Archives for March 2016

Climate model predicts West Antarctic ice sheet could melt rapidly


The New York Times reports: For half a century, climate scientists have seen the West Antarctic ice sheet, a remnant of the last ice age, as a sword of Damocles hanging over human civilization.

The great ice sheet, larger than Mexico, is thought to be potentially vulnerable to disintegration from a relatively small amount of global warming, and capable of raising the sea level by 12 feet or more should it break up. But researchers long assumed the worst effects would take hundreds — if not thousands — of years to occur.

Now, new research suggests the disaster scenario could play out much sooner.

Continued high emissions of heat-trapping gases could launch a disintegration of the ice sheet within decades, according to a study published Wednesday, heaving enough water into the ocean to raise the sea level as much as three feet by the end of this century.

With ice melting in other regions, too, the total rise of the sea could reach five or six feet by 2100, the researchers found. That is roughly twice the increase reported as a plausible worst-case scenario by a United Nations panel just three years ago, and so high it would likely provoke a profound crisis within the lifetimes of children being born today. [Continue reading…]


The gap between jihadism and the prevailing linear narrative of radicalization

Kenan Malik writes: In Britain, the government’s flagship counterterrorism program, Prevent, includes surveillance of schoolchildren and college students. Official guidelines suggest that signs of radicalization include changing one’s “style of dress or personal appearance” or using “derogatory names or labels for another group.” Another sign, according to leaked teacher training materials, is an overt interest in Palestine or Syria. Among nearly 4,000 people identified last year as supposedly exhibiting signs of radicalization was a 4-year-old boy.

In France, mass closures of mosques and organizations suspected of enabling radicalization are underway.

Yet the evidence suggests that the concept is flawed and that such anti-jihadist measures are ineffective, even counterproductive. A secret British government memorandum leaked in 2010 dismissed the idea that there was “a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalization, to violence.” A 2010 American study sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security similarly noted that radicalization “cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or ‘stages’ from sympathy to radicalism.”

Many studies show, perhaps counterintuitively, that people are not usually led to jihadist groups by religious faith. In 2008, a leaked briefing from Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, found that far from being religious zealots, many involved in terrorism were not particularly observant.

This view is confirmed by Marc Sageman, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a counterterrorism consultant. “At the time they joined, jihad terrorists were not very religious,” he observed. “They only became religious once they joined the jihad.”

The paradox is that the concept has become central to domestic counterterrorism policy even as government agencies discover it’s wrong. There is a gap between the reality of jihadism and a political desire for a simple narrative of radicalization.

In recent years, the official view of the process has become more nuanced. An F.B.I. website aimed at teenagers acknowledges that “no single reason explains why people become violent extremists.” Updated British strategy also accepts that “there is no single cause of radicalization.”

Yet the idea of a conveyor belt and telltale signatures of radicalization continue to be influential.

For many, though, the first steps toward terror are rarely taken for political or religious reasons. As the French sociologist Olivier Roy, the pre-eminent scholar of European jihadism, puts it, few terrorists “had a previous story of militancy,” either political or religious. Rather, they’re searching for something less definable: identity, meaning, respect. [Continue reading…]


Frenchman plotting ‘imminent’ attack is charged with terrorism

The New York Times reports: A suspected Islamic State operative who was arrested last week had amassed a trove of guns and bomb-making equipment, including the type of explosive used in terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the French authorities announced on Wednesday, reinforcing fears that militants are planning additional assaults on Europe.

The suspect, Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old Frenchman, was arrested on Thursday afternoon in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris. That evening, the authorities raided a fourth-floor apartment Mr. Kriket had rented under a fake name in Argenteuil, a northwestern suburb that was once a popular weekend getaway and a subject for Impressionist painters.

Inside the apartment, the authorities found “an arsenal of weapons and explosives of an unprecedented size,” which led them to believe Mr. Kriket had been planning an “imminent attack,” the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening, describing for the first time the scope of the plot.

The arsenal included explosive materials — among them TATP, which was used in suicide bombs that were set off in Paris on Nov. 13 and in Brussels on March 22 — along with Kalashnikov assault rifles, a submachine gun, pistols, ammunition, four boxes containing thousands of small steel balls, stolen French passports, brand-new cellphones, a tear-gas canister and two computers with instructions to make explosives.

A judge who focuses on terrorism cases charged Mr. Kriket on Wednesday with terrorist conspiracy, possession of weapons and explosives, and falsification of documents, among other offenses, Mr. Molins said.

Mr. Kriket had an extensive criminal record, with multiple convictions for robbery, possession of stolen goods and acts of violence, Mr. Molins added. [Continue reading…]


Do all roads lead through Italy for ISIS?

The Daily Beast reports: Mohamed Lahlaoui was not supposed to be in Europe when he was arrested in Germany last week on terrorism charges. The 28-year-old Moroccan was deported from the northern Italian city of Brescia back in May 2014 after he violated the conditions of his house arrest, which he was serving for attempted murder, concealing an illegal weapon, and garden-variety drug charges.

But he apparently never left Europe. Or, if he did, it wasn’t much of a getaway, because traces of him in Belgium, France, and Germany date back to the summer he was deported. When Lahlaoui was arrested at a train station in Giessen, Germany, last week, his name wasn’t at the top of any terror watch list, but he was identified as persona non grata in Europe because of his Italian criminal record. Acting out of an abundance of vigilance, German police said they checked his cellphone and found a message from Khalid el-Bakraoui, one of the suicide-bomber brothers who blew himself up along with 20 passengers in a Brussels subway on March 22. The message was sent at 9:08 a.m., just three minutes before the bomb went off. It said, simply, “fin” — French for “the end.”

Now authorities are tying to connect the dots between Lahlaoui and a number of other terror suspects who seem to have an Italian connection. [Continue reading…]


French minister accused of Islamophobia over veil comments

Hajer M’tiri reports: “There are women who choose [to wear headscarves], there were also American negroes who were for slavery”. This sentence was said by a French government minister on Wednesday. As shocking and offensive as those words are, for people from around the globe, in particular the Muslim and Black communities in France, some activists say they are not surprised, as those words “are just a continuation of the French government’s hypocritical and openly racist policy”.

Speaking on French radio RMC on Wednesday about fashion houses commercializing accessories such as veils or headscarves, Laurence Rossignol, the French minister of families, children and women’s rights, compared women who choose to wear headscarves to the “American Negroes who were for slavery” and blasted the fashion houses.

It all started on her Twitter account, when Rossignol expressed her unhappiness with British brand Marks & Spencer announcing it would offer full-body “burqini” swimsuits in its online store.

Several international clothing and accessories brands recently launched lines for “Islamic modest wear”: the Swedish giant H&M last year used a Muslim hijabi model as their main face for its advertising campaign, while the Japanese brand Uniqlo earlier this month announced it would begin selling hijabs in its London stores.

Last year Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, and Mango all launched varyingly “modest” collections for Muslim women.

Luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana last January launched a collection of hijabs and abayas targeting wealthy Muslim women in the Middle East.

Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia, told Anadolu Agency that Rossignol’s remarks “stigmatize Muslim women” and “violate France’s secularist principles.”

He accused Rossignol of not tackling serious and “real” problems such as unemployment and terrorism, and instead choosing to attack Muslim women.

“Instead of choosing the path of dialogue, she is stigmatizing Muslim women. She seems to be sliding a bit to the methods of Daesh recruiters,” Zekri said.

He continued: “It is as if she’s acting as a recruiting sergeant for Daesh with such remarks. You know, it is with these kinds of statements that Daesh recruiters brainwash their victims, saying, ‘Look, they don’t see you as citizens…’.” [Continue reading…]


Trump attack on Geneva Conventions denounced by ex-officers and advocates

The Guardian reports: Retired senior military officers and human rights advocates are reacting with disgust at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s description of the Geneva Conventions as a “problem” for the conduct of US wars.

At an appearance in Wisconsin on Wednesday that was obscured by his suggestion that women who choose abortion should face punishment, Donald Trump was also quoted as saying: “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.”

Trump has previously advocated killing the families of terror suspects; torture “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding; and widespread bombing campaigns against Islamic State, which operates in civilian-packed areas. The Geneva Conventions provide the basis for protections against war crimes, privileging the status of civilians and detainees during wartime.

Several retired officers said the comments called into question Trump’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief, saying that service members operating in line with his predilections would be tasked with behavior ranging from the disgraceful to the illegal.

“Donald Trump cannot possibly understand [Geneva] because he has neither the experience, the expertise or the moral compass to grasp it,” said Steve Kleinman, an air force reserve colonel and an interrogations expert. [Continue reading…]


U.S. and Russia reach ‘agreement’ that some day Assad will leave Syria

Middle East Eye reports: The US and Russia have reached an understanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad will leave to another country as part of the future peace process, according to the Lebanese Al-Hayat newspaper.

A diplomatic source on the Security Council told al-Hayat in reports published on Thursday that US Secretary of State John Kerry had “informed concerned Arab countries that the US and Russia have reached an agreement on the future of the political process in Syria, including the transfer of President Bashar al-Assad to another country.”

The source said the US-Russian agreement was “clear” in diplomatic back channels, though he said that “the timing and context of that in the political process remains unclear to everyone at the moment”. [Continue reading…]


Assad, buoyed by a win over ISIS, dismisses opposition’s demands

The Washington Post reports: Fresh from a major victory over Islamic State militants, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday expressed support for peace talks next month in Geneva but still firmly rejected the opposition’s key demands.

In an interview with Russian media, the embattled leader discussed his vision for eventual reconstruction from a devastating civil war and his desire to let Moscow, a key ally, maintain an indefinite military presence in Syria.

Assad’s comments come just days after his forces drove Islamic State extremists out of Palmyra. Seizing the archaeologically rich city was a big success for his government and its foreign military backers, most notably Russia, which bombed the militants in the desert city.

In his remarks, Assad appeared buoyed by that battlefield win, strongly dismissing as “illogical and unconstitutional” the idea of forming a transitional government to end a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced millions and fueled the rise of the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


I’m from Palmyra, and I can tell you after what I’ve seen that the Assad regime is no better than Isis

Mohamed Alkhateb writes: I was born and raised in Palmyra. I went to university in Homs, but when noises started to be made about a revolutionary movement, I knew I had to return to my home city.

At the beginning of the Revolution, my friends and I established what we called the “Palmyra Coordination” – essentially a group to coordinate and lead peaceful demonstrations calling for freedom. But the situation quickly spiralled out of control. Security forces within the city were unable to control the escalating revolution or withstand the flood of demonstrations. Tens of protesters were killed during their efforts.

After months of protests, the Assad regime sent a huge deployment of about 50 tanks and 3000 soldiers to take control of the city. After Palmyra was stormed by the SAA [Syrian Arab Army], some friends and I knew we had to flee.

After six days, however, we were captured by a group of around 30 SAA soldiers in the surrounding countryside and detained.

Needless to say, we were badly treated by these soldiers. They slapped us and beat us, and then marched us to a security branch in Palmyra to begin our interrogation. Worse was to come. [Continue reading…]


How Russian special forces are shaping the fight in Syria

The Washington Post reports: The troops that recently recaptured Palmyra, Syria, from the Islamic State included Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces. And on Monday, Russian officials said there was another group that contributed to the victory: Russia’s elite special forces, also known as Spetsnaz.

Russian troops are nothing new to the Syrian ground war. Since their arrival in September, the Russians have used naval infantry to secure a key port in Tartus and the perimeter of an airfield in Latakia. But Russian special forces operating on the front — aside from a small number of artillery and tank units — have remained mostly out of the public eye.

With the seizure of Palmyra, though, that is no longer the case. Russian officials announced Monday that Palmyra was “liberated with participation of Spetsnaz and military advisers.” The Islamic State took Palmyra in May and shortly after partially destroyed a number of the city’s historic sites.

Russian special forces have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays directly into the anti-Islamic State rhetoric that Russia used as a pretense to initially intervene, said Chris Kozak, a research analyst at the Institute of the Study of War.

Involvement of Russian special forces in Palmyra “looks great,” Kozak said. “Whereas their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.”

It is unclear exactly when Russian special forces began operating in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. According to Michael Kofman, an analyst at CNA who focuses on Russian military operations, Russia currently operates several special forces units in Syria, Zaslon, KSO and detachments of reconnaissance teams. [Continue reading…]


In Iraq 21 generals lead 5,000 U.S. troops — about what a colonel usually commands

Nancy Youssef reports: In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the U.S. military is notably short on soldiers, but apparently not on generals.

There are at least 12 U.S. generals in Iraq, a stunningly high number for a war that, if you believe the White House talking points, doesn’t involve American troops in combat. And that number is, if anything, a conservative estimate, not taking into account the flag officers running the U.S. air war, the admirals helping wage the war from the sea, or their superiors back at the Pentagon.

At U.S. headquarters inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, even majors and colonels frequently find themselves saluting superiors at a pace that outranks the Pentagon and certainly any normal military installation. With about 5,000 troops deployed to Iraq and Syria ISIS war, that means there’s a general for every 416 troops, give or take. To compare, there are some captains in the U.S. Army in charge of that many people.

Moreover, many of those generals come with staffs and bureaucracy that some argue slows decision-making against an agile terror group.

The Obama administration has frequently argued that the U.S. maintains a so-called light footprint in Iraq to reassure the American public that its military is not back in Iraq. Indeed, at times, the United States has not acknowledged where it has deployed troops until one of them died.

But if the U.S. footprint is so small, why does the war demand so many generals? [Continue reading…]

In an editorial, the New York Times says: With the military campaign against the Islamic State making some progress, American officials have begun to sharpen plans to expel the terrorist organization from two major cities it still controls.

Recapturing Raqqa, in northern Syria, and Mosul, in northern Iraq, from the Islamic State is critical. But President Obama has not made the case for expanding America’s role in the fighting, nor has he given a forthright assessment of the resources that would be required.

Since Mr. Obama authorized the first airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to curb the rise of the Islamic State, administration officials have been vague and at times disingenuous about the evolution of a military campaign that has escalated sharply. [Continue reading…]


Cantarow and Levy: Could nuclear disaster come to America?

On March 11, 2011, following a massive earthquake and a devastating tsunami, the cores of three of the reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant melted down with horrific results.  Radioactive cesium, with a half-life of 30 years, contaminated almost 12,000 square miles of the country, an area about the size of the state of Connecticut. The government considered 12.5 square miles around the plant so poisoned that its population was evacuated and it was declared a permanent “exclusion” zone. (At Chernobyl in Ukraine, three decades after the other great nuclear disaster of our era, a 1,000 square mile exclusion zone is still in place.)  One hundred and twenty thousand evacuees, some from areas outside the exclusion zone, have still not gone home and some undoubtedly never will, despite a vast decontamination program run by the government.  (Sixteen to twenty-two million bags of contaminated soil and debris will someday be buried in a vast landfill near the plant, but it may take decades to get them there and that’s only the beginning of the problems to come.)  And let’s not forget that, according to a report from the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, the ocean waters around Fukushima received “the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed.”

To this day, five years later, eerie photos continue to emerge from now eternally deserted towns miles from the plant, thanks to what’s called “dark tourism.”  But bad as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was, it might have been so much worse.  Japan’s then-prime minister, Naoto Kan, has only recently admitted that he was so worried by the unraveling catastrophe and the swirl of misinformation around it that he almost ordered the evacuation of Tokyo, the capital, and all other areas within 160 miles of the plant.  The country, he said, “came within a ‘paper-thin margin’ of a nuclear disaster requiring the evacuation of 50 million people.”

Keep that in mind as you read today’s report from Alison Rose Levy and Ellen Cantarow, who has in recent years covered citizen resistance to the desires of Big Energy for TomDispatch.  Since the United States used nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, nuclear power has always had a fearsome aspect.  In the 1950s, the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower began promoting “the peaceful atom” in an attempt to take some of the sting out of atomic power’s bad rep.  (As part of that project, Eisenhower helped then-ally the Shah of Iran set up a “peaceful” nuclear program, the starting point for Washington’s more modern nuclear conflicts with that country.)  Unfortunately, as we’ve been reminded, from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima, there is ultimately a side to nuclear power that couldn’t be less “peaceful,” even in a peacetime setting.  As you think about the Indian Point nuclear power plant, the subject of today’s post, and its long history of problems and crises that only seem to be compounding, keep in mind how close Tokyo came to utter catastrophe and then think about the vast New York metropolitan area and what any of us would be able to do other than shelter in place if disaster were someday to strike up the Hudson River. Tom Engelhardt

A Fukushima on the Hudson?
The growing dangers of Indian Point
By Ellen Cantarow and Alison Rose Levy

It was a beautiful spring day and, in the control room of the nuclear reactor, the workers decided to deactivate the security system for a systems test. As they started to do so, however, the floor of the reactor began to tremble. Suddenly, its 1,200-ton cover blasted flames into the air. Tons of radioactive radium and graphite shot 1,000 meters into the sky and began drifting to the ground for miles around the nuclear plant. The first firemen to the rescue brought tons of water that would prove useless when it came to dousing the fires. The workers wore no protective clothing and eight of them would die that night — dozens more in the months to follow.

It was April 26, 1986, and this was just the start of the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the worst nuclear accident of its kind in history. Chernobyl is ranked as a “level 7 event,” the maximum danger classification on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.  It would spew out more radioactivity than 100 Hiroshima bombs. Of the 350,000 workers involved in cleanup operations, according to the World Health Organization, 240,000 would be exposed to the highest levels of radiation in a 30-mile zone around the plant. It is uncertain exactly how many cancer deaths have resulted since. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s estimate of the expected death toll from Chernobyl was 4,000. A 2006 Greenpeace report challenged that figure, suggesting that 16,000 people had already died due to the accident and predicting another 140,000 deaths in Ukraine and Belarus still to come. A significant increase in thyroid cancers in children, a very rare disease for them, has been charted in the region — nearly 7,000 cases by 2005 in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

[Read more…]


Earthquakes caused by oil drillers place 7 million Americans at risk

Grist reports: Earthquake risk is on the rise, and we mostly have ourselves to blame — or, more specifically, the oil and gas industry.

In a new report, the U.S. Geological Survey maps out earthquake hazards for the coming year, and for the first time, its assessment includes the risk of human-induced earthquakes. There’s now so much earthquake activity caused by the oil industry injecting wastewater underground that 7 million Americans in the central and eastern U.S. are at risk of experiencing a damaging tremor this year.

In parts of north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas, the risk of dangerous shaking is now about 5–12 percent per year — a riskiness on par with traditionally earthquake-prone California. The difference, of course, is that the Californian quakes as we currently understand them mostly stem from natural processes.

Fracking itself is not to blame for the increased earthquake risk, USGS says. Rather, it’s the oil and gas industry’s disposal of wastewater that can cause problems. Sometimes that wastewater is the result of fracking, and sometimes it’s the result of traditional drilling processes. After water is pumped into the earth to help extract oil and gas, it comes back up polluted, salty, and altogether undrinkable. To keep it away from people and other critters, it’s often injected back into the earth into deeper formations (below the aquifers we tap for drinking water). This kind of injection can lead to increased pressure at fault zones, which can cause the kind of slippage associated with earthquakes. [Continue reading…]


Technology, the faux equalizer


Adrienne LaFrance writes: Just over a century ago, an electric company in Minnesota took out a full-page newspaper advertisement and listed 1,000 uses for electricity.

Bakers could get ice-cream freezers and waffle irons! Hat makers could put up electric signs! Paper-box manufacturers could use glue pots and fans! Then there were the at-home uses: decorative lights, corn poppers, curling irons, foot warmers, massage machines, carpet sweepers, sewing machines, and milk warmers all made the list. “Make electricity cut your housework in two,” the advertisement said.

This has long been the promise of new technology: That it will make your work easier, which will make your life better. The idea is that the arc of technology bends toward social progress. This is practically the mantra of Silicon Valley, so it’s not surprising that Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, seems similarly teleological in his views. [Continue reading…]


Music: Frank Woeste — ‘God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’


Activating the sleepers: ISIS adopts a new strategy in Europe

Christoph Reuter reports: They chose the perfect moment. Just as Europe was letting out a sigh of relief, having captured one of the Paris terrorists after months of pursuit, the bombers detonated their explosives. The signal sent by the arrest was that Islamic State (IS) is defeatable. But the Brussels attack tells us that isn’t the case. Just when you think you’ve beaten us, we’ll strike you right in the heart.

Investigators and intelligence agencies both agree that preparations for the attacks in Brussels must have begun long ago. The Belgian bombs thus heralded a new approach for Islamic State in Europe — one that does not bode well for those trying to prevent acts of terrorism — because the threat is no longer limited to individuals known to the police or already on wanted lists, but also comes from those in the shadows in the second or third rank. Even jihadists who have not yet been identified by officials are now capable of striking.

This approach reflects the one used in IS’ main battle grounds of Syria and Iraq. For some time there, unsuspected aggressors, who have been discreetly trained, have infiltrated targeted circles and built up long-term sleeper cells. Or men from regions neighboring a target are recruited to wait and attack at the right moment.

This is a modus operandi that has been employed by terrorists against prominent and often well-defended opponents multiple times — it’s how Abu Khalid al Suri, the Syrian emissary for al-Qaida boss Aiman al-Zawahiri, was betrayed by one of his own employees and killed in early 2014 by IS despite all possible protective measures being taken at his top secret hideout.

A rebel commander who had fled after Islamic State had taken over Raqqa was abducted by his own driver in Turkey, who was working under the orders of IS. And the founder of the secret activist network Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently was massacred in his apartment in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa by an IS agent who had infiltrated the opponents months before, posing as a supporter.

The people behind this terror are proving to be surprisingly farsighted, patient planners and not rash actors — and this applies in both Europe and Syria. This is the new and long underestimated side of IS. [Continue reading…]


Is Belgium’s nuclear security up to scratch?

By Robert J Downes, King’s College London and Daniel Salisbury, King’s College London

Belgium’s counter-terrorism efforts are once again being called into question following the recent tragedies in Brussels. The attacks were carried out against soft targets – the public check-in area of Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station – but a series of unusual and suspicious occurrences were also reported at nuclear facilities in the country.

Occurring a week before a major international summit on nuclear security, these events highlight the very real threat to nuclear facilities. For Belgium, this recent episode is one item on a long list of security concerns.

The US repeatedly has voiced concerns about Belgium’s nuclear security arrangements since 2003. That year, Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian national and former professional footballer, planned to bomb the Belgian Kleine-Brogel airbase under the aegis of Al-Qaeda.

The airbase, which holds US nuclear weapons, has seen multiple incursions by anti-nuclear activists who have gained access to the site’s “protected area”, which surrounds hardened weapons storage bunkers.

Yet, Belgium only started using armed guards at its nuclear facilities weeks before the March 2016 attacks.

[Read more…]


Washington’s nuclear strategy doesn’t keep Europe safe — it puts everyone at risk of apocalyptic terrorism

French nuclear test "Licorne", French Polynesia, July, 1970

Jeffrey Lewis writes: In an earlier job, I ran a project that tried to outline options for what would become the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review. One of the better parts was the travel. I made a lovely visit to Brussels, where my team had a series of very high-level meetings at the European Union and NATO headquarters. There were some steak frites, a little lambic beer, and a lot of talk about nuclear weapons. And at the time, senior U.S. military officers made one thing very clear to us: The security at the bases stunk. One commander noted that the upgrades necessary to meet security requirements would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Another said his worst fear was that a group of activists would be able to get inside the shelters where the nuclear weapons are stored and use a cell phone to publish a picture of the vaults.

And then it happened. In January 2010, a group of protesters who call themselves “Bombspotters” entered Kleine Brogel.

Apparently the plan was to hang around on the tarmac of the runway and get arrested. But no one came to arrest them. So they wandered around — for either 40 minutes or an hour, the accounts differ — before walking through an open gate into an area with hardened aircraft shelters for the base’s F-16s. Eventually, as the hippies continued to wander around the shelters, security arrived.

The “security force” was one moderately annoyed-looking Belgian guy with a rifle — an unloaded rifle. The effect would only have been more comedic if he had some powdered sugar on his face and maybe a little bit of waffle stuck to his uniform.

The protestors were briefly detained but not for long. There was no panic. The mood in Belgium seemed to be something like “you crazy kids.” Not to worry, the Belgians assured their American partners, the activists weren’t anywhere near the shelters with nuclear weapons.

So, a few months later, the activists entered the base again. They helpfully sent me a little note. This time, they not only got inside the proper area, but they also got inside one of the shelters.

Security never showed up. Apparently, the base commander found out about the incursion when the rest of us did — when the activists posted a video on YouTube a day or so later. This was literally the scenario the U.S. military officer had warned us about — hippies inside a shelter with a cell phone, security nowhere to be found.

Yet still no panic.

One way to look at this is to say that the multiple and redundant security features worked. Sure, the Belgians should have caught the activists at the fence. And, sure, the hippies got inside the inner perimeter. And, sure, the shelter shouldn’t have been unlocked. But the nuclear weapons inside the shelter were still secure in a vault in the floor. A terrorist would have needed the code or a jackhammer to access the bomb itself. Even if it was only the last, or next to last, line of defense, it still worked. Another day without a nuclear holocaust. Who’s complaining?

The other way to look at it is to see that the security failures were not independent. The base had a lax security culture that makes anything possible. There were no dogs because the Belgians were too cheap to hire a dog-master. Who is to say what other security breaches might be possible? Who is to say the same people who didn’t bother to lock the gates or the shelters wouldn’t also leave a vault open? Or wouldn’t say something indiscreet, allowing a group of armed men to show up as a bomb is being moved for servicing? According to this view, you either take security seriously, or you don’t. If you don’t, you are vulnerable to systematic breakdowns that allow the seemingly impossible to happen. [Continue reading…]