What’s Going On Here?

Two stories that were in the news yesterday offer interesting opportunities for speculation. Note: what follows is exactly that, speculation.

The first comes from the Washington Post:

An international smuggling ring that sold bomb-related parts to Libya, Iran and North Korea also managed to acquire blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon, according to a draft report by a former top U.N. arms inspector that suggests the plans could have been shared secretly with any number of countries or rogue groups.

The drawings, discovered in 2006 on computers owned by Swiss businessmen, included essential details for building a compact nuclear device that could be fitted on a type of ballistic missile used by Iran and more than a dozen developing countries, the report states.

This relates to the Khan group, which, led by a Pakistani nuclear scientist, sold Pakistan’s nuclear secrets to rogue nations. The significance of this new discovery (the discovery reportedly dates to 2006 but is now being made public) is that the Khan group may have sold the design for a nuclear weapon that was more advanced than previously believed–more advanced because it was small enough to fit on missiles that countries like Iran and North Korea already possess. The Post’s sources say that they have no idea what countries (if any) may have received these advanced nuclear weapons designs from Khan.

It occurs to me that this story could possibly be related to the controversy last winter over the NIE that claimed that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003. That conclusion, trumpeted by the NIE itself, was obviously overstated: if you read the NIE, it acknowledged that Iran’s work on uranium enrichment–the hardest part of nuclear weapons development–continued unabated, but claimed that Iran had stopped its “nuclear weapon design and weaponization work.” Let’s assume that the CIA did get information to the effect that Iran stopped its nuclear weapon design effort in 2003. Given what we now know about the “products” made available by the Khan network, isn’t it possible that Iran did so because it had the weapons designs it needed? And if so, shouldn’t the NIE, to the extent we place any credence in it, make us more concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, rather than less so?

The second story comes from the London Times; I haven’t seen it picked up in the U.S. yet. (But then, I haven’t scoured the papers yet this morning.) The story’s headline is arresting, even though it is supported only by implication in the article itself: “Get Osama Bin Laden before I leave office, orders George W Bush.”

The TImes writes:

President George W Bush has enlisted British special forces in a final attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden before he leaves the White House.

Defence and intelligence sources in Washington and London confirmed that a renewed hunt was on for the leader of the September 11 attacks. “If he [Bush] can say he has killed Saddam Hussein and captured Bin Laden, he can claim to have left the world a safer place,” said a US intelligence source. ***

One US intelligence source compared the “growing number of clandestine reconnaissance missions” inside Pakistan with those conducted in Laos and Cambodia at the height of the Vietnam war. ***

A Pentagon source said US forces were rolling up Al-Qaeda’s network in Pakistan in the hope of pushing Bin Laden towards the Afghan border, where the US military and bombers with guided missiles were lying in wait. “They are prepping for a major battle,” he said.

The main operations in Pakistan are being undertaken by Delta, the US army special operations unit, and the British SBS.

I’ve wondered for a long time whether we have had a better idea of bin Laden’s whereabouts than has been publicly revealed, and whether we have preferred to leave him at large rather than to capture or kill him. Why could this be the case? Presumably because we have cracked the security surrounding bin Laden and have been able to acquire valuable intelligence by leaving him at large.

This may be what was going on with Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, the Pakistani whose laptop was seized several years ago, revealing a number of al Qaeda plots. It may be that Khan was bin Laden’s link to the outside world, and that bin Laden’s instructions to cells around the world were being intercepted by our intelligence agencies. After Khan’s capture was made public, it may be that bin Laden’s new links to the outside world were likewise penetrated.

This is, as I said above, pure speculation. But the administration’s success in preventing new attacks after September 11 has long suggested the possibility of an intelligence coup equal in magnitude to Enigma. If bin Laden’s security was penetrated years ago, it would explain why the administration has preferred to leave him at large despite the occasional annoyance of his propaganda missives.

If the Times’ report is correct, then perhaps President Bush has decided that al Qaeda is sufficiently degraded, or the intelligence recoverable through bin Laden is no longer sufficiently valuable, so that it makes sense to try to kill or capture him. No doubt President Bush would like to bequeath his successor a world free of both bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. So it’s pure speculation, but for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be shocked to see bin Laden killed or captured between now and January.

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