ABC World News Tonight played “gotcha” journalism with the U.S. Customs Service on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy. ABC’s story ran twice on September 11, 2002; first on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and later, in a somewhat longer version, during its coverage of the day’s events in the observance of 9/11. ABC News says it was performing a service by alerting the public to security vulnerabilities that could permit a catastrophe worse even than 9/11. Critics said the segment was misleading. One even denounced it as “irresponsible” for teaching terrorists how to defeat Customs Service’s safeguards at U.S. ports.
ABC reporter Brian Ross reported he had slipped 15 pounds of depleted uranium by Customs inspectors at the Port of New York. He pointed out that depleted uranium is not dangerous, but he said that if it had been highly enriched uranium, it would have been almost enough for either a crude nuclear device or a “dirty bomb”-a radiological dispersal device (RDD). In early June, the U.S. announced the arrest of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen with possible ties to Al Qaeda, on suspicion of plotting to build and explode an RDD in the United States, which seemed to make ABC’s expos? timely.
Ross charged that the failure of Customs to detect the radioactive material raised serious questions about our ability to thwart a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons. He showed a video of an American anti-nuclear activist accusing Customs of “covering up” its detection failure. In its promotions for the segment, ABC told its viewers they would be “stunned to see how vulnerable we are to nuclear terrorism.” Peter Jennings pronounced Ross’ segment a “truly chilling report.” And ABC quoted a Harvard professor saying that the “single, largest, most urgent threat to Americans today is the threat of nuclear terrorism.” The segment implied that the Bush administration hasn’t kept its promises to increase security against weapons of mass destruction at the nation’s borders.
ABC doesn’t deny this, but it says that its intent was simply to highlight a national security threat that has plagued us for years. At a news conference the next day, citing the ABC report, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) criticized the Bush administration for neglecting homeland security. In an op-ed article in the New York Times, Schumer charged that the administration and its friends in Congress would rather risk lives and spend billions warring on Iraq than implement security at the nation’s port facilities. He also wrote a letter to Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner urging the service to “address these lapses in our security before it is too late.”
Through its report, ABC News highlighted the most difficult nuclear-smuggling challenge facing the U.S. government. Ross used depleted uranium as a surrogate for highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU is classified as a “special nuclear material” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; it is produced by processing natural uranium to make it suitable for use in nuclear warheads. HEU is an unlikely candidate for an RDD. For that terrorists are more likely to use more readily available highly radioactive materials like Cobalt-60, Cesium-137, medical isotopes or radioactive waste. Such a weapon cannot produce a Hiroshima-like explosion, but it can emit life-threatening radiation. Quantities well beyond that featured in Ross’ report would be necessary to do much damage and would be readily detectable should a terrorist try to smuggle a bomb by Customs.
Critics knowledgeable about nuclear materials and detection devices charge that ABC News misrepresented both the threat and our ability to counter it. They say that the story failed to credit Customs’ efforts to mitigate this threat here and abroad. Beyond that, many of those interviewed by AIM thought ABC News was making sweeping conclusions from a minuscule amount of information. Ralph Anderson, a health physicist at the pro-nuclear- power Nuclear Energy Institute, told AIM that it was difficult to tell from ABC’s story if this sting operation was a legitimate test of Customs’ capabilities.
The Brian Ross caper was reminiscent of an effort ABC News made a decade ago to disparage the efforts of Customs to intercept illegal drugs being smuggled from Mexico. The February-A, 1993 AIM Report told of an effort by ABC’s 20/20 to show that the Customs Service’s elaborate system of balloon-borne-radar sensors, chase aircraft and helicopters to intercept illegal drugs being flown in from Mexico was a flop. 20/20 reporter Tom Jarriel tried to prove this point by flying a taco inside a news pouch across the border into Arizona using a small plane. The plane descended to 250 feet and a news pouch containing the taco was dropped, mimicking an illegal drug drop. Customs tracked both Jarriel’s plane and the ABC car that retrieved the pouch. If it had contained drugs Jarriel and his crew would have been arrested.
The failure of the ABC caper was reported by the Arizona papers and the Associated Press, but not by ABC News. When 20/20 aired its segment, Jarriel didn’t mention that Customs had intercepted the taco. Instead, he went on at length about how Customs’ technology was failing to stop airborne smugglers.
This time around, ABC News’ modus operandi was about the same. The segment opened with reporter Brian Ross boarding a train in Austria carrying a suitcase containing the depleted uranium stored inside an industrial-type pipe with two screw-on caps. Ross said the pipe was lead-lined, which would shield the low-level radioactivity emitted by the depleted uranium. Ross was shown traveling through Europe to Istanbul, Turkey, said by ABC to be a major transshipment point for nuclear smugglers. During his trip, Ross crossed several borders, but the suitcase remained untouched on a luggage rack above his head.
In Istanbul, several men, Middle Eastern in appearance, were videotaped packing the suitcase inside an ornate shipping crate, which was then placed inside a larger shipping container together with other household-type items. All of this took place in a market square out in broad daylight, but the suitcase was never opened on camera to show the pipe with the uranium inside. The container was then loaded onto the Singapore Bay, a freighter bound for New York.
The depleted uranium’s journey didn’t begin in Europe. ABC borrowed it from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) library, in Washington, D.C., where it had been on display for about 20 years. In addition to providing ABC with the material, the NRDC, along with a well-credentialed director of a university physics department in Austria, provided technical advice to ABC during the preparation of the segment. The NRDC is an environmental-activist non-profit organization. A number of former NRDC activists served in and others acted as advisors and consultants to the Clinton administration. It has a strong anti-nuclear agenda and favors the elimination of fissile material for both military and civilian purposes altogether.
Depleted uranium is the material left over after natural uranium is enriched and separated out for use as fuel. Depleted uranium is 40 per cent less radioactive than the natural uranium commonly found in the ground, rivers and streams, or oceans. It has numerous commercial uses, such as counterweight in passenger jets like the one ABC used to ship the material to Europe. Its main health concerns stem from the potential toxicity of its chemical properties rather than from radioactivity. Fifteen pounds is the upper limit on the amount of this type of material that may be used or shipped without a specific license under Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules. Consequently, shipping the depleted uranium both out of and back into the U.S. was perfectly legal.
Second, nuclear smuggling is not exactly a “new” threat to U.S. national security. Nuclear-materials smuggling has been a concern for decades, but worries peaked in the mid-1990s after a German intelligence sting showed how easily such materials could be transported from Moscow into Western Europe. That set off a chain of events that led to the U.S. pouring millions of dollars into the former Soviet Union to help the Russians secure their stockpiles of nuclear materials. Millions more were spent moving such materials out of harms way, from hot spots throughout the old Soviet Union.
Only recently it was disclosed that more than 100 pounds of weapons-usable material was moved from a vulnerable nuclear- research reactor in Belgrade to a secure location in Russia. Meanwhile, scientists at laboratories throughout the United States, Russia, and Europe have been developing new and improved sensor technologies to detect and prevent nuclear materials smuggling.
Finally, scientists involved in the fight against nuclear smuggling credit the U.S. Customs Service with being far ahead of the rest of the government in deploying modern radiation detection technologies and procedures. Approximately 16 million shipping containers are estimated to enter the U.S. every year with 20 percent of these coming into New York and New Jersey ports. Few Americans seem ready for the major disruptions in the flow of commerce that would result from opening and inspecting hundreds of these shipping containers daily. In order to balance the dictates of commerce against the potential smuggling threats, Customs has developed a set of protocols to guide its inspectors when they encounter suspicious containers.
Customs also says it has deployed a multi-layered defense that extends outward to potential foreign sources of nuclear materials, and shipment points. It trains foreign border guards and customs officials to detect nuclear materials, and claims eight significant overseas seizures since 1998. This includes a Bulgarian seizure of a small quantity of highly enriched uranium in May 1999 after the inspector and his supervisors had been recently trained under the Customs Service’s program. Several critics said that focusing on one aspect of Customs efforts was unfair and missed the point of the service’s overall approach to combating nuclear-materials smuggling.
In his World News Tonight segment, ABC reporter Brian Ross said that the package of depleted uranium “sailed right through” port authorities, but that is not quite accurate. Customs also knows what ABC knows about Istanbul as a potential shipping point for nuclear smugglers, and, following its protocol, it identified container “GTSU414048” from among 1139 on the Singapore Bay for further scrutiny. Customs says that its inspectors detected no radioactivity emanating from the container. ABC News’ experts professed shock and some dismay at the putative failure. ABC’s NRDC expert said, “This is what [customs is] looking for, or should be looking for…and this is what they absolutely have to stop.” The longer segment shown later in the evening includes Ross’ statement that the container had been “targeted for special screening.” ABC News defended its conclusion that “it sailed right through” by showing that the crate had not been opened. This led Ross to conclude that Customs had failed to detect the depleted uranium.
But technical experts interviewed by AIM were not surprised that Customs’ detectors failed to pick up any radioactivity; they said that 15 pounds of depleted uranium would be an incredibly small radioactive source, especially when shielded with lead, no matter how close detectors got to the package. Others said that customs’ equipment should be set up to detect weapons-usable nuclear materials, like highly enriched uranium or plutonium. These experts commented that since depleted uranium is not a threat, why waste detection resources on it?
Following its protocol, Customs says it took x-rays and determined that ABC’s container with the depleted uranium inside was too small to warrant opening the crate for a closer look. Did the inspectors make the right call? Again, technical experts told AIM that they did. In their view, the package was too small to represent a threat, although no one wanted to discuss potential sizes and shapes of nuclear warheads on the record. One expert said that ABC News shipped a worthless piece of junk. Scott Peterson, a vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that ABC “might just as well have been carrying 15 pounds of oranges” in its suitcase.
On camera, however, the NRDC spokesman described Ross’ suitcase as a “perfect mockup.” “It replicates everything but the capability to explode.” Perfect mockup of what? ABC reporter Ross referred to it as looking like a “pipe bomb,” but to detonate a package of weapons-usable material this size would require high explosives, initiators, and electronics. Then the package would have the “capability to explode.” But then the package would also be heavier and present a very different image to x-ray devices. ABC News may have meant a “perfect mockup” of smuggled nuclear material that could later be combined with more nuclear materials and wired up to create a terrorist nuclear device.
NRDC and ABC say, yes, that is exactly what they meant. By adding a tad more lead shielding, a terrorist could slip through enough highly enriched uranium to build a one-kiloton bomb. That’s really scary, but is it accurate? On camera, Brian Ross said that depleted uranium gives off a signature much like that of highly enriched uranium, leading the viewer to conclude that if Customs couldn’t detect this package, how could it pick up weapons-grade material. He included a caveat, saying that the signatures would appear similar “to detection scanners now in use” presumably by Customs officials and others.
Technical experts say that too is misleading. First, no radioactivity was detected. Second, depending on the sensitivity of the detectors now in use, highly enriched uranium can be detected. Experts say that highly enriched uranium (HEU), unlike plutonium, is devilishly difficult to detect. Add enough lead shielding to packaged HEU and detection is even more difficult, but not impossible.
Isotopes within the HEU do give off detectable signatures and may also give off some spontaneous fission products, also detectable, but experts refused to discuss these in detail with AIM, and presumably ABC News, due to classification concerns. Enough lead shielding could significantly reduce those signatures, which is why Customs has developed a multi-layered defense, including the use of powerful x-ray devices. Adding more lead, however, adds to the material density of the package which, in turn, presents a different image to x-ray devices.
Customs opted not to open the crate, leading ABC News to conclude that Customs had not picked up the radioactivity. Customs agrees and says that’s why the package was x-rayed. Here is where ABC News couldn’t resist the “gotcha” spin in putting together its segment. ABC interviewed a Customs inspector who said that “if we can’t tell exactly what’s in the container by those screenings, we’re going to get into the container and find out for ourselves.” On its Web site (ABCNEWS.com), the inspector, identified as the “chief of the contraband enforcement team,” says that “we’re doing whatever it takes to screen a high-risk device.”
In an on-camera interview, Brian Ross challenged U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner to produce evidence that his inspectors had indeed detected the material. Bonner responded that Customs had taken radiation readings, then x-rayed the container and made the call. Ross asked Bonner for the x-rays, but Bonner declined to show Ross or the viewing audience the pictures. Ross then cut to a clip of the NRDC spokesman charging that the inspectors missed the package and Bonner with “covering up” their mistakes. That editing suggested that Bonner was lying about the existence of the x-ray pictures, an allegation ABC News denies was its intention. That is one explanation.
Or it could be that Bonner didn’t want to compromise the sensitivity or sophistication of the technologies available to our inspectors or reveal too much of our protocols and procedures for countering such a threat. Customs press officers made this point, saying that, as a policy, Customs declines to reveal the sensitivities of its detection technologies to any reporter. They don’t want to alert the bad guys to Customs’ capabilities and make a tough job even tougher. One of the main principles governing the handling of classified information is “need to know.” Individuals are supposed to be able to demonstrate “need to know” before they can access classified information. Customs judged that ABC News, and through ABC the bad guys, don’t have a “need to know” these details. Customs officials did offer to show AIM copies of the x-ray pictures taken of the container. And Customs described to ABC News the configuration of the items in the x-rayed package, but ABC didn’t include this in its segment.
ABC News says that during the making of its segment, Customs never intimated that it possessed any technical capabilities or methods beyond those displayed during the Ross report. A Customs Service news release issued after the report stated that the service “employs an arsenal of inspection technology (other than radiation detection devices) that could potentially detect such a device. Radiation detection technology is not the only way to detect shielded uranium.”
Technical experts, including those engaged in the development of radiation detectors, readily agreed that Customs shouldn’t reveal its capabilities to ABC News; some even termed the report “irresponsible” for discussing Customs’ supposed vulnerabilities on the air. Few experts interviewed by AIM dismiss lightly the problem of detecting highly enriched uranium, if that was indeed ABC’s objective. Most criticized the use of depleted uranium as a surrogate for HEU, however, to make judgments about current Customs Service capabilities.
So what was the point of the story? And why run it on the first anniversary of September 11? ABC News Vice President Jeffrey W. Schneider told AIM, “The media has always provided essential checks on claims made by the government. Our report-which exposed a dangerous hole in the Nation’s security-fulfilled that fundamental mission.” This suggests that ABC News is claiming that the nation has no defense against terrorists smuggling HEU into the country. Critics acknowledge the difficulty of detecting HEU, but say the task is not impossible.
It is possible that Customs is shielding its vulnerabilities behind a curtain of government classification rules. Many experts AIM talked to, both in government and out, refused to go beyond generalities and categorically declined to discuss the specifics of radiation detectors now in use. AIM’s interviews indicate that the handheld radiation pagers used by Customs inspectors and shown in the ABC segment are the most sensitive available for their size. The “laws of physics” will make it difficult to improve much on these. As Senator Schumer indicated, there are sensitive devices currently in research and development at the nation’s nuclear labs and elsewhere, but deployment still seems some years away.
The customs inspectors said they were looking for “high-risk” threats, a category that clearly does not include depleted uranium. Commissioner Bonner said that his service had determined that the package did not represent a threat, and it didn’t.
Did ABC intend to show that Europe has porous borders, especially the former Warsaw Pact states, like Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania? But who doesn’t know that and why not mention the programs Customs has to train foreign border guards and customs officials? And what about Customs’ recent successes in Bulgaria and Uzbekistan at interdicting real nuclear materials?
Could Customs use more funding and personnel to expand these programs? What bureaucracy would ever turn down an increase in its budget? That probably accounts for Commissioner Bonner’s admission to ABC News that his system does have some vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, ABC News offered no solutions to the “dangerous” problem it says it exposed. The NRDC offered some solutions on its Web site, mostly along the lines of getting rid of all nuclear materials or throwing a leak-proof security cordon around them. But these solutions are simply extensions of existing U.S. programs that have been underway for some time. None address the fundamental physics problem of detecting highly enriched uranium, especially if shielded, in a nuclear smuggling scenario.
Some critics believe that the problem with ABC News’ story was a lack of expertise on the part of ABC’s experts. They say that depleted uranium is no more dangerous than the taco ABC tried to smuggle across the U.S. border ten years ago. The problem of detecting highly enriched uranium, especially when shielded, is well known and has forced Customs and other federal agencies to develop multiple, synergistic approaches to combating this threat. But ABC News said nothing about those efforts.
Beyond urging homeland security upgrades, however, it is possible that ABC News was joining in with Senator Schumer and others arguing against war on Iraq by pointing to “other, more significant threats” to U.S. national security. ABC News denied that, saying that its story had been months in preparation and was timed to air on the 9/11 anniversary. That’s plausible, but the public interest might have been better served by a program focusing on what Iraq is doing to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.