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Archive for November 30th, 2006

$1 Million Hit? The Real Deal on Polonium


Polonium-210, the radioactive substance that killed former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, is easily available on the Internet, but it could take $1 million to amass a lethal amount, according to leading authorities.

Polonium-210 isotopes are offered online by a number of companies, including United Nuclear of New Mexico. The company sells polonium-210 isotopes for about $69 but says it would take about 15,000 orders, for a total cost of over $1 million, to have a toxic amount.

United Nuclear today posted an online clarification to answer concerns they are selling weapons of assassination.

“These quantities of radioactive material are not hazardous,” says the statement on United Nuclear’s Web site. “Another point to keep in mind is that an order for 15,000 sources would look a tad suspicious, considering we sell about one or two sources every three months.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agrees that the quantities sold by United Nuclear and similar companies are not hazardous. Even a large amount of polonium-210 is only toxic if swallowed or absorbed.

It remains unclear how anyone could have obtained the amount apparently used in the poisoning death of the former Russian spy. Speculation that it must have come from a Russian nuclear reactor is being discounted by many experts.

“The idea that you’d have to have access to the Russian nuclear complex is silly,” said Michael Levi, Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. Levi says that while it isn’t easy to obtain a deadly amount of polonium online, it also isn’t prohibitively difficult.

Some devices that are used to clean records and film contain polonium-210, which Levi says could be extracted from the devices given some chemistry skills and provided the person had the other necessary materials. That equipment could be bought for a couple hundred dollars.

Many of those devices, however, are designed to prevent the polonium from being extractable and, according to the NRC, the devices would be a “highly unlikely source” from which someone would acquire a hazardous amount of polonium-210.

“It’s not easy to get,” said David McIntyre at the NRC. “Any amount if you were to disassemble the device would be very difficult to get, and it still wouldn’t be in a hazardous form.”

Levi agrees with the NRC that it would be hard, but he says it is far from impossible. “It doesn’t help that vendors provide engineering diagrams of their devices on the web,” he said.

So where else could one get polonium-210 without climbing the walls at a Russian nuclear complex? Other possible sources include commercial and research reactors overseas that deal with polonium isotopes.

Whatever the source, experts agree that the use of polonium as a murder weapon is a peculiar choice.

“There certainly are more tried and true ways to kill people,” said Levi. “You shouldn’t be particularly scared about polonium because there are a lot of other ways to kill people by slipping something into their drink.”

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U.S. warns of possible Qaeda financial cyber attack

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government has warned U.S. private financial services of an al Qaeda call for a cyber attack against U.S. online stock trading and banking Web sites beginning Friday, officials said on Thursday.

The officials — a person familiar with the warning and a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security — said the Islamic militant group aimed to penetrate and destroy the databases of the U.S. stock market and banking Web sites.

Homeland Security said it had no evidence to corroborate the threat but had issued the warning out of an “abundance of caution.” The department said in a statement that the threat was for all of December.

“There is no information to corroborate this aspirational threat. As a routine matter and out of an abundance of caution, US-CERT issued the situational awareness report to industry stakeholders,” said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke.

US-CERT is the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team. The U.S. government said the threat was to avenge the holding of suspected terrorists at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo.

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Bush agrees to speedy turnover in Iraq

AMMAN, Jordan -
President Bush said Thursday the United States will speed a turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces but assured Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Washington is not looking for a “graceful exit” from a war well into its fourth violent year.

Under intensifying political pressure at home, the American and Iraqi leaders came together for a hastily arranged summit to explore how to stop escalating violence that is tearing Iraq apart and eroding support for Bush’s war strategy.

With Bush hoping to strengthen his Iraqi counterpart’s fragile government, the tensions that flared when their opening session was abruptly cancelled Wednesday evening were not apparent when they appeared before reporters after breakfast Thursday.

” I appreciate the courage you show during these difficult times as you lead your country,” Bush told al-Maliki after nearly two and a half hours of talks. “He’s the right guy for Iraq.” It was their third face-to-face meeting since al-Maliki took power about six months ago.

“There is no problem,” declared al-Maliki.

There were no immediate answers for mending the Shiite-Sunni divide that is fueling sectarian bloodshed in Iraq or taming the stubborn insurgency against the U.S. presence. The leaders emerged from their breakfast and formal session with few specific ideas, particularly on Bush’s repeated pledge to move more quickly to transfer authority for Iraq’s security to al-Maliki’s government.

“One of his frustrations with me is that he believes that we’ve been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people,” Bush said. “He doesn’t have the capacity to respond. So we want to accelerate that capacity.”

There was no explanation from either side of how that would happen, beyond support for the long-standing goals of speeding the U.S. military’s effort to train Iraqi security forces and to give more military authority over Iraq to al-Maliki.

A senior al-Maliki aide who attended Thursday’s talks said the Iraqi leader presented Bush a blueprint for the equipping and training of Iraqi security forces. The aide, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the information, declined to give details.

The November elections that handed control of Congress to Democrats have given rise to heightened calls for the about 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq to begin coming home.

Bush acknowledged that pressure and said he wanted to start troop withdrawals as soon as possible. Still, he insisted the U.S. will stay “until the job is complete.”

“I know there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,” he said. “This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.”

The president added: “I’m a realist because I understand how tough it is inside of Iraq.”

Thursday’s meetings were supposed to be Bush’s second set of strategy sessions in the Jordanian capital. But the first meeting between Bush and al-Maliki, scheduled for Wednesday night along with Jordan’s king, was scrubbed.

Accounts varied as to why, but it followed the leak of a classified White House memo critical of al-Maliki and a boycott of the Iraqi leader’s government in Baghdad.

Thirty Iraqi lawmakers and five cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they were suspending participation in Parliament and the government to protest al-Maliki’s decision to meet with Bush.

Bush said al-Maliki “discussed with me his political situation,” but he declined to step publicly into delicate internal Iraqi matters.

Privately, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly pressed the Iraqi prime minister to disband a heavily armed Shiite militia loyal to al-Sadr and blamed for much of the country’s sectarian violence, according to the senior al-Maliki aide.

The official quoted al-Maliki as telling Bush that controlling the group “is not a big problem and we will find a solution for it.” Al-Sadr is a key al-Maliki political backer and the prime minister has regularly sidestepped U.S. demands to deal with the Mahdi Army.

Before the cameras, Al-Maliki sent the protesting forces at home a message.
“Those who participate in this government need to bear responsibilities, and foremost upon those responsibilities is the protection of this government, the protection of the constitution, the protection of the law, not breaking the law,” he said.

But al-Maliki’s insistence on not attending the three-way meeting with Bush and Jordan’s king was a troubling sign of possible U.S. difficulties ahead in the effort to calm Iraq.

The Bush administration is believed to be pushing its Sunni allies in the region — meeting host Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia — to persuade Sunni insurgent sympathizers in Iraq to reconcile with the Shiite factions that are close to the Iraqi leader.

Al-Maliki’s refusal to meet with Bush while Jordan’s king was in attendance showed a level of mistrust toward his Sunni-dominated neighbors that could bode ill for the U.S. strategy.

Bush, meanwhile, continued to reject drawing Shiite-led Iran into helping Iraq in its struggle for peace.

“I appreciate the prime minister’s views that the Iraqis are plenty capable of running their own business and they don’t need foreign interference from neighbors that will be destabilizing the country,” he said.

Al-Maliki, though, seemed open to the possibility of Tehran, as well as Damascus, getting involved.

A bipartisan commission on Iraq that will unveil recommendations next week is expected to urge direct diplomacy with Iran and Syria America’s chief rivals in the Middle East.

“We are ready to cooperate with everybody who believe that they need to communicate with the national unity government, especially our neighbors,” al-Maliki said. “Our doors are open.”

The two agreed that Iraq should not be partitioned along sectarian lines into semi-regions for the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, Bush said.

“The prime minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want, and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence,” the president said. “I agree.”

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Court Hears Global Warming Case

The Supreme Court yesterday cautiously confronted for the first time the issue of global warming, hearing a challenge to the Bush administration’s refusal to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases in new vehicles.

Twelve states, led by Massachusetts and joined by the District of Columbia, are objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to decline to issue emissions standards for new cars and trucks. They and the environmental organizations that support them say the standards should be the first step in a broader effort to reduce carbon dioxide and other gases that they say are harming the atmosphere and leading to global warming and rising sea levels.

But they faced a court sometimes skeptical about whether the remedy they seek would make much difference in the long run, and whether they can even show they are facing the kind of imminent harm that is required before they can press their case.

“I mean,” asked Justice Antonin Scalia, “when is the predicted cataclysm?”

Scalia was one of several justices to remark on a lack of scientific expertise during an hour of questioning that touched on whether the states have “standing” to challenge the EPA’s refusal, the level of evidence proving the existence of global warming and its causes, and even whether unilateral action by the United States to reduce greenhouse gases would hamper negotiations with other countries on the issue.

The debate inside the court is echoed outside the chamber. Former vice president Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” increased public awareness of the issue. And the Democrats who won control of Congress this month have said they will make the issue a priority: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is in line to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said a failure to limit greenhouse gases will lead to “economic decline and environmental ruin.” She would replace Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called global warming a hoax.

Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General James R. Milkey told the court that 200 miles of the state’s coastline are threatened by rising seas, a result of global warming.

“The harm does not suddenly spring up in the year 2100; it plays out continuously over time,” Milkey said in answer to Scalia’s question. “Once these gases are emitted . . . they stay a long time — the laws of physics take over.”

Milkey faced skeptical questioning from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court’s newest members, but the most sustained — and entertaining — interrogation came from Scalia.

At one point, he acknowledged the role of carbon dioxide as a pollutant in the air but wondered about it being a pollutant in the “stratosphere.”

“Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It’s the troposphere,” Milkey said.

“Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I’m not a scientist,” Scalia said to laughter. “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

Milkey had already said that the court need not pass judgment on the science of climate change to find that the EPA did not do its job when deciding not to regulate new vehicle emissions.

The case started in 1999, when an environmental group, the International Center for Technology Assessment, and others petitioned the EPA to set greenhouse gas emissions standards for new vehicles.

In 2003, the agency denied the petition, saying said that it lacked statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, even though the agency in previous administrations had held that it did. Further, the agency said, even if it did have authority, it was not required to use it.

The agency decided, according to Deputy Solicitor General Gregory C. Garre, “now is not the time to exercise such authority, in light of the substantial scientific uncertainty surrounding global climate change and the ongoing studies designed to address those uncertainties.”

Even if the court sides with the states, it is only being asked to remand the issue back to the EPA with specifications on what to look at in deciding whether to issue the emissions standards. And both sides agree that vehicle admissions in the United States amount to only 6 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions; tougher standards on new vehicles would only moderately reduce that.

But the court’s decision could affect other efforts by environmentalists to force action on emissions from power plants — stalled in the courts — and shed light on the appropriateness of individual states’ actions. California, for instance, has passed greenhouse gas emissions standards that are to go into effect in 2009 but are being challenged by industry.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said a change of heart by the EPA could set off a string of similarly small decisions by other agencies, “each of which has an impact, and lo and behold, Cape Cod is saved.” He seemed most sympathetic to the states’ case, along with Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who as usual asked no questions, is presumed to be in line with Scalia, Roberts and Alito. That leaves Justice Anthony M. Kennedy as a pivotal vote in whether the states have proven they have standing for the case to go forward.

He noted Milkey’s “perhaps reassuring statement” that the court does not have to make a judgment about global warming. “But,” Kennedy asked, “don’t we have to do that in order to decide the standing argument, because there’s no injury if there’s not global warming?”

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Iraq Panel to Recommend Pullback of Combat Troops


WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 — The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus on Wednesday on a final report that will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, according to people familiar with the panel’s deliberations.

The report, unanimously approved by the 10-member panel, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, is to be delivered to President Bush next week.

It is a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March, avoiding a specific timetable, which has been opposed by Mr. Bush, but making it clear that the American troop commitment should not be open-ended. The recommendations of the group, formed at the request of members of Congress, are nonbinding.

A person who participated in the commission’s debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki believed that Mr. Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, “there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached.”

The report recommends that Mr. Bush make it clear that he intends to start the withdrawal relatively soon, and people familiar with the debate over the final language said the implicit message was that the process should begin sometime next year.

The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries. (A brigade typically consists of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.) From those bases, they would still be responsible for protecting a substantial number of American troops who would remain in Iraq, including 70,000 or more American trainers, logistics experts and members of a rapid reaction force.

As the commission wound up two and a half days of deliberation in Washington, the group said in a public statement only that a consensus had been reached and that the report would be delivered next Wednesday to President Bush, Congress and the American public. Members of the commission were warned by Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton not to discuss the contents of the report.

But four people involved in the debate, representing different points of view, agreed to outline its conclusions in broad terms to address what they said might otherwise be misperceptions about the findings. Some said their major concern was that the report might be too late.

“I think we’ve played a constructive role,” one person involved in the committee’s deliberations said, “but from the beginning, we’ve worried that this entire agenda could be swept away by events.”

Even as word of the study group’s conclusions began to leak out, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two or three battalions of American troops were being sent to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq to assist in shoring up security there. Another Pentagon official said the additional troops for Baghdad would be drawn from a brigade in Mosul equipped with fast-moving, armored Stryker vehicles.

As described by the people involved in the deliberations, the bulk of the report by the Baker-Hamilton group focused on a recommendation that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East than Mr. Bush has been willing to try so far, including direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Initially, those contacts might be part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they would ultimately involve direct, high-level talks with Tehran and Damascus.

Mr. Bush has rejected such contacts until now, and he has also rejected withdrawal, declaring in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday that while he will show flexibility, “there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”

Commission members have said in recent days that they had to navigate around such declarations, or, as one said, “We had to move the national debate from whether to stay the course to how do we start down the path out.”

Their report, as described by those familiar with the compromise, may give Republicans political cover to back away from parts of the president’s current strategy, even if Democrats claim that the report is short on specific deadlines.

While the White House reviews its strategy options, Pentagon planners are also looking beyond the immediate reinforcements for Baghdad to the question of whether they will need to draw more on reserve units to meet troop requirements in the Iraqi capital, military officials said. In particular, the Army is considering sending about 3,000 combat engineers from reserve units.

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Says Machines Should be Decertified! Also Says So-Called ‘Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails (VVPAT) Should Not Be Used’ in Voting Systems!

A federal agency is set to recommend significant changes to specifications for electronic-voting machines next week, internetnews.com has learned.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is recommending that the 2007 version of the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines (VVSG) decertify direct record electronic (DRE) machines.…According to an NIST paper to be discussed at a meeting of election regulators at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., on Dec. 4 and 5, DRE vote totals cannot be audited because the machines are not software independent.

In other words, there is no means of verifying vote tallies other than by relying on the software that tabulated the results to begin with.

The machines currently in use are “more vulnerable to undetected programming errors or malicious code,” according to the paper.

The NIST paper also noted that, “potentially, a single programmer could ‘rig’ a major election.”

This is a tremendously important development!

To be clear, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the group that oversees the formulation of the so-called federal “Voting Systems Standards”. Those are the standards, such that there are any, which are in effect today at the federal level to determine federal certification of voting systems. NIST hosts the Technical Guidelines Developement Committee for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and they are the body who developed the current standadards now in use. This report will likely have an enormous impact in shaping whatever may happen next concerning any upcoming Election Reform or legislation in DC.

But wait, it gets even better!…

Apropos of an article here at BRAD BLOG earlier today, in which we tried to make clear that paper trails on touch-screen machines (versus paper ballots as used with optical-scan or hand-counted systems) are not an adequate solution to the nation’s — or even Florida 13′s — current voting dysfunction, NIST agrees that paper trails don’t cut it:

The NIST is also going to recommend changes to the design of machines equipped with paper rolls that provide audit trails.

Currently, the paper rolls produce records that are illegible or otherwise unusable, and NIST is recommending that “paper rolls should not be used in new voting systems.”

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