The Bush administration has dispatched a secret team of nuclear specialists to China in response to Chinese concerns that terrorists may attempt to set off a radiological bomb during the Beijing Summer Olympics, The Washington Times has learned.
The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) was sent on Chinese intelligence indicating that any attack likely would involve a radiological device - a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material to enhance its effect - said Bush administration officials familiar with the security efforts.
The NEST deployment was disclosed as China announced this week that it is conducting a citywide drill in Beijing to test responses for a radiological bomb attack. It could not be learned whether the NEST unit will participate in the drill.
The deployment to China is unusual. NEST units usually deploy to areas in the United States and use highly classified equipment and techniques.
The team is part of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration and was ordered to Beijing as part of U.S.-China security cooperation, the Bush administration officials said.
Asked about the dispatch of the nuclear detection team, an Energy Department spokesman declined to comment, noting that NEST deployments are not announced.
Other officials familiar with the NEST said the team is made up of nuclear weapons scientists and technicians, many from Energy Department nuclear laboratories, who will provide specialized technical expertise in Beijing before the Aug. 8-24 games.
Team members will be outfitted with special nuclear detection gear and will operate in secret, the officials said.
A fact sheet from the Energy Department states that the NEST deals "with the technical aspects of nuclear or radiological terrorism."
The groups conduct search operations. If radiation is detected, they will perform an identification of nuclear materials, diagnostics and assessments of nuclear devices and bomb dismantling.
"Response teams vary in size from a five-person technical advisory team to a tailored deployment of dozens searchers and scientists who can locate and then conduct or support technical operations on a suspected nuclear device," the fact sheet states.
The exact size of the NEST being sent to Beijing could not be learned, but the officials said it will include about 10 people.
The teams use compact nuclear detection gear hidden in briefcases, knapsacks or portable coolers. They travel in vans searching for radiation sources, often at night to avoid public scrutiny.
Under the Atomic Energy Act, the State Department is the lead federal agency for deploying the team, which will work with FBI agents in Beijing.
Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the danger of nuclear terrorism is growing and the NEST teams are limited in dealing with the threat.
"We are entering a brave new world where nuclear energy for peaceful purposes literally is providing the fuel for terror," Mr. Sokolski said. "Against this new security sore, NEST teams should be seen as a Band-Aid."
The International Atomic Energy Agency stated in a staff report May 23 that the agency and China are working behind the scenes to "bolster the country's security and minimize threats."
"We have been working with the Chinese authorities over the last 18 months to add a radiological dimension to their existing security plans so that security for the Olympics is as comprehensive as possible," Anita Nilsson, director of the IAEA's Office of Nuclear Security, was quoted as saying in the report.
The IAEA is working to integrate planning for a radiological attack into existing security efforts for police, intelligence agencies and bomb squads. The IAEA is working with Chinese authorities on radiation detection, physical protection and emergency response.
"To guard and look after the Games and its visitors - as the Chinese are doing - is a responsible way of acting," Ms. Nilsson said.
The agency said no specific radiological terrorist-threat information was issued.
The Beijing city government announced Tuesday that it will conduct its first exercise to test responses to a nuclear attack in preparation for the Olympics.
The drill will involve several Chinese agencies including police, fire and environmental responders, Chinese government official Shan Qingsheng told the state-run Xinhua news agency.
The drill will simulate the effects of a radiological bomb set off inside the Olympic stadium.
The dispatch of the nuclear team to China has raised concerns among some counterintelligence officials because of the past compromise of nuclear weapons secrets to China.
The CIA determined that China obtained through espionage details of every deployed nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal, and the FBI has failed to identify the source despite investigating for more than a decade.
Computer hard drives from a NEST laptop computer that contained nuclear weapons secrets used to disarm weapons disappeared from a Los Alamos National Laboratory vault in May 2000.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, countering nuclear terrorism was made a high priority for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, based on intelligence reports that al Qaeda planned to assemble and use a radiological bomb in an attack in the United States.
In 2002, the FBI and NEST conducted joint monitoring of Muslim sites in Washington and five other cities looking for signs of a nuclear material, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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