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How US 'second line of defence' tackles N-threat

world Updated: Dec 21, 2010 00:11 IST

The leaked US cables reveal the constant, largely unseen, work by American diplomatic missions around the world to try to keep the atomic genie in its bottle and forestall the nightmare of a terrorist nuclear attack.

The leaked cables tell hair-raising tales of casks of uranium found in wicker baskets in Burundi, a retired Russian general offering to sell "uranium plates" in Portugal, and a radioactive Armenian car on the Georgian border.

As part of what the US government calls its "second line of defence", it is America's diplomatic corps who are called out in the middle of the night when radiation detectors goes off on a border crossing or smugglers turn up with fissile or radioactive materials in his pocket.

Each time that happens, and UN data suggests it has happened about 500 times in the past 15 years, it means the "first line of defence" has already been breached. The fissile material (the fuel for a nuclear warhead) or radioactive isotopes (which emit harmful radiation), have already been stolen from their source.

Three months after taking office, Barack Obama vowed to secure all the world's vulnerable nuclear stocks within four years in a global drive to pre-empt nuclear terrorism. But a cash-strapped Congress has yet to do approve any increase in funding for the ambitious project and Obama's deadline looks almost certain to be missed. Meanwhile, from Africa to the former Soviet Union, there are signs it may already be too late.

In June 2007, the US embassy in Burundi reported an approach by a local elder alerting the Americans to a cache of uranium in a concrete bunker over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He was concerned that it would fall into the hands of "the wrong people", specifically the Arabs who will "destroy" people with it. At the request of the sceptical Americans, he returned a few weeks later with a Congolese smuggler who said he found the material hidden at an old Belgian colonial building. He had pictures of a wicker basket with a uranium cask inside, apparently the property of the country's Atomic Energy Commision.

"According to a senior Swiss diplomat, the shipment of uranium through Dar es Salaam is common knowledge to two Swiss shipping companies ... though no one at either company would admit it in writing."

The other major front in America's "second line of defence" runs around the edge of Russia's borders, where the collapse of the Soviet Union created a black market in nuclear and radioactive material that endures two decades on.

In July 2008, the embassy in Lisbon reported a "walk-in" informant with a tale of a retired Russian general who had a brick of uranium metal to sell. The informant handed over a picture of the merchandise – a lump of grey metal.

Biden blasts founder Assange

US Vice President Joe Biden has said that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was "closer to being a high-tech terrorist", and acknowledged the fact that the leak of classified US diplomatic cables have damaged foreign relations. Here are some of his quotes attacking Assange in an interview with the NBC's Meet the Press programme.

If he conspired to get these classified documents with a member of the US military, that's fundamentally different than if somebody drops on your lap here... you're a press person, 'Here is classified material'.

I would argue that it's closer to being high-tech terrorist than to the Pentagon Papers.

This guy has done things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world.

He's made it more difficult for us to conduct our business with our allies and our friends.

There is a desire now to meet with me alone rather than have staff in the room. It makes things more cumbersome.