Sunday 6 December 2009

Glimpses of America's Man-Made Disasters (Part 14)

by Trowbridge H. Ford

Washington's attempt to trigger a non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War in March 1986 did not fail because of a want of trying but because of Soviet countermeasures, thanks to the spying for Moscow by the Agency's Rick Ames, the Bureau's Robert Hanssen, and others. Their information alerted Moscow to the surprise. Alexander Litvinenko's railway security squad discovered the Toshiba container with all the sensors, and the Red Banner Fleet was placed on maximum alert against NATO's attack submarines trying to sink any Soviet boomers hastily going on station in the Barents and Black Seas in response to the shooting of Sweden's statsminister Olof Palme. Still, the Reagan administration went ahead with the showdown, though it had no KH-ll laser satellite to blow up any Soviet ICBMs if they started preparing for launch in response to the surprise because of the failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger to even achieve a successful liftoff, much less launch the laser satellite in space. Moreover, the Anglo-American conspirators knew nothing of the 82 nuclear-tipped SS-23 missile launchers in the USSR and East Germany - under the command of Soviet hawk, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov - which would have been fired if the shooting started. (Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha: The Inside Story of British Intelligence, p. 290)

Under the circumstances, the prevention of the shooting showdown turning into armeggedon rested almost entirely with how the Red Banner Fleet conducted its countermeasures underwater against Anglo-American provocations. US Navy Chief of Naval Operation Admiral James Watkins had announced a few days before the Stockholm shooting that any Soviet aggressive action in this regard would result in NATO attack submarines responding within a few minutes by sinking their boomers wherever they were discovered. The awards that the US Navy gave many of its submarines taking part in this hunt are well documented in Appendix C that Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew provided in Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, pp. 426-7. Glimpses of the struggles were also provided by them in the text (pp. 366-8), and Greg Vistica added more in the Fall from Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S.Navy (p.214ff.), especially the fallout that Admiral Carl Trost's mutinies in the operations caused. (pp. 221-5) When no suspect for blaming the shooting of the statsminister on the Soviets was found, Moscow set up Lybia as the convenient fallguy for the trouble it caused by supplying the aggressive Provisional IRA with weapons for a tet-offensive in Northern Ireland by making it look as if Gadaffi's men had been behind of La Belle Discotheque bombing in West Berlin, killing two people, including a US Army sergeant, and wounding 230 others. (For more on the set up, see Christopher Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only, p. 482ff., though noting that the spin doctor never sees anything sinister and conspiratorial in what Washington does.)

These harrowing troubles made both Moscow and particularly Washington desirous of settling their outstanding differences by diplomacy rather than wars, provocations, and conspiracies though the Soviet leader went out of his way to inform the Reagan administration of how reckless it had been in attempting them. When the two sides met in Washington in December 1987 to sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, eliminating all imtermediate nuclear weapons - what had been proposed in 1983 without success, and made Soviet officials, especially the KGB's FCD Vladimir Kryuchkov, assume that Washington was planning a first strike - the Soviet leader brought along the now KGB head to prove that he had not been sceptical of his previous claims. During the discussions, Gorbachev volunteered the existence of the 82 SS-23s which the Brits and Yanks had overlooked in the USSR and East Germany, Mark Urban concluding nonchalantly that "...they could have been castrophophic in the event of war." (p. 290) For good measure, the US government's trial of the US Navy's John Walker spy ring - just the tip of what Moscow had uncovered about the first strike - in the Federal District Court of Northern California in September 1986 resulted in the Admiral Willaim Studeman, the Chief of Naval Intelligence, admitting that it might well have had "...powerful war-winning implications for the Soviet side." (Quoted from Sontag and Drew, p. 353.)

All this showed how dangerous East-West relations still were, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) continued its efforts to put a laser-equipped KH-II satellite in space, finally achieving so in 1988. But by then, it seemed increasingly clear that its chances of winning the Cold War by force were diminishing by the day as Gorbachev proceeded by pulling the rug from under its Warsaw Pact by refusing to intervene in the internal disputes of its members. Two START treaties were agreed to, making serious cuts in their nuclear arsenals, and agreeing not to aim their weapons at one another. "In 1989," Hugh Gusterson wrote in Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, "the U.S. government gutted Livermore's free electron program, stripping $37 million from the laboratory's budget, and began a series of sharp cuts in its X-ray laser program as well. In 1990 the lab was forced to close down R Program, its X-ray laser design division." (p. 227) It seemed like the end of an era - a fork in the road, as Gusterson stated - where both national laboratories might have their days numbered as the designers, testers, producers, and maintainers of nuclear arsenals.

This possible outcome was a wake-up call for Danny B. Stillman, the intelligence director at the Los Alamos laboratory where nuclear weapons had been vigorously developed since the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Stillman decided to make an in-depth survey of what America's potential enemies, especially now China, had accomplished in the whole field, and what they were planning for the future in the hope of keeping everything going at the national laboratories. It was in June 1988 when he set up the plan by getting Professor Yang Fujia, one of six Chinese scientists attending a meeting of the American Physical Society at Los Alamos, to allow him and possibly others to see the unknown Chinese test site at Dujiangyan where its prompt-burst reactor was located. "Just send me a copy of your résumé," the naive Fujia replied, "and tell me what other nuclear weapon facilities in China you would like to visit." (Quoted from Reed and Stillman, The Nuclear Express, p. 221.) Of course, Stillman wanted to see everything, and the innocent Chinese obliged, agreeing to his ten unprecedented visits which resulted in Washington learning everything it wanted to know about Chinese achievements - what Reed tried to make out was simply the other way round, Beijing wanting to let the West know just how clever it had been all along.

It was still awhile before Stillman made his first visit to China - after the dust and blood had settled and had been swept away from the suppression of the student protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and the USSR had itself imploded - but he was soon taken in April 1990 to where he most wanted to go, the area around Chengdu where Mianyang, Zitong, Science City, and the all important Dujiangyan were located. The first question that Stillman obviously asked about these facilities, though Reed never mentioned it, was why had Beijing chosen such a difficult area - one known for its raging waters, and difficult mountains - for the center of its nuclear weapons industry, and the Chinese answer was surely to get as well away from Soviet threats as possible. Undoubtedly, the Chinese said quite a bit about what had happened at Tangshan in July 1976 - what confirmed what Air Force Secretary and NRO Director Reed had realized back then. Moreover, Beijing at the time had most friendly relations with Iran's Shah, hoping that they would result in a Chinese-Iran, anti-Soviet bloc, backed by the Americans. Beijing had obviously built a vast, underground complex with the idea of making it invulnerable to nuclear attacks in order to avoid some kind of disaster which led to the demise of not only its 'Gang of Four' but also Iran's Shah.

If the Soviets had had such an impact on the power struggles within China and Iran with their laser satellites, Stillman reasoned, why couldn't Washington do the same with regimes it wanted to change the leadership of, especially now Iraq and Iran, given the continuing trouble it was having with Saddam Hussein. Saddam had been the Soviets' biggest ally in the Middle East after it agreed to the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Baghdad in April 1973. Up until then, Iraq's biggest opponent had been Iran's Shah who had been seeking Saddam's assassination, stoking up trouble with Iraq's Kurds, and bottling up Iraq's oil exports through the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. (For more on this, see Con Coughlin, Saddam: The Secret Life, p. 79ff.) The Iraqi dictator had even funded Iran's mullahs in the hope of overthrowing his Iranian counterpart while there had been bloody clashes in 1977 in the city of Najaf, the home of the exiled Iranian Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resulting in the arrest and execution of eight Iraqi clerics. "More than two thousand Shiites were arrested," Coughlin added, "and an estimated two hundred thousand were expelled to Iran by Saddam on the grounds that they were non-Iraqis." (p. 148)

It was quite obvious that Saddam was pilling on the troubles for the beleaguered Shah in the hope that Iran's fractured civil society would revolt, and Moscow was most happy to help out, though Pelling and Dill somehow ignored this most obvious man-made earthquake in their previously noted article, " *Natural' disasters as catalysts of political action." On September 16, 1978, Tabas-e-Golshan, the oasis town in Iran's eastern Khorassan Province, experienced the largest recorded earthquake in the country's history, 7.7 on the Richter scale. It was a repeat of what the Soviets had done two years earlier in Tangshan, but because of Tabas's extensive qanat system of underground reservoirs, it was even more powerful. There were no foreshocks, but the expected anomalies in animal behavior, plus a predicted lunar eclipse which impended the rescue operation. The earthquake destroyed 85% of its housing and inhabitants (11,000 out of 13,000). "The earthquake," A Preliminary Field Report stated, "was preceded by a strong roaring noise described as like the firing noise of fifty cannons by many survivors in Tabas and in the adjoining villages." (p. 2) Only a few seconds later, the earthquake occurred. It was felt as far away as Tehran, and over an area of 1,130,00 square kilometers. It "...destroyed," the report concluded, "over 15,000 housing units, and thirty qanats (underground water canals) in the epicentral region." (p. 1)

The political timing of the earthquake showed that it was Soviet-made, and for Saddam's benefit. In William Shawcross's The Shah's Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally, the earthquake was seen as the event which sealed the Shah's fate in Iran as it descended into chaos. The regime had become a powderkeg because of the way the Shah corruptly ruled while its inhabitants suffered more and more deprivation. Then it was struck by two hammer blows - 1) the August fire in an Abadan cinema which killed 400 people, and his troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tehran's Jaleh Square, killing and wounding hundreds, and 2) the devastating earthquake. The Shah only visited the airport where the rescue effort was being mounted while eveyone else, especially mullahs, was still trying to rescue those still buried. "He stood around, stiff, resplendent, and uncomfortable," Shawcross concluded, "in the brilliant plumage of a field marshal's uniform. Then he flew out again. In terms of identfying himself with the people's suffering, it was a disaster." (p. 21) Then Saddam expelled Khomeini from Iraq at the Shah's request, and his Empress Farah, in an alleged attempt to shore up the Shah's collapsing regime, was invited to Baghdad to royally celebrate the tenth anniversary of Algiers Agreement over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.

By the following February, the Shah and his Empress were gone for good from Tehran.

These insights by Stillman's Chinese hosts about the Tabas earthquake were just what Washington wanted to hear as the showdown with Saddam loomed. By this time, the destructive Iran-Iraq war had been stopped, though no peace treaty had been agreed to, and Saddam hoped to mend fences with Tehran's new President, the liberal, elected Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, so that Iran would not be used as a front in any Western showdown with Baghdad. Ayatollah Khomeini had died in June 1989, and Tehran itsefl was feeling its way towards better relations with its regional neighbors as a more independent, nationalist one rather than a spreader of Pan-Islamism. Now Saddam was willing to go back to the humiliating conditions about the waterway which had been settled with the Shah in the 1975 Algiers Agreement just to save his own skin.

To cut the ground from under Saddam's feet, thanks to input from Stillman about the 1978 earthquake in the Shah's Iran, the NRO hastily arranged the June 21, 1990 earthquake in Iran's northwestern area closest to Iraq. "The Rudbar-Tarom earthquake, the largest in the country to affect an urban area in Persia," according to Manuel Berberian's article, "100years; 126,000 death," in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, "killed 40,000 people, injured 60,000, and left more than 500,000 homeless. The earthquake destroyed three towns (Rudbar, Manjil, and Lowshan) and 700 villages and damaged another 300 villages in Gilan and Zanjan provinces of northwest Persia, southwest of the Caspian sea." Of course, Presiden Rafsanjani led the rescue effort, even accepting aid from the United States - what the New York Times duly noted as " of the biggest signs of cooperation between Tehran and Washington in years" - though more hard-line mullahs wanted nothing from America.

The cause of the earthquake which again had no warning foreshocks - another one which Pelling and Dill somehow missed - seems to have been the magma-like effect that the laser beams had on the fragmented, complex system of surface faults whích had not previously been considered active, and the collapse of qanats and wells in the surrounding small towns and isolated villages which no one suspected, and only discovered the destruction of days later. The seismologists only had the shock waves and the destruction wrought to make up their explanations with, and they seem like just convenient goobledygook. Martin C. Faga - the NRO's tenth Director, noted for putting together in integrated satellites the various capabilities that the CIA, DOD, and US Navy possessed about imagery, signals and communication lasers - who had taken over in September 1989 was well prepared to do the job, once Stillman identified what had to be hit with the new capability. Little wonder that Faga then became known as the grest discloser who brought the NRO allegedly 'out of the black', and became a principal architect of its role in the 21st century while serving on the Jeremiah Panel at the end of the 1990s.

Reassured about Iranian neutrality in any Gulf War because of the massive troubles caused by the earthquake, Saddam now tried to take advantage of the 'green light' that American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, had given the Iraqi dictator at a July 25th meeting at the Presidential Palace about his plans regarding Kuwait - what turned out to be a buzzsaw when he took advantage of it. (For more, see Coughlin, p.250ff.)

Little wonder that Robert Gates, who became Pappy Bush's DCI a little bit later, and is now Obama's Secretary of Defense, complimented "Stillman's ability to adapt the latest advances in science to solve unmanageable problems and to analyze foreign technologies made him an invaluable asset to the Intelligence Community." (back of the dustjacket for The Nuclear Express) The latest advances in science are in lasers; Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and China are the biggest problems confronting America; and Stillman was the principal analyst in determining what the Soviets, Chinese, and others were doing with their nuclear weapons - what only caused Washington more problems.

Perhaps in future, Gates will be more careful about observing his own order about DoD employees keeping quiet when it comes to such matters.