International Intrigue Feed

CIA Got Too Cozy with the Bad Guys

There's a really intriguing story in The New York Times concerning the CIA's relationship to a major figure in the Afghanistan drug trade, Haji Bashir Noorzai: An Afghan's Path From Ally of U.S. to Drug Suspect by James Risen.

The best line: "In Afghanistan, finding terrorists has always trumped chasing drug traffickers," said Bobby Charles, the former top counternarcotics official at the State Department.

At times, there was confusion within the government about what to do with Mr. Noorzai. In 2002, while he was talking to the American officials in Afghanistan, a team at C.I.A. headquarters assigned to identify targets to capture or kill in Afghanistan wanted to put him on its list, one former intelligence official said. Like others, he would only speak on condition of anonymity because such discussions were classified.

The C.I.A. team was blocked, the former official recalled. Although he never received an explanation, the former official said that the Defense Department officials and American military commanders viewed counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan at the time as a form of “mission creep” that would distract from the fight against terrorism. . . .

D.E.A. officials say . . . Mr. Noorzai was a major figure in the Afghan drug trade, controlling poppy fields that supplied a significant share of the world’s heroin.

. . . in January 2004, Mr. Charles, the State Department official, proposed placing him on President Bush’s list of foreign narcotics kingpins, for the most wanted drug lords around the world.

At that time, Mr. Charles recalled in an interview, no Afghan heroin traffickers were on the list, which he thought was a glaring omission. He suggested three names, including Mr. Noorzai’s, but said his recommendation was met with an awkward silence during an interagency meeting.

There is a subtext of symbiosis here; a deeply mutualistic relationship between the CIA and the Afghan (and even world) drug trade. The development of such relationships was obviously a big mistake.

Oh, by the way, this is Ground Hog Day.

How to Make Polonium, Part 2

Yesterday, I thought I understood that a particle accelerator was necessary to create man-made polonium. But apparently not. Here is another method that has been suggested to me:

  • Step One: Bake a cylinder of bismuth in a nuclear reactor in an area of high flux of thermal neutrons.
  • Step Two: Use zone melting to separate out the polonium: a heat source is moved up and down the length of the cylinder and this drives the unusual elements along with the heat. A semiconductor plant could have equipment for zone refining.

How to Make Polonium

This morning I blogged an article from the Guardian connecting the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with the trade in poorly guarded nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. Given the half-life of Polonium, over the course of the day as the situation was dicussed further in the media, this scenario was beginning not to seem very plausible.

The New Scientist reports a different possible source of the lethal dose of Polonium, remarking that Polonium is usually made by bombarding the element Bismuth with neutrons:

To poison someone, polonium would most likely have been chemically combined in some type of dissolvable salt, for example polonium nitrate, experts told New Scientist. In this form the material could easily have been added to his food and ingested.

Polonium is a radioactive element that is used industrially as an anti-static material. It is difficult to get hold of and not used regularly by research scientists, but very small traces of it occur naturally. The metal is usually made by bombarding the element bismuth with neutrons.

"To poison someone, large amounts of polonium-210 are required and this would have to be manmade, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor," said Dudley Goodhead at the UK's MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit.

The online description of a 1972 article, Investigation of the purification of black bismuth from polonium, gives a little more detail:

Title    Investigation of the purification of black bismuth from polonium.
Creator/Author    Kirgintsev, A.N. ; Koslyakov, V.I. ; Prokhorov, L.A. ; Aloi, A.S. ; Selivanov, I.M.
Publication Date    1972 Jan 01 . . .
Resource Relation    Sov. Radiochem. (Engl. Transl.) ;14: No. 2, 307-312(1972).; Translated from Radiokhimiya;14: No. 2, 296-302(1972).
Related Subject    POLONIUM ISOTOPES Po-210/content in black bismuth;POLONIUM/separation of bismuth from, by direct crystallization and zone melting;BISMUTH/purification from polonium by direct crystallization and zone melting;BISMUTH/polonium-210 content in black

Timeline_photo1 Sounds like something not to try at home. (For starters, where are you going to keep your particle accelerator? In the fridge? Next to the sushi, right?)

Interestingly, the IAEA notes circa 2004 produced and recovered polonium by irradiating bismuth as a component of Iraq's nuclear program. The report does not give a time frame for this. There have also been more recent reports that Iran is producing Polonium 210 at the Lavizan II military site.

AN ODD BUT IRRELEVANT DETAIL: Polonium apparently has a special significance for Creationists.


Litvinenko's Death & the Market for Stolen Nuclear Materials

The Alexander Litvinenko is going somewhere really interesting: into the shadowy market for stolen nuclear materials. From the Guardian: Spy death linked to nuclear thefts [link fixed]

An investigation was under way last night into Russia's black market trade in radioactive materials amid concern that significant quantities of polonium 210, the substance that killed former spy Alexander Litvinenko, are being stolen from poorly protected Russian nuclear sites

As British police drew up a list of witnesses for questioning over the death, experts warned that thefts from nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union were a major problem.

A senior source at the United Nations nuclear inspectorate, the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Observer he had no doubt that the killing of Litvinenko was an 'organised operation' which bore all the hallmarks of a foreign intelligence agency. The expert in radioactive materials said the ability to obtain polonium 210 and the knowledge needed to use it to kill Litvinenko meant that the attack could not have been carried out by a 'lone assassin'.  . . .

In 1993 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that 10kg of polonium had disappeared from the Sarov, which produces the rare radioactive material and is described as Russia's own version of Los Alamos, the US government's nuclear research base in New Mexico.

Given the halflife of Polonium, there is an interesting story problem here: If X amount of Polonium was stolen on a specific date, how much would be left as of the time of Litvinenko's poisoning? (I don't think we've been told yet how much Scotland Yard thinks he was given, but from the sound of the news story, his assassins didn't just grind up the foil from anti-static brushes and feed it to him.)

Also, it would be interesting to make a map of sites from which Polonium is known to have been stolen along with dates and quantities. Hmmm....

AN INTERESTING ASIDE: A surf through suggests that the main vector of Polonium 210 in the the human diet (not delivered by assassins) is caribou, reindeer, & moose meat, and beef cattle that graze near urnanium mining operations. There are also lots of cold-war era articles about Polonium 210 being found in the blood and urine of uranium miners of various countries.