West would want to accelerate its work in the area, so it would not be at all surprising if equipment for the European experiment was among the items lost when the rocket exploded. Further, one would expect that Orbital would have been told that security for that equipment would be of the very highest level. In discussing the issue of sensitive equipment among the Antares wreckage, PCWorld this morning mentioned the incident of China perhaps examining the wreckage of the US stealth helicopter that was left behind after the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. It could well be that for this crash site, keeping the debris away from prying eyes from China is behind the call for security. Note also that the experiment quite likely would have been coordinated by the European Space Agency on behalf of the European scientists, so NASA’s claim that “We didn’t have any classified items on board” could be parsed as not applying to any classified items that ESA might have had on the rocket.
Less than two weeks after the US announced yet another $429 million in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system (which had already gotten over $900 million from the US), the system malfunctioned badly on Tuesday, resulting in the firing of two interceptor missiles by the system. The mishap frightened citizens in Eilat, where the incident took place around 7:30 am. Iran was quick to note the event and picked up on an important point: initial reports inside Israel claimed another “success” from the Iron Dome system, saying three rockets were incoming to Eilat and two of them were destroyed. The report later was withdrawn and the firing was blamed on an accident. Here is Fars News on the incident:
Israel’s Iron Dome missile system ‘accidentally’ fired interceptor rockets into the Red Sea resort city of Eilat in Southern Negev.
Eilat residents were panicked early on Tuesday morning following a series of explosions that also sent Israeli forces scrambling to find the source of the booms, press tv reported.
The Israeli army initially presumed that a rocket attack had occurred in the area.
Initial reports said three Grad rockets were fired at the resort town. They claimed two of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome while the third one exploded in an open area.
However, the army later claimed that the attacks were really a false alarm caused by an error at the Iron Dome site near the city.
An army spokesperson said the explosions were caused by two Iron Dome anti-missile projectiles accidentally fired at around 7:30 am (0530 GMT).
PressTV took things a bit further, stating that Israel’s bluffing about the capabilities of Iron Dome is meant to deter enemies. So did Israel initially claim that rockets had been intercepted? That does appear to be true. In my searching for news stories on this event, I found a story on Debka.com. The story now reads like this:
The loud explosions heard in Eilat early Tuesday came from Iron Dome which accidentally ejected two rockets. They were earlier accounted for erroneously by another Grad attack on Israel’s southernmost town from Sinai.
But the Google remembered that Debka had originally described things differently. Here is how the story was displayed by Google in the search results (as an aside, whatever happened to the “cached copy” option that used to show up on Google?):
It turns out that despite cheerleading about Iron Dome from obvious sources like the US Missile Defense Agency and the Heritage Foundation, there are serious questions about just how well the system works and whether Israel has been falsely inflating its capabilities. Just over a year ago, the New York Times looked into how well Iron Dome functions. They found significant problems:
After President Obama arrived in Israel, his first stop on Wednesday was to inspect an installation of Iron Dome, the antimissile system hailed as a resounding success in the Gaza conflict in November. The photo op, celebrating a technological wonder built with the help of American dollars, came with considerable symbolism as Mr. Obama sought to showcase support for Israel after years of tensions over Jewish settlements and how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Israeli officials initially claimed success rates of up to 90 percent. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, hailed the antimissile system as the first to succeed in combat. Congress recently called the system “very effective” and pledged an additional $680 million for deployments through 2015.
But a growing chorus of weapons experts in the United States and in Israel say their studies — based largely on analyses of hits and misses captured on video — suggest that Iron Dome destroyed no more than 40 percent of incoming warheads and perhaps far fewer. Many rockets, they argue, were simply crippled or deflected — failures that often let intact or dying rockets fall on populated areas.
The story continues: Continue reading
Just a few short months ago, speculation regarding a US attack on Syria centered only around when the attack would take place, how large it would be and how long bombardment would continue. But then accidental diplomacy broke out and it appears to be moving along remarkably well. Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified that Syria has complied with the first stage of its giving up chemical weapons:
The Joint Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Mission confirmed today that the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.
By doing so, Syria has met the deadline set by the OPCW Executive Council* to “complete as soon as possible and in any case not later than 1 November 2013, the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment.”
On a separate front, Iran’s Foreign Minister announced yesterday that he feels an agreement on Iran’s nuclear technology could be reached as early as this week:
Two days before negotiations resume in Geneva between Iran and the United States and other Western powers aimed at ending a fight over the disputed Iranian nuclear program, the country’s foreign minister sounded an optimistic note on Tuesday, saying a deal was possible as soon as this week.
“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with France 24, a major television network here, before meeting with the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.
It is possible that these two diplomatic breakthroughs have provided cover for an even bigger diplomatic effort. An initiative had grown out of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference to work toward an agreement banning all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. A conference based on the initiative had been planned for last year, but the United States announced it had been delayed just before it was scheduled to begin.
A planning meeting for the formal conference was held October 21-22 in Switzerland. The Nuclear Threat Initiative outlined a number of issues that were to be addressed a few weeks before that meeting:
A United Nations-appointed diplomat on Tuesday said he will convene multinational consultations in Switzerland later this month as a potentially key step toward discussing an eventual ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
If nations in the region can agree on the terms and objectives of regional discussions, a formal conference on creating a Mideast WMD-free zone could occur in Helsinki, Finland, as early as mid-December, according to international diplomats and expert observers.
Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish envoy who serves as facilitator for the prospective talks, played down continued differences between Israel and its Arab neighbors over the necessity of this month’s multilateral planning session, which is to take place in Glion, a lakeside retreat roughly 60 miles northeast of Geneva.
Yes, you read that correctly. Even though Israel was not a participant in the 2010 conference that created this initiative, Israel now is suddenly a party to the discussions. Of course, the region faces a multitude of WMD issues and especially non-compliance issues for agreements already reached: Continue reading
As Marcy points out this morning, Iran is now emphasizing the many ways that the US is waging war on Iran. What I find interesting in both the physical attacks, whether they hit equipment or people, and the propaganda attacks waged in the media is that the flow of information is of overwhelming importance. I’ll hit three examples of the importance of information flow in the posturing for war with Iran.
Information Flow Between IAEA and Intelligence Agencies
Iran is now disclosing remarkable details on the August attack that disrupted electricity to the Fordo uranium enrichment plant near Qom. Especially intriguing is a fake rock discovered later that appeared to house electronics for monitoring communications at the site. But more important to me is that Iran is using the Fordo event to renew its claims that the IAEA is too closely affiliated with both US and Israeli intelligence. Consider this report today from Fars News in Iran, titled “Iran Angry at IAEA’s Use of External Sources of Information for Reports“. The article begins by lamenting that IAEA relies on information from US and Israeli intelligence:
Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Fereidoun Abbasi lamented that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uses external and unreliable sources of information for reporting Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.
“Unfortunately, the IAEA is influenced by intelligence sources outside the Agency, and its information leaks and the CIA and Mossad benefit from the leaked information,” Abbasi said in a meeting with members of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in Tehran on Tuesday.
The article goes on to note that IAEA inspectors appeared to know instantaneously when the power was disrupted at the Fordo plant and links this to accusations of infiltration of IAEA:
In relevant remarks earlier this month, Abbasi also warned the IAEA about infiltration of saboteurs and terrorists.
“On Friday August 17, 2012, power lines running from the city of Qom to Fordow facility were cut using explosives. It should be reminded that power outage is a way of damaging centrifuge machines. In the early hours of the following day, (IAEA) inspectors demanded a snap inspection of the facility,” he said, addressing an IAEA meeting in Vienna.
“Isn’t there any connection between the visit and the blast? Who else could have quick access to the facility other than IAEA inspectors to register and report dysfunctions?” he asked.
The fake rock would still have been operating on August 17, so Iran has told us that US and/or Israeli intelligence would have known immediately of the loss of power. And yet, somehow this information also made its way to IAEA within only a few hours. Such a sequence of events certainly paints a picture of the intelligence community having very good lines of communication with the IAEA and the information flow appears to go in both directions.
Control of Information on Uranium Enrichment
Just as was the case for explaining that the disputed explosion chamber at Parchin likely is used for nanodiamond research rather than nuclear trigger research, a report from b at Moon of Alabama should have completely defused the yammering over the August report on Iran from the IAEA. We learn from b that although Iran produced a large amount of 20% enriched uranium during the reporting period, much of Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium was converted to fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces medical isotopes. Importantly, once converted to fuel plates, the uranium is no longer in a chemical form that can be put back into centrifuges for further enrichment to weapons grade. As a result, b is the only person who could bring us this important news just after the report was released: Continue reading
Despite some prospects on negotiations toward peace looking better in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the carnage in Pakistan’s tribal areas continues at a rapid pace. Two separate US drone attacks in North Waziristan on Thursday killed 21 people and a suspected suicide bomber killed 26 in the Kurram Agency region on Friday.
According to Dawn, the first drone attack killed six:
According to sources, six people were killed and two others injured when two missiles slammed into a compound in the village of Spilga near Miramshah. The identities of the persons who died could not be ascertained.
The second attack was just a few hours later:
Hours later, another drone attacked a moving vehicle on the Zekerkhel-Khaisur road in Mirali tehsil.
Official sources said 15 members of a militant group were killed. Their bodies were charred.
The article noted that “unmanned planes” continued to fly around the area as local rescuers came to the scene.
There were reports that those killed in the second attack were Uzbek.
As for those killed in the first attack:
Those who died in the first attack belonged to Badar Mansoor and the Haqqani network, loyal to the Afghan Taliban, another official said. Last Thursday, officials said Mansoor, described as the “de facto leader of Al Qaeda in Pakistan” had been killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan.
There appears to be a Haqqani network tie to the suspected suicide bomb attack earlier today in Kurram Agency:
The bomber struck outside the mosque in a busy market in Parachinar, the main town in Kurram, after Friday prayers, in the latest attack by Sunni militants against minority Shias.
Fazal Saeed, leader of a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
“We have targeted the Shia community of Parachinar because they were involved in activities against us,” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He is said to have close ties with the Haqqani militant group, one of the most feared factions of the Afghan Taliban.
The Express Tribune coverage of this attack states that there were 26 deaths and also raises questions of whether it was a suicide bomber or another type of blast, but the Dawn article appears to be at least two hours more recent than the Express Tribune article. A Reuters article just a few minutes old as of this writing also placed the death toll in the bombing at 26 and said that it was the work of a suicide bomber.
It’s very difficult to see how either the US or the Taliban can be engaged in peace negotiations while at the same time killing large numbers of people. For both sets of killings, it appears there are more than enough survivors in the area to take up the cause of those killed, perpetuating the cycle of killing.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall, so no link!) Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that Afghanistan has joined the “secret” talks that have been underway for some time now between the US and the Taliban. From Reuters:
Karzai’s government had previously been excluded from early, exploratory contacts between the Taliban and the United States, with the insurgents seen as resisting the involvement of a local administration they regard as a puppet of Washington.
But the Journal quoted Karzai on Thursday as saying the Taliban were “definitively” interested in a peace settlement to end the 10-year war in Afghanistan, and that all three sides were now involved in discussions.
“People in Afghanistan want peace, including the Taliban. They’re also people like we all are. They have families, they have relatives, they have children, they are suffering a tough time,” the Journal quoted Karzai as saying in an interview conducted on Wednesday in the Afghan capital.
“There have been contacts between the U.S. government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban.”
Karzai also arrived in Islamabad today and entered immediately into discussions with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. From the Express Tribune:
Earlier in the day, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the President House.
In a meeting at the Prime Minister House, Gilani and Karzai discussed a range of issues, including the regional situation and bilateral ties, which have been hit by mistrust following recent cross-border attacks. The two leaders also discussed ongoing efforts for restoring peace in conflict-hit Afghanistan, such as US’ negotiations with the Taliban in which both Pakistan and Afghanistan have felt neglected by the US.
But those were the second and third paragraphs of the Express Tribune article. The first paragraph has material that is not nearly as prevalent in the US reporting on the talks among the US, the Taliban, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It turns out that Karzai has traveled to Islambad to take part in three way meetings with Pakistan and Iran. The first paragraph:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has arrived in Pakistan for a two-day visit to attend the Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral summit in Islamabad, Express News reported on Thursday. Continue reading
The carnage in Syria continues unabated, with government forces shelling citizens, especially in the city of Homs. Qatar’s minister for international cooperation described Sunday’s veto of the UN Security Council resolution by Russia and China in this way:
Khaled al-Attiyah, Qatar’s minister for international co-operation, said the vetoes sent “a very bad signal to Assad that there (is a) license to kill.”
Russia claims they are working for a peaceful settlement in Syria, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Damascus now to speak to Assad:
Lavrov told Assad, according to Russia’s RIA news agency: “Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours. It is in our interests for Arab peoples to live in peace and agreement.”
Lavrov, whose government wields rare leverage in Syria as a major arms supplier to Damascus, said Assad assured him he was committed to halting bloodshed by both sides and that he was ready to seek dialogue with all political groups in Syria.
But the arms that Russia has been supplying to Assad are still being put to use against Syria’s citizens. From the same Reuters article:
Opposition activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of one million, Syria’s third biggest. More than 200 were reported killed there by sustaining shelling on Friday night.
“The bombardment is again concentrating on Baba Amro (district of Homs). A doctor tried to get in there this morning but I heard he was wounded,” Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Homs, told Reuters by satellite phone. “There is no electricity and all communication with the neighborhood has been cut.”
A further 19 people were killed and at least 40 wounded in Tuesday’s barrage, activists said. Some reported fighting between army defectors and government forces trying move into areas the rebels hold in Homs.
Reflecting the total failure in what passes for world “diplomacy”, the response from the West is to arm the citizens of Syria to fight back against government forces who were armed by Russia. The approach starts out positively, as an attempt to prevent the arming of the Syrian government, but by the time Joe Lieberman gets involved, it goes terribly astray: Continue reading
The precarious hold that Pakistan’s civilian government has on power took another severe blow today, as the Supreme Court handed down a decision (pdf) which threatens to find Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani unfit to hold office. At issue is the failure of Pakistan’s executive branch to implement a number of corruption probes ordered by the Supreme Court when it overturned the 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance in 2009. The NRO had provided amnesty to a number of political figures and parties in paving the way for a US-brokered planned transition from a Musharraf government to a likely Bhutto government. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has steadfastly refused to implement the probes, citing immunity. Ironically, the Supreme Court cited the 1928 case Olmstead v. United States, in which the US Supreme Court upheld the use of illegal wiretaps in the prosecution of a bootlegger. The passage cited by Pakistan’s Supreme Court is from Justice Brandeis’ dissent and is an elegant call to observe the rule of law. Although Olmstead v. United States eventually was overturned, it is particularly ironic that Pakistan’s Supreme Court would cite this case in responding to executive branch claims of immunity at a time when the US is once again litigating the extent of executive branch and corporate immunity in a new era of illegal government wiretaps.
In documenting the crisis, Dawn quotes Supreme Court Justice Asif Saeed Khosa:
Tuesday, Supreme Court’s Justice Asif Saeed Khosa remarked that despite clear court orders, the government and the NAB [National Accountability Board] were not serious about implementing court orders, DawnNews reported.
Justice Khosa said that the apex court was giving a last chance to the government to implement its verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordinance by Jan 16.
He said in case of non-implementation, the court would be forced to take certain steps which would not be “pleasant”.
Khosa goes on to complain that the government has had over two years to respond to the overturning of the NRO, but refuses to act:
He moreover referred to President Asif Ali Zardari and said that the president had, “in an interview, refused to accept the court’s orders”.
The prime minister and the law minister also publicly refused to accept the apex court’s orders, Justice Khosa said, adding that the president and the prime minister preferred loyalty to party over loyalty to state.
It is in response to this failure to act that the written decision cites Justice Brandeis’ dissent in Olmstead v. United States:
In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Continue reading
Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are getting a lot of play in the press the past few days. As the ten days of naval war games for Iran that began on Saturday have continued, Iran’s bluster has gotten stronger, as have the US responses.
Ironically, Iran’s stated purpose when it began the war games included the desire to “convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries” and yet, as can be seen in the video here, Iranian authorities are now saying that should their ability to export oil be curtailed through sanctions put in place by the US and European allies, they would close down the Strait of Hormuz, preventing exports by other countries in the region.
The impact of a real closure would be huge. Many of the numbers involved can be gleaned from this Bloomberg article published this morning. Iran’s oil exports amount to 3.6 million barrels a day, which means Iran only accounts for 23% of the 15.5 million barrels a day that pass through the Strait. It is believed that Saudi Arabia could produce an extra 2.5 million barrels a day in the event of sanctions halting Iran’s supply, and up to 200,000 more barrels a day could come from other countries in the region, so about 75% of Iran’s output probably could be replaced quickly.
However, with the Strait closed, the entire 15.5 million barrels a day could be disrupted. There is a pipeline being built by the United Arab Emirates that the Bloomberg article says will be ready “soon” and could bypass the Strait with 1.4 to 1.8 million barrels a day, but this would be only a very small fraction of the lost supply.
Even though such a closure would be seen as a direct response to the US and its European allies, the impact on China should not be overlooked. The CIA world factbook informs us that the US imports 10.3 million barrels a day and the EU imports 8.6 million, but China is next in line at 4.8 million barrels a day. How would China respond to such a huge disruption of their supply, especially if it comes about through a series of disagreements where they have not been included in the discourse? Continue reading