Saturday, September 7, 2013

Is Intelligence Analysis of Syria Really Infallible?

Steve Sack / Minnesota Star Tribune, Cagle Cartoons
Steve Sack, Star Tribune.

    The Village Elliot is not impressed by Secretary Kerry's capsule summary of intelligence on the use of sarin gas in Syria.  In short this rationale is ten times weaker than the flawed rationale that led the US into Iraq. 
     What we are told is that there is physical evidence that sarin (a deadly neurotoxin) was indeed used in Syria and killed hundreds of people.  
     We are also told that the delivery system for the likely weapons originated in government controlled areas and that the target was in rebel controlled areas, and that the government undertook unspecified precautions before the delivery system was actually used.  Doesn't that prove that it was Assad who ordered the strike?

     Not to me it doesn't.  What it proves is that the local military may have been tipped off, perhaps by an informant.  

   The press reports that the Office of the Director for National Intelligence issued a report which acknowledges that the U.S. intelligence community does not know where Syria's chemical weapons are stored.  Also, there is no proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, nor was any consideration allowed for rogue elements within the Syrian military.  This according to the Huntington Post citing two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials.  ( ) . So there is some evidence behind President Obama's position, but it is by no means a "slam dunk" assessment.  

John Cole / Scranton Times-Tribune, Cagle Cartoons
John Cole / Scranton Times-Tribune, Cagle Cartoons

     There is no understandable motive based on the information given to date.  Assad's forces, by all accounts, were WINNING the skirmish with the rebels.  Why would they they randomly decide to use chemical weapons and invite the US and the West to support the rebels?  That would be stupid.   This part of the story makes no sense.  

     Note that there is not one group of rebels, but perhaps as many as a dozen, most of whom actually hate each other.  The most effective fighting force is said to be Al Qaeda.  Hence there are about eleven groups with a potential motive. 

     Another thing we don't know is the target of the gas.  Was it truly just a random strike on civilians at a random location? Were unarmed civilians the true targets?  Or were there some high profile persons involved?  I would like to know who the prominent persons were who were killed.  

     Moreover, the Russian KGB has gone public with their own assessment (prior to the attack) that terrorists such as Al Qaeda have chemical weapons.  They would be interested in having the government be blamed for using chemical weapons in order to trick the US into supporting their civil war efforts.  That is a potential motive.

    The US intelligence services pooh-pooh the KGB report.  However, it seems to me based on the records, the KGB is not too shabby, and the US intelligence agencies have produced major fiascos when the President leans on their advice. Beyond, that however, why would anyone doubt that Al Qaeda has chemical weapons?  And why would the US want to punish one chemical weapons holder and support another chemical weapons holder?  This rationale is so stupid that it is beyond belief.  I believe the American people should hold the President, Secretary of State and Intelligence Services accountable, and ask them to prove that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are free and clean of chemical weapons as precondition before even considering the mad debate of intervening on their behalf against the Syrian government. 

Nate Beeler / Columbus Dispatch, Cagle Cartoons

Nate Beeler, Columbus Dispatch

    US policymakers like Secretary Kerry claim that the evidence is clear "beyond a reasonable doubt."  Well if you're going to use courtroom language, we may as well ask what kind of trial is carried out with thousands of prosecuting attorneys and zero defense attorneys?  It's no wonder that the intelligence agencies routinely issue false threat assessments, since there are no checks on what they say.  Remember when they said that the per-capita income in Communist East Germany was higher than the per-capita income in West Germany?  What a farce!  They also failed to foresee the fall of the USSR, believing that it was all a communist plot to get America to lower its defenses.  

     More recently, of  course, they have screwed up in assessing the existence of nuclear weapons and chemical weapons in Iraq under the Saddam regime.  They are not infallible. My sense is that the analysis at the lower levels is much more thorough and evenhanded, but as it goes up the chain of command it becomes more and more slanted until it hits the cabinet level.  But at that point all common sense seems to go out the window.  

    They now want us to believe that chemical weapons are being used by Syrian President Assad, and that there are all these political moderates in Syria that can be supported with American aid and military power.  Secretary Kerry reports that three fourths of the rebels are moderates who will become US allies in due course.  Only a small number are extremists or Islamists.  Oh boy!  What exciting news!  Can I have some of these moderates over to my house for dinner?

     This despite the fact that the press reports that Al Qaeda is the most effective anti-government fighting force, and nobody has actually interviewed or even seen one of these "moderates."  In short this is complete madness, and if Secretary Kerry can be so off base in his assessment about moderates in Syria, then he may well be wrong about many other things as well, including the true function of chemical warfare in Syria.  

"Maybe 15% to 25% might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys," Kerry said.
Something else that needs to be pointed out is that in a situation where the overwhelming majority of people hate the guts of the US, one way to strengthen Assad would be to say  something like, "Assad must go!"  Fear and loathing of the US may cause the opposite reaction from what is intended.  What exactly are we hoping will happen if we intervene in Syria?  This may be the subject of a future essay.  

For further reading:

Tal Toplin, "John Kerry: There are moderates in Syria,"  Politico 9/6/2013,  

Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 80 Updated - February 11, 2004, Edited by Jeffrey Richelson,  Originally posted December 20, 2002, 
Previously updated February 26, 2003.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fukushima Still Menaces Japan

    Fukushima is one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, and still continues as TEPCO, the plant owner wallows in panic, and the authorities are indecisive about whether it needs to act.  From the beginning of the incident, I was concerned that a nuclear meltdown might be occurring, and said so in my blog.  I had trouble interpreting explosions at the site as anything but cladding melt, which creates explosive hydrogen.  At the same time, the plant owner (TEPCO) attempted to minimize the severity of the incident, and nuclear experts worldwide chided those of us who expressed concern.    [all-right-its-time-to-stop-the-fukushima-hysteria ; .  

 Although the explosions at Fukushima have long stopped, it is still an ongoing disaster. 

    Initially Fukushima was ranked below Three Mile Island in 1979 (in which a reactor core was damaged, but from which very little radiation was released).  But making a long story short, it was not possible to lie indefinitely.  It's now understood that very significant amounts of radiation were in fact released; they had to evacuate the area for miles around the plant, and the accident is in fact on the scale of Chernobyl, and in some ways it might be worse.   

   As of August 2013, it has been realized that radiation has continued to leak from the site into the Pacific Ocean.  TEPCO has basically kept quiet about the situation for the past two years, realizing that it's a huge enough problem that they really can't do much about it without help, and the Japanese government has also been content to tolerate the issue.  But it has not gone away, and recent revelations have again caused worldwide alarm for the situation.    

    As a reminder, the nuclear industry promised that this entire event was not going to happen.  Nuclear power was said to be absolutely safe, so much so that a rational person could not help but support it.  Nuclear meltdowns could not, not happen (except maybe in a reactor built by a communist country such as the USSR).   

    I am very put off by commentary that whines that the press is not giving the nuclear industry a fair shake in its reporting of the incident.  To be sure there are some wild articles in the literature that are filled with gross inaccuracies.  But the salient point is that the Fukushima disaster goes way, way beyond anything that the nuclear industry was willing to consider as a likely scenario.  We have to deal with the situation first, and resolving the whining can wait.  

   This is not business as usual.  Thus far the Japanese government has affixed blame to the reactor operators, TEPCO.  However, affixing blame does not solve the problem.  Likewise, allowing TEPCO to go bankrupt would not stop the radiation leaks to the environment.   By now it is all too obvious to the Village Elliot that the fix can not be left to TEPCO, because the size of the disaster dwarfs what they are capable of handling.  The twin objectives of stopping the exposure of the environment and remaining viable as a company are not compatible.  

    Instead, in my opinion the Japanese government needs to stop what they are doing, allocate however many billion dollars are required and fix the damn reactor and fix it now.  If they can't afford it, or need technical help, they need to make an international appeal.  Yes, it's against Japanese custom to confront this sort of situation directly, and they dislike asking for outside help as well.  But customs be hanged, this is no time to worry about saving face.  There are lives at stake, and action is needed now.  Some 400,000 barrels per day of contaminated water are leaking into the Pacific ocean.  

     What does "contaminated" mean?  Of course there are different levels, but in this case the contamination results from flowing water over damaged fuel rods, which allow fission fragments to dissolve in the water.   This is much more serious than the puffs of steam which are occasionally released from nuclear installations, which result in no significant exposure to anyone.  This is not just steam.
     What do standards mean?  Commentators angrily denounce standards (some say they are way too high, others say they are way too low).  The idea of setting standards, whether for radiation or air pollution or other factors affecting the health of the public, is to set the standards at a point that the public is not going to suffer health effects if exposure is kept below the standards.  If the standards are exceeded, that is a cause for alarm though not necessarily a guarantee that harm will occur. The standards reflect the collected wisdom of thousands of professionals over a 70 year period.  Hence if the radiation is over the standards, some sort of action is needed. 

     The recent issue is that radioactive material is being transported via groundwater into the nearby Pacific ocean at an unknown rate.    But it is no doubt accumulating in seafood.  As of 2012, Buesseler  reports that 40% of the fish near Fukushima are above the permissible radioactivity standards for cesium (note:  Buesseler remind us all that all animals are naturally radioactive to a small degree, and that the cesium radioactivity is smaller than the natural level.  But the Village Elliot goes back to the point that the standards were set for a reason, and thus the government is correct to ban fishing in these areas.  Part of the logic is that if we are measuring elevated levels of radiation, there may be some other fish that have contamination that are even higher, so it is prudent to ban consumption of fish when they get a low level of radiation).  Buesseler also indicates that the presence of cesium levels in the fish provides evidence that cesium has been continuously leaking into the ocean, and that it was not halted, despite announcements to the contrary by the Japanese government.  This is a very serious point, as the government did report that radiation leaks had been stopped, only to backtrack.  If you or I did that, we would be considered to be vile liars.  

[Ken O. Buesseler, Fishing for Answers off Fukushima, Science 338, 480 (2012)].
[ Japan nuclear crisis: Fukushima radiation leak stopped, By Danielle Demetriou, the Telegraph, in Tokyo 6:40AM BST 06 Apr 2011, Fukushima-radiation-leak-stopped].

It is simply inconceivable that the world can tolerate the radioactive contamination of the food supply in the ocean, particularly since the transfer of radionuclides to the ocean is not stopping and may be accelerating.  This has to be stopped, and it has to be stopped now.  

What is to be done at Fukushima?  Attempts to encase the reactors in cement have apparently not worked.  Now they are thinking of ways to drill underneath the complex and freeze the ground underneath.  That may sound crazy, and is no doubt horrifically expensive, but that is the type of difficult undertaking that needs to be a national priority--or even a global priority.  No more saving face, its necessary to have full and open disclosures and to get this problem solved in order to save lives.  


One of my friends asks whether there is a threat to Alaska and California.  My first answer is that I think I am not competent to predict that with certainty.  No doubt  some commentators will say that we are all going to die, and others will say nothing can happen.  How can anyone tell who is correct?  Well, for myself I would evaluate radioactivity by comparing it to current levels in the human body.  All mammals are slightly radioactive due to the presence of a radioactive isotope of potassium.  There is something like a one in 150,000 chance in the next 50 years that you will die from cancer caused by your own radioactivity (see  Human Radioactivity Muller ). You have a little more risk if you have a bed partner (who is also radioactive through no fault of their own).   So if I were eating food that caused my body to become appreciably more radioactive, I would be concerned.    Conversely, if the total dose to my body is less than I get from sleeping with my slightly radioactive wife, I'm not going to worry about it.  Let's not confuse people with wacky numbers and terminology.  Let's ask whether the radiation level is higher or lower than you get from sleeping with someone.   I doubt whether anything will happen in the US because of the immense size of the Pacific Ocean, but let's continue to check.