Myanmar Has a Clandestine Nuclear Weapons Program. And Nobody Cares.

This just came to my attention today. Read this story at Pro Publica, about some very important and alarming work that friend of ACL, and real life former weapons inspector Robert Kelley, has done on what he has concluded is a clandestine nuclear weapons program in Myanmar. Now, I am not in any way a technical guy. But I’ve gotten to know Bob, and he’s both the most qualified person to evaluate a nuclear weapons program, and the most independent, objective, and reserved technical person, that I know. So hearing Bob say this about Myanmar:

“I state this very clearly and strongly, this is a clandestine nuclear program”

makes me say, it’s time to listen up, people.  

I’m also confident that people like David Albright and Olli Heinonen, who have been so very concerned about possible nuclear weapons related activity in Iran, will be all over this situation too. After all, there is clearly enough evidence to convince Bob Kelley, and there are strong links to North Korea and therefore to regional proliferation implications. So on this case, the technical people can actually agree, and the international community can focus on effectively dealing with the problem, right?


Read what Heinonen and Albright have to say about Kelley’s conclusions in the Pro Publica piece.  When I read them, I was genuinely incredulous. Reading their critique of Bob’s analysis was just like reading someone else’s critique, word for word, about their analysis of Iran!  Listen to this: 

Other experts, including Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the IAEA, viewed the evidence as inconclusive. They said the equipment in the photos had other possible uses and that such serious charges should not rest on the testimony of a single defector . . .

“There is no smoking gun,” Heinonen said in an interview. “There is no one single piece which puts your mind at rest telling that this is solely for nuclear purposes and for nothing else.” . . .

Heinonen questioned this conclusion, saying both the glove box and bomb reactor could have other uses. He noted that the box appeared too small to easily accommodate the mixer typically used to combine magnesium and UF4. There were ways to overcome this deficiency, but they would be “cumbersome,” he said, suggesting that perhaps the box was made for another purpose.

“These pieces of equipment,” he said in an e-mail, “cannot be said with a high certainty to be for uranium metal production.” . . .

Albright said in an interview that he did not agree with Kelley’s findings. A close reading of the report, he said, suggests that Kelley assumed that Burma is attempting to make nuclear weapons and then looked at Win’s pictures “in a biased way ascribing nuclear purposes to them.” Albright said he believed each piece of equipment in the photos had alternate uses, some of which were non-nuclear. He noted that Win had no background in nuclear science or engineering.

“We learn the hard way,” said Albright. “This is what the whole thing was about with Iraqi WMD.”

“If you’re going to make accusations that a country has nuclear weapons program, you have to have credible evidence that that is true,” he said.

I swear these quotes literally make me laugh out loud. I’m not going to get into the technical aspects of the Myanmar case, or a comparison with the technical issues involved with the Iran case. I’ll let others do that. What I’m talking about is the overall attitude and approach of Heinonen and Albright in the Myanmar case, compared to the Iran case.  These are guys who think that every time there’s a wing added on to a building in Iran, it means there absolutely must be some nefarious new attempt to build a nuclear weapon going on in there. But in Myanmar’s case, their approach is: “Well, you know, all of this stuff could have other uses. We really can’t be sure. There’s no smoking gun here. It would be wrong of us to speculate. You need real, clear evidence to make such a very serious accusation. I’m sure everything’s fine.”

Albright even went so far as to write a letter to Senator Jim Webb, assuring him that there was “nothing to see here” in Myanmar, and saying Bob’s analysis is faulty. Read the letter here.   

There’s a Janus-like, two-facedness here that is just astounding to me, i.e. taking one approach to the Iran situation (incredibly hawkish), and then taking a completely different approach to the Myanmar situation (incredibly dovish), for no apparent reason. And an incredible complete lack of self-awareness of this fact as well.

So what’s the takeaway here? First, Bob’s assessment of Myanmar’s clandestine nuclear weapons program is serious business that deserves attention. I don’t know what should be done about it, but so far I’ve heard ear-splitting silence about it from the U.S. and E.U. and the U.N. Security Council.  That’s hard to reconcile in light of all the attention being paid to Iran.

Second, what explains Heinonen’s and Albright’s schizophrenia here? I am genuinely puzzled. Is it because Myanmar is not on the USG’s list of “places we want to demonize,” and Albright and Heinonen are dutifully following the prime directive (i.e. always follow Uncle Sam’s lead)? Or is it something else? Thoughts welcome.  


Getting Beyond the Benedict Arnold of the Cyber Age: Crafting Post-Snowden American Policy and Law

This past week brought more discomfort in the United States produced by Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance activities:

  • The House of Representatives narrowly defeated a proposal to restrict NSA authority to collect telephone metadata in the United States, a vote that caused intra-party clashes within both the Democratic and Republican parties;
  • Legislators in Congress grilled NSA officials on the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata within the US, producing testimony that only heightened congressional concerns about the executive branch’s metadata surveillance activities and their legal justification;
  • The NSA released previously classified documents related to the now infamous Verizon Order leaked by Snowden, an effort at transparency that, apparently, did not make anything more transparent;
  • Courtesy of Snowden, The Guardian revealed another NSA program, called XKeyscore, which caused another round of national and international controversy about US surveillance policies and practices; and
  • The Russian government granted Snowden asylum for one year, allowing him to leave his limbo-laden life at the Moscow airport, a development that perhaps guarantees Snowden’s place in history (and not Bradley Manning) as the Benedict Arnold of the cyber age and made already fraying US-Russian relations worse.

To have Congress close to over-turning a key law passed after 9/11, to deepen tensions between the legislative and executive branches, to provoke the masters of secrecy to try to be more transparent, to wrong-foot the NSA again with a new disclosure, to cause rifts within both major US political parties, and to exacerbate problems between great powers is, ladies and gentlemen, one hell of a week, in more ways than one.

Each development of this past week deserves its own scrutiny, but my objective here is to try to assess what the sum of these episodes means for the US. The initial disclosures from Snowden brought forth calls for a “national conversation” about the implications of the revelations of NSA surveillance activities and the policy and legal justifications for them. This conversation has been extremely awkward because a proudly open and free society found itself debating critical issues kept secret by its government and only revealed by a law-breaker who sought succor in the sovereignty of anti-American governments. To quote one of history’s great admirers of the US, not our finest hour.

But, this past week should signal that the “national conversation” requires decisions needed to shape post-Snowden American policy and law on issues ranging from the privacy of American citizens dependent on digital communications technologies to the impact of cyber espionage on the power and reputation of the US in geopolitics. No one should underestimate the gravity of these decisions because the questions to be answered go deep into what America means at home and abroad. In its main leader of its August 3rd issue, The Economist–hardly an American nemesis–embeds the Snowden affair along with other post-9/11 policies in what it calls “liberty’s lost decade.”

Provocative, to be sure, but The Economist is trying to piece together what it all means for the US, from Mohamed Atta to Edward Snowden, and is encouraging Americans to re-evaluate where their government has been–from detention cells in Guantanamo Bay to “collecting it all” in cyberspace–and whether and how they want the future to be different. We might not like the headlines, the harsh questions, and the flippant or cynical condemnations of American behavior as hysterical hypocrisy. But, when someone like Edward Snowden can affect this country’s domestic politics and foreign affairs as wrenchingly as he repeatedly has (see, this past week), we have serious work to do in crafting policies and laws less dependent on the fear secrecy breeds and more confident in the resilience openness brings when betrayal from within and enmity from without test our interests and values.

Israel’s Response to Proposed IAEA Agenda Item on “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities”

Israel 2013 response to IAEA agenda item on Israel

A colleague sent me this document today. It makes for a blood-pressure-raising read. I think I’ll just refer to what said in this post a while ago:

If I put myself in the shoes of Israeli officials, I totally understand why Israel wants to have nuclear weapons, doesnt want to sign the NPT, and wants to keep the whole thing “in the basement.” If I were an Israeli official, with the history of the Holocaust as my personal and national context, I would do the exact same thing. But here’s where I think Israel’s policies in the nuclear area start to get indefensible – when they criticize other countries for wanting their own nuclear weapons, or for even doing research to build up their capability to one day acquire nuclear weapons if they decide they need them. This is just basic hypocrisy, and the absence of any principled leg to stand on. It doesn’t have anything to do with history, or with Israel’s unique perspective on the world. And I really don’t like it when people say, well, Israel isnt under a legal obligation not to have nuclear weapons, whereas these other countries are. Israel’s failure to sign the NPT, and the West’s willful blindness toward this fact, are not a diplomatic asset that Israel and the West can play as a card to justify the double standard. In this regard, Israel is part of a rather ignominious club of regime outlier states – rogue states if you will – that also includes India, Pakistan and North Korea. Its not a moral high ground fact.

New ISIS/Albright Report on Lashkar Ab’ad

David Albright has just released yet another report, this time focusing on a facility at Lashkar Ab’ad in Iran.  The basic gist of the report is, this is a facility where Iran conducted undeclared laser enrichment activities before 2003, when it was halted under IAEA verification. Now, 10 years later, there has been construction at the site. Therefore, Iran must be reconstituting its undeclared laser enrichment activities there, and the IAEA needs to go in and investigate.

Do you get Albright’s M.O. yet?  Its exactly the same one present in his reports on the Parchin facility. See Yousaf’s great piece on that here.  It seems that every time Iran undertakes construction on any facility that has ever even been alleged to have a connection to nuclear activity, Albright is convinced that this is evidence of clandestine, nefarious ongoing nuclear work there, or an equally nefarious cover up operation. As if laser enrichment, a common uranium enrichment technology, could possibly be described that way in any event.

So once David’s satellite photos show landscaping, he’s off to the races with another breathless report on how important this turn of events is, and how its now a “priority”
for the IAEA to be allowed to visit the site to make sure there’s no nuclear work going on there.

Just how much this approach is a travesty of the IAEA’s safeguards system, I hope readers of this blog have come to understand from previous posts.  I mean just think about it. What country would ever agree to a safeguards system, whereunder whenever they do construction on either civilian or military facilities, they have to let the IAEA come in and monitor the construction and make sure there isn’t anything that could possibly be used in a nuclear energy program? That’s not reflective of the spirit of the IAEA safeguards system, or it’s letter. I stand by what I’ve said before about Albright, and the apparent hand-in-glove nature of ISIS’ relationship to the U.S. Government and its foreign policy agenda on Iran.

I think it’s also important to bear in mind that, in terms of the letter of Iran’s safeguards agreement, it isn’t necessary to declare design information or activity at facilities at which no fissile material is present. The IAEA under the CSA is a fissile material accounting agency. They do not have a mandate to find out about activity that could in the future be connected to fissile material, but is not at the moment connected to it through the presence of fissile material at the same facility. So as long as there isn’t any fissile material at the Lashkar Ab’ad site, Iran is under no obligation to declare to the IAEA what it’s doing there.  IT’S NONE OF THE IAEA’s OR ALBRIGHT’s BUSINESS. And until Albright can conjure up some evidence with his satellites that there has actually been diversion of fissile material from peaceful applications to military applications in Iran, he should spare us all his fear-mongering, pseudo-scientific rhetoric.