November 21, 2004
Journalists and the CIA bomb outBy Douglas Hanson
The CIA and its coterie of leak—recipient journalists have seriously damaged the public's understanding of the terror dangers we face. Now that the public's attention finally has turned to the threat of Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities, it is vital that everyone understand how a clever misdirection of focus has seriously understated the ability of the mullahs to produce atomic weapons.
Since Porter Goss embarked on the much—needed shake—up of the CIA, we've been treated to agency leaks to the legacy media from the proverbial 'unnamed sources' in an attempt to persuade the American people that Goss will single handedly render the agency useless in supporting the War on Terror. Naturally, the reporters and their sources fail to account for the CIA's decades—long incompetence in the counter—terror role.
But incompetence or lack of vigilance is only part of the problem. Columnist Robert Novak relays a brutally honest assessment from Senator John McCain:
"...with CIA leaks intended to harm the re—election campaign of the president of the United States, it is not only dysfunctional but a rogue organization."
Calling the CIA a rogue organization is fully justified given their recent campaign to covertly and overtly oppose the President's policies, and given that there were also a few who seemingly subverted our efforts in the search for WMD in Iraq.
But now, with the focus on Iran and its nuclear program, the real issue is: what is the true state of the mullahs' WMD production capabilities? In other words, while the CIA has been busy playing a dangerous information warfare game against its own Commander—in—Chief, how can we be sure of their technical and tactical assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat?
An example is Dafna Linzer's report in the Washington Post that questions the reliability of information on Iran's nuclear program which Colin Powell had shared with reporters on Wednesday. There is a disconcerting theme that runs through this article and other questionably sourced reports. They always discuss the development of a nuclear warhead that is the most technically advanced: the implosion type. In the WaPo article, Linzer says,
If the information on Iran were confirmed, it would mean the Islamic republic is further along than previously known in developing a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it. The documents included a specific warhead design based on implosion [emphasis mine] and adjustments aimed at outfitting the warhead on existing Iranian missile systems.
Another example is the reporting concerning 'missing' high—explosives supposedly looted from Al Qaqaa. We were told that the composition of these explosives were such that they could be used to trigger a nuclear weapon. Implosion weapons were frequently mentioned in these press accounts because they require a precision triggering mechanism with very high—quality explosives. All but ignored in these articles is that any nation or terrorist organization wanting to quickly build a nuclear bomb would reasonably opt for the more simple design called the 'gun' type.
The singular focus on the implosion—type weapon from the press is puzzling because the greater complexity of the design would logically deter any fledging nuclear power. Both types of bombs require that two sub—critical masses of special nuclear material (SNM) be brought together quickly to form a super—critical mass to start the chain reaction. However, the implosion design produces greater yield and the SNM is used more efficiently. Originally, the Manhattan Project scientists devised the implosion method where a spherical sub—critical mass of Uranium—235 or Plutonium—239 is compressed by the detonation of high explosives arrayed around the sphere (called lenses). When the high explosive is detonated, an inwardly directed implosion wave is produced, which compresses the fissionable material to achieve super—criticality.
The gun type, however, does not require precise three dimensional triggering, nor does it need the absolute highest quality of explosives (although the higher the quality, the better). This type of weapon is simply a tubular device in which high explosive is used to blow one sub—critical piece of SNM from one end of the tube into another sub—critical piece at the opposite end of the tube. This was the design used in the 'Little Boy' bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August of 1945. American scientists were so convinced of the simplicity and dependability of the design that they didn't even bother to test it before it was loaded on the Enola Gay.
It is critical to distinguish the different types of designs when analyzing potential nuclear capabilities of rogue regimes. If weapon—grade plutonium were used in a gun—assembly design, neutrons released from spontaneous fission would start the nuclear chain reaction too soon, resulting in a "fizzle" of greatly reduced yield. Therefore, implosion weapons can use either plutonium or uranium, but the gun type can use only uranium.
The current flap over Iran's last minute surge to produce large quantities of Uranium Hexafluoride for production into SNM before the November 22 'freeze' deadline is significant because Iranian scientists have given themselves the option of creating either type of weapon. But, just because Iraq previously attempted to build an implosion—type bomb using uranium does not mean Iran or any other terror state would develop a weapon using this more complex design.*
If the legacy media's obsession with implosion—type weapons is a reflection of their CIA sources, it means intelligence estimates of Iran's ability to produce a working nuclear weapon may be seriously flawed. Would the mullahs and terror chiefs be overly concerned about weapon efficiency and maximizing yield, or would they want a simple, almost foolproof design that is nevertheless able to kill tens of thousands of people? The answer is self—evident.
The Axis of Evil nations are experts at delaying and deceiving the EU, the UN, and the IAEA inspectors. The problem is that time may be running out quicker than we think.
* North Korea decided to go the more difficult route and developed implosion—type weapons using Plutonium—239. The 'Fat Man' bomb dropped on Nagasaki used only about six kilograms of plutonium to produce a yield of 21—23 kilotons. Keep in mind that a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, NK that can produce about six kilograms plutonium per year, began operating in 1986!
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent