Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Using Intelligence – the N.E.S.T.

[ . . . ]

Paul Holman* was on his way to work in Baltimore one early morning in January 2005, driving to a power plant run by Baltimore Gas & Electric, when his pager went off. The pager was a special one, and it flashed a number with a code warning Holman he needed to find a Secure Telephone Unit (STU) before making the call. When Holman called in, he was directed to immediately proceed to Boston to meet with four other members of his team. Four Chinese nationals and two Iraqis were alleged to have smuggled an unknown amount of radioactive material into the city of Boston, and it was the job of Holman’s team to find the material, and determine whether a nuclear bomb had been made. The Boston Police, FBI, bomb-sniffing dogs, and even the Boston office of the DHS were put at the team’s discretion.

Paul is a member of a NEST, or Nuclear Emergency Search Team. NESTs are controlled and directed by the Department of Energy, and exist solely to find and defuse nuclear threats. As part of its job, a NEST has to have real-time intelligence information, and immediate access to the resources needed to act on tips and clues. A NEST can be deployed by the “DP-20 Duty Officer” from the DOE field office in Nevada, by the Office of Threat Assessment, by direct order from the Secretary of Energy, or by order from the National Command Authority (NCA) – the President of the United States or his designated case officer. In such an event, a team will be mobilized to act in the area of crisis. This field team is formally known as an Operational Emergency Management Team (OEMT), but to law enforcement they usually also refer to themselves as NEST to avoid confusion. There will be a Team Leader (TL/DOE), who will be in charge and report actions and events to the NEST Director and the Energy Secretary, and where appropriate, the NCA.

The number and specific qualifications of NEST members is classified information, but NEST members are distinctive for expertise in nuclear materials and explosives. So, in addition to members with military and law enforcement experience, especially in bomb disposal, NESTs also include white-collar professionals like Paul, whose specific knowledge applies not only to day-to-day operation of such mundane responsibilities as electricity transmission grids, but also the radiation characteristics of enriched material. So, it is possible that if you work in the utilities field, or in scientific research, you may personally know someone whose responsibilities include protecting the country from a nuclear terrorist threat. While the government will neither confirm nor deny the contention, it is believed that similar teams exist to deal with Chemical and Biological threats, managed by DHS under the heading "Domestic Emergency Search Team", or DEST . At least twenty discrete NEST groups are believed to have been established in the continental United States, usually located in or near major cities, especially where nuclear power plants are in operation.

In the actual event in January 2005, no bomb turned out to exist after a four-day search, nor was any radioactive material found in the Boston area. Even so, the deployment was valuable experience for the NEST, who were debriefed by DOE and the FBI before returning to their regular duties. These debriefings are critically important, as in each case there are things which go right, and things which go wrong. In one previous event, a NEST discovered a stored sample of radioactive waste which had no connection to the threat, but for a time generated significant concern. On another occasion, a suspect claimed to be able to detonate a “dirty” radioactive bomb by remote control, complicating the search operation. Learning from such difficulties improves the teams’ ability to address the next incident.

In terms of Intelligence, NESTs are examples of “Right Now” Intelligence – data which not only has to be accurate, but specific and fast. They didn’t say, but I’d be willing to bet that in a NEST deployment, no one bothers with warrants.

* Not his real name

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