Last night, The Smoking Gun and then CBS reported on the latest sting carried out by our government to keep us safe from people too stupid for their own good. This time, instead of the FBI setting up the security theater sting, it was an undercover agent for ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security. The criminal complaint (pdf) filed yesterday is written by an ICE Special Agent working out of Miami (I’ll return later to the ironic job position she holds).
Once again, as we see repeatedly in the government’s adventures in security theater, we appear to have ensared a small-time hustler but will undoubtedly play this up as a major interdiction of international terrorism. The hustler this time is one Patrick Campbell, who stands accused of brokering a deal to sell U3O8 to Iran. Campbell apparently was promising to ship 1000 tons of the processed uranium ore, but was arrested in New York
yesterday Wednesday when he entered the country from Sierra Leone, where he reportedly lives.
How was Campbell caught? Here is how the complaint describes the elaborate trap ICE devised:
Yup. Everybody knows that Iran absolutely would go shopping for uranium on alibaba.com. Note that ICE does not appear to be able to get their high-tech document production equipment to produce subscripts. There really is no such thing as Uranium 308 or U308. Writing it that way makes it look like they are referring to a uranium isotope. The naturally occurring isotopes of uranium are listed here, where we see that the atomic masses range from 232 (= U-232) to 238 (=U-238). The isotope of interest is U-235, which occurs in nature as only 0.7% of the uranium atoms. Uranium is mined as raw ore which is chemically treated to produce U3O8, which is otherwise known as yellowcake. For further processing, the yellowcake is then converted to UF6 gas and then put into gas centrifuges where the mixture is selectively enriched for the U-235 isotope. Low-grade enriched uranium has the U-235 enriched from the naturally occurring 0.7% to the range of 3-5%. Iran has also produced mid-grade uranium at 20% U-235 for its research reactor used to produce medical isotopes, but this still falls short of the 90% or so U-235 needed for a nuclear weapon.
It would appear that ICE ran this scam on such a short budget that they wouldn’t even front Campbell the money for travel to the US from Sierra Leone. In his negotiations with the undercover agent, Campbell demonstrated a pitiful level of awareness of operational security. The complaint notes many communications with Campbell by email, telephone and Skype. There is no indication that any of the communications were encrypted. The extent of his op-sec appears to be his brilliant use of an acronym to refer to the transaction:
Campbell finally made it to New York
yesterday Wednesday, where he was promptly arrested. Here is how The Smoking Gun opened their report:
A foreigner who agreed to sell undercover Homeland Security agents 1000 tons of yellowcake uranium for shipment to Iran was arrested yesterday when he flew into the United States with uranium samples hidden inside the soles of shoes in his luggage, The Smoking Gun has learned.
Wow. He tried to hide his yellowcake samples in the soles of his shoes, which he then put into checked baggage.
This whole episode is stupid and wasteful on a wide range of levels.
First, Iran purchased huge stockpiles of yellowcake back in the days of the Shah. Continue reading
I have often described the process of “diplomats” close to the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters gaining access to documents and other confidential information relating to Iran’s nuclear activities and then selectively leaking the most damaging aspects of that information to George Jahn of AP. Sometimes, the information also is shared with Fredrik Dahl of Reuters, who, like Jahn, is also based in Vienna. Many believe that Israeli diplomats are most often responsible for these leaks and for shaping the stories to put Iran in the worst possible light.
Today that process is in play once again and the “damaging” new information appears to be a letter from Iran to the IAEA in which Iran states that they intend to add thousands of new generation centrifuges called IR-2 centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. The stories by Jahn and Dahl, already echoed by the New York Times (one can only assume that Joby Warrick will be along a bit later today to complete the first round of the propaganda machine), make this sound like a new and very important breakthrough that will make it much easier for Iran to produce uranium for a nuclear weapon. Only through close reading of the articles do we learn that these new centrifuges will be installed at the Natanz facility and will only be used for low-level enrichment to below 4% uranium (5% in the Dahl article). Enrichment to the more controversial 20% level is carried out at the Fordow facility and even that level is still short of the 90%+ needed for a weapon. Keep in mind also that IAEA regularly monitors both of these facilities and that all uranium has been accounted for, meaning that no 20% material has disappeared for secret conversion to weapons grade.
None of the articles gets around to pointing out that Iran installed its first IR-2 centrifuges over a year ago and the current development only represents installation of additional IR-2 units. Oh, and in the final paragraph, Jahn grudgingly admits that no time frame for this installation was given and that the installation work has not even started. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is Jahn’s breathless announcement from today’s leak:
Iran is poised for a major technological update of its uranium enrichment program that would vastly speed up production of material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads, diplomats told The Associated Press Thursday.
The diplomats said that Iran last week told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it wants to install thousands of high-technology machines at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.
Jahn waits until the 13th of 15 paragraphs before getting around to stating that these new centrifuges will only enrich to low levels since they will be at the Natanz facility. Dahl’s opening is no less dramatic:
Iran has told the U.N. nuclear agency that it will deploy more modern machines to refine uranium, a defiant move that may further complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s atomic activities peacefully.
The Islamic Republic said in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will use the new centrifuges at its main enrichment plant near the central town of Natanz, according to an IAEA communication to member states seen by Reuters.
Such a step could enable Iran to enrich uranium much faster than it can at the moment and increase concerns in the West and Israel about Tehran’s nuclear program, which they fear has military links. Iran says its work is entirely peaceful.
With all this panic going around, the Times had to join in:
Iran has told the United Nations nuclear supervisory body that it plans to install more sophisticated equipment at its principal nuclear enrichment plant, a diplomat said on Thursday, enabling it to greatly accelerate its processing of uranium in a move likely to alarm the United States, Israel and the West.
The diplomat, based in Vienna which is the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, cited a letter from Iranian officials to the I.A.E.A. saying it wants to upgrade its main enrichment plant at Natanz. The upgrade could speed up enrichment by as much as two or three times, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity in light of the confidential nature of the Iranian note.
As I mentioned earlier, Jahn notes at the very end of his article that there is no time frame for this installation. Neither Dahl nor the Times makes this important point in their panic-mongering:
One of three diplomats who spoke to the AP said Iran gave no time frame for its planned upgrade. He said installation work had not started at Natanz, adding it would take weeks, if not months, to have the new machines running once technicians started putting them in.
Considering that Jahn also included this quote from Mark Fitzpatrick of David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security, it appears that Jahn is finally gaining awareness of how he has been used lately to ratchet up anti-Iran sentiment:
“This won’t change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums,” he said. “But it will certainly escalate concerns”.
Fitzpatrick also is quoted by Dahl, but only with the inflammatory “game changer” language, not the calmer disclaimer on the lack of impact on the critical final steps of weapon production.
Note: During the time I was writing the version of the post above, Jahn and AP updated their story, but it retains the URL linked above (when Reuters produces new versions of stories, they get new URL’s so their changes can be tracked more easily). Notably, the mention of no time frame for the installation has been moved up to the fourth paragraph and the opening language has been altered significantly. The new version of the story emphasizes what IAEA is saying rather than what diplomats told Jahn. Here are the opening paragraphs of the version of the story times-tamped 8:32 (I failed to save a copy of the previous version with a time-stamp about two hours earler):
The U.N. nuclear agency has told member nations that Iran is poised for a major technological upgrade of its uranium enrichment program, in a document seen Thursday by The Associated Press. The move would vastly speed up Tehran’s ability to make material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads.
In an internal note to member nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it received notice last week from Iran’s nuclear agency of plans to install high-technology enriching centrifuges at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.
Although the word “diplomats” still appears in the headline for the story (“Diplomats: Iran Prepared to Up Nuclear Program”) Jahn does not reference a diplomat until the fourth paragraph when he talks about the time frame. It’s almost as if Jahn and his editors are starting to realize how formulaic the diplomat to Jahn pipeline has become. Of course, anyone who has been paying attention knows how AP “saw” the document Jahn describes in his opening, he is just being less direct about it in this new version of the story.
Try as they might, those who are pushing hard for a military attack on Iran under the guise of preventing Iran obtaining nuclear weapons are finding it impossible to whip up enough fear to overcome the media frenzy surrounding the home stretch of the Presidential Election season. Today’s biggest dose of fear-mongering is courtesy of Jodi Rudoren and David Sanger at the New York Times:
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his longstanding position that while harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up.
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.
Despite Rudorin and Sanger claiming that Iran is “close” to “the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack”, a closer examination of both data they present in the article and of the IAEA report itself shows that Iran’s “progress” toward a weapon is precarious at best.
For example, a chart in the Times article shows the proliferation of centrifuges at the Qom facility which is located inside a mountain and presumed to be immune from Israeli (but probably not US) bombs. The figure shows that the total number of installed centrifuges at this facility has increased steadily from 0 in September of 2011 to 2,140 this month. However, the same figure also shows that only 696 of those centrifuges are functioning and the number of functioning centrifuges has not changed over the course of the three reports issued in February, May and August of this year.
In order to make the case for a military attack on Iran, those who advocate war need to show that Iran is engaged in developing a nuclear weapon. There will be a new IAEA report this week, and we already know that this report will try to whip up excitement around what is already known: Iran’s installation of additional centrifuges for enrichment of uranium to 20% has continued, and Iran now has increased its capacity for such enrichment. What press accounts of the enrichment situation will gloss over is the fact that IAEA inspectors are present at all of Iran’s enrichment sites and that all material is accounted for. That means that in order to accuse Iran of taking 20% enriched uranium and subjecting it to further enrichment to the 90%+ that is needed for weapons, one would have to postulate a secret site, unknown to IAEA inspectors, where Iran could take raw uranium ore all the way to weapons grade.
With the rogue enrichment route to a military attack unlikely to gain footing, war advocates also accuse Iran of other activities aimed at developing a nuclear weapon. A favorite target for those accusations is the military site at Parchin, where one particular building has been separated out and accused of holding a high explosives blast chamber where Iran is accused of carrying out research aimed at developing a neutron trigger device for a nuclear bomb. Despite a very thorough debunking of this theory by b at Moon of Alabama, where it was shown that the chamber was much more likely to be used in production of nanodiamonds than neutron triggers, the accusations continued. In May, George Jahn of AP provided ridiculous “proof” of work on a trigger device by publishing a cartoon (drawn from a real photograph!) and description of the chamber. These new allegations from Jahn even included a claim that there was a neutron detector on the outside of the chamber so that neutron flux from the explosions inside the chamber could be monitored. I showed that this allegation meant that if such work had been carried out, the steel chamber itself would have been made radioactive through the process of neutron activation. This radioactivity would be present throughout the thickness of the steel and therefore could not be removed by a surface cleaning.
Despite the fact that the steel chamber (and possibly even the structural steel of the surrounding building) would be radioactive in a way that could not be cleaned, we have for months been deluged with accusations that Iran is “cleaning” the Parchin site. After this process had gone on for some time, I began to describe it as a game of cat and mouse in which it appears that Iran is having quite a bit of fun at the expense of those who are making allegations about the Parchin site. The primary target of Iran’s pranks in Parchin is David Albright, of the Insitute for Science and International Security. Despite no known expertise in intelligence gathering by photo analysis (and that comment on lack of expertise comes from someone who previously was a CIA photo analyst) we have had multiple accounts from Albright of Iran “cleaning” the Parchin site to remove evidence of their work on a trigger device.
I have responded to most of Albright’s reports, but chose not to respond to his report of August 1, where he declared that Iran had finished its cleanup work at Parchin. That report appears to have been operational for only a brief period, however, as a report issued on August 24 shows images from August 15. In this new report, additional activity at Parchin has taken place and the suspect building is now draped with a tarp that is bright pink.
In keeping with the usual pattern for these accusations, CNN has breathlessly repeated Albright’s analysis. It hardly seems necessary to point out that the point I have been making all along still stands. The most important element of any inspection at Parchin will be the high explosive chamber itself. Iran cannot “scrub” it of neutron activation. That means that if sufficient neutron trigger work was carried out in the chamber to make it radioactive, Iran will need to remove and destroy the chamber. Whether there is a pink tarp over the building or not is irrelevant to the issue of whether the chamber still exists.
The only way Iran can top the comedic spectacle of the pink tarp is to paint the ground outside the building to mimic Albright’s yellow comment balloons and font with a note along the lines of “Please do not look at this building”.
Marcy will be along later to discuss the shiny
thong thing aspect of David Sanger’s New York Times article where he was awarded today’s transcription prize by the Obama administration and allowed to “break” the story in which the US for the first time admitted its role in cyberwarfare against Iran’s nuclear program. What I want to concentrate on here is how in putting forward the cyberwarfare story, Sanger unquestioningly accepts the administration’s framing that Iran is just a short “breakout” away from having multiple nuclear weapons.
Consider this key paragraph:
These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.
All Iran needs is “additional enrichment” for “five or more weapons”. That assumption is false on many levels. First, because Iran’s enrichment activities are closely monitored by onsite IAEA inspectors, any activity aimed at above the 20% level which is their current upper bound would be detected quickly. That statement is backed up even by David Albright, who has been busy fanning the anti-Iran rhetoric on the Parchin front. Adding further doubt to a rapid breakout of enrichment is that even in this same article, Sanger notes that Iran’s centrifuge technology is old and unreliable. Albright supports that observation as well, and notes that installation of additional capability has been slowed by technical issues that don’t seem related to cyberattacks.
The second major flaw in Sanger’s transcription above is that more than just “additional enrichment” is needed. The whole cat and mouse game at Parchin is playing out because in addition to enrichment of uranium to weapons grade, Iran will need technology for initiating the nuclear chain reaction that results in the weapon being detonated. Sanger makes no mention at all of this technical barrier for which there is no evidence that Iran has made an appropriate breakthrough.
Heck, the “enough uranium for five bombs” framing requires us to count the material enriched to only 3.5%. That makes it surprising the US and Israel aren’t claiming that Iran has enough uranium for an unlimited number of bombs if you count the uranium in the ground that they haven’t mined yet.
Just under two weeks ago, AP’s George Jahn released the infamous cartoon around which he built a dubious nest of mostly anonymous charges that Iran had conducted work toward developing a neutron trigger device for nuclear weapons, using an explosive containment chamber at the Parchin military site. Jahn further repeated anonymous claims from “diplomats” that satellite imagery showed activity claimed to be Iran “cleaning” the site to remove traces of radioactivity.
It is simply impossible to “clean” radioactivity from a steel chamber in which uranium has been used to generate neutrons, as the neutrons would result in making the entire thickness of the steel chamber radioactive, as I showed in this post. The only way that Iran would be able to hide evidence of work on a neutron trigger device at Parchin would be to dismantle and remove the entire chamber. It most likely would be necessary to raze the entire building as well, since the structural steel in the building surrounding the chamber also likely would have been made radioactive by the neutrons.
Since negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries will continue next month in Moscow, those who prefer a war with Iran now must find new areas in which to accuse Iran of weapons work. George Jahn dutifully stepped up to play his role in this process again today, granting anonymity to “diplomats” who make a vague accusation that Jahn dressed up into a highly sensational headline that is backed up by few facts and then rendered essentially meaningless when he goes further into the information. At the AP’s site, Jahn’s article carries the headline “APNewsBreak: Higher enrichment at Iranian site“. The Washington Post decided that headline wasn’t incendiary enough, and so their version reads “APNewsBreak: Diplomats say UN experts find enrichment at Iranian site closer to arms level“.
The story itself is quite short. It opens:
Diplomats say the U.N. nuclear agency has found traces of uranium at Iran’s underground atomic site enriched to higher than previous levels and closer to what is needed for nuclear weapons.
Wait a minute. This whole thing is about “traces” of uranium enriched to a higher level. Missing from the entire article is any detail of how much material was found or to what level the uranium was enriched. The highest level of enrichment currently declared by Iran is 20%, which the press in the recent past has been describing as only a short “technical step” away from the the 90%+ needed for a nuclear weapon.
The next two paragraphs from Jahn basically render his entire story moot:
The diplomats say the finding by the International Atomic Energy Agency does not necessarily mean that Iran is secretly raising its enrichment threshold.
They say the traces could be left during startup of enriching centrifuges until the desired level is reached. That would be a technical glitch only.
So, in other words, these “diplomats” are doing their best to create a crisis over something that is a mere “technical glitch” and represents an insignificant amount of material. Of course, for those who only see the headline, especially the one on the Post’s website, the idea will have been planted that Iran is cheating on its declared enrichment program and secretly producing material that is ready to be placed into a weapon.
Both Bloomberg and the AP’s George Jahn reported yesterday that the second session of talks in Vienna between the IAEA and Iran produced progress and that additional talks are now scheduled for May 21 in Vienna. But don’t look for news of this progress in the New York Times, because it’s not there. And don’t look for statements from the US praising the progress (although China did praise it) and urging further progress at Monday’s talks in Vienna or the P5+1 talks later in the week in Baghdad. Instead, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro chose to emphasize in an interview on Army Radio in Israel that US plans for war with Iran are ready to be put into action.
First, the good news on the progress. From Bloomberg:
Iran and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors extended a round of negotiations over the Persian Gulf nation’s suspected nuclear-weapon work after both sides said progress had been made.
IAEA inspectors will meet again with their Iranian counterparts on May 21 in Vienna. They ended today two days of talks in the Austrian capital.
“We discussed a number of options to take the agency verification process forward,” IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts told reporters. “We had a good exchange of views.”
“We had fruitful discussions in a very conducive environment,” Iran’s IAEA Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said. “We have had progress.”
More details on the progress are reported by Mehr News:
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed to develop a modality for further cooperation, the Mehr News Agency has learnt.
The responsibilities and commitments of each side will be determined by the modality and the measures necessary will be taken based on the agreement.
In his report on the progress of negotiations, George Jahn couldn’t resist a partial reprise of his report over the weekend in which he breathlessly released a cartoon purporting to depict an explosives chamber where nebulous “Western diplomats” have leaked to Jahn that work to develop an explosive neutron trigger for an atomic bomb has been carried out. In an interesting development, Jahn has put a new accusation into this scenario. On Tuesday, I pointed out that if the accused work has been carried out in the chamber, then the steel walls of the chamber will be radioactive due to neutron activation and that this radioactivity will be dispersed throughout the entire thickness of the steel. That means the chamber cannot have its radioactivity removed by the cleaning process claimed by David Albright:
The process could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly. This could be followed with new building materials and paint. It could also involve removing any dirt around the building thought to contain contaminants.
Jahn now allows for the possibility that Iran could not leave a chamber that is radioactive due to neutron activation in the building for an IAEA inspection:
Some fear that Iran may even dismantle the explosives containment chamber believed to be inside the suspect building, taking it out in small pieces, if given enough time.
Why has Jahn’s language evolved from “scrubbing” the chamber to removing it? Continue reading