What Lies Beneath

The mission to secure and seal off Kazakhstan's vast nuclear material -- buried deep underground -- is one of the greatest nonproliferation stories never told.

There's one fear that keeps leaders from across the globe awake at night: The prospect that somehow, somewhere, criminals or terrorists are getting their hands on the essential ingredients of a nuclear weapon. At the nuclear summit in South Korea last month, policymakers gathered to prevent that nightmare from becoming a reality by launching an initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear stockpiles within four years. But despite the fanfare surrounding the summit, one of the greatest recent successes in this initiative has thus far remained buried -- both literally and figuratively.

In an extraordinary feat of engineering and international cooperation, U.S., Russian, and Kazakh scientists, engineers, and miners recently secured enough fissile material for a dozen nuclear weapons that had been left behind vulnerable to theft in tunnels formerly used by the Soviet Union for underground nuclear weapons tests in Kazakhstan.

The formerly secret mission was launched in 2005 at the encouragement of an intrepid U.S. weapons expert, after it was discovered that metal scavengers had penetrated the abandoned tunnels. The project received attention from the highest levels of government -- both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama monitored its progress. It is an example of the quiet but essential international cooperation that is urgently needed to prevent terrorists from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

How this extraordinary, seven-year effort came to pass deserves the long version of the story. From 1961 to 1989, the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of nuclear tests and experiments at a remote and forbidding site called Degelen Mountain. Located within Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk test range, the site is about the size of New Jersey and located some 300 miles east of Astana, the second coldest capital city in the world. It was chosen by the Soviets precisely because it is so desolate: Temperatures soar to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and plunge to -40 degrees in the winter. Blizzard conditions are common -- remarkably, they sometimes make the test site more accessible by filling in potholed roads, which have gone unrepaired since the Soviet era, with ice and snow.

The Soviets conducted over 450 nuclear detonations at Semipalatinsk, mostly in tunnels hundreds of yards long, buried deep below ground. Roughly 40 of the tests were small explosions with very low nuclear yields, so the fissile material -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium -- was neither consumed by the blasts nor infused into the molten rock created by them. Instead, according to one senior Obama administration official, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade fissile material was "readily recoverable" in the tunnels. This did not matter much so long as the KGB, the USSR's premier internal security agency, held an iron grip on the Soviet Union, with special attention paid to remote and sensitive nuclear sites like Semipalatinsk. But when the Soviet Union crumbled into 15 independent countries in 1991, all that changed.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan gained its independence. But it came with a catch: Kazakh officials were now responsible for an environmental catastrophe, as well as a proliferation risk, at the former Soviet test site.

Indeed, the world did move quickly -- but sadly, insufficiently -- to contain this risk. Working under Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, which were launched by President George H.W. Bush's administration, to dismantle the former Soviet nuclear establishment in the 1990s, U.S. engineers helped to barricade 181 tunnels and demolish their entrances to prevent them from ever again being used for nuclear testing -- but, in a pre-9/11 world -- they paid little attention to the possibility of fissile material left in the testing tunnels.

The extreme weather conditions and the passage of time eventually cracked and eroded the material sealing the testing tunnels. By 2004, scavengers looking for scrap metal to sell had broken into some of them. Reports of the looting alarmed U.S. officials, who feared that fissile material could be at risk. The U.S. government encouraged and aided the Kazakh government to improve security at the site until more permanent measures could be implemented. Astana declared an exclusion zone, where a ban on trespassing was strictly enforced, and mounted patrols to guard the tunnels and the surrounding area.

Next, nuclear weapons scientists who once sat on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain determined how best to secure the material. They decided to fill the test chambers with a specialized grout, which bonds chemically with fissile material to render it useless for weaponization. In some tunnels, it would be necessary to mine horizontally to reach the test chamber where the nuclear experiments took place.

It was hazardous work: The old tunnels were partially collapsed and dangerous to enter. At other sites, the cement could be pumped from above after drilling into the test chambers. In every case, once the work was done, removing the cement would require a major mining operation that required specialized equipment and was beyond the capability of scavengers or would-be terrorists. Because fissile material was involved, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was also informed of the project.

The United States, working with Kazakhstan and Russia, spent $150 million on the project -- a tiny amount of money given the threat posed by the material required for one nuclear weapon falling into the hands of criminals or terrorists, let alone enough material for a dozen weapons.

But the hard work to secure the site couldn't have been accomplished without America's local Kazakh partners. Four 10-man Kazakh crews worked year round for seven years to dig out, drill into, and ultimately fill the former nuclear test chambers with the special cement. They lived in modified 40-foot cargo containers and braved extreme conditions. One frigid day on the steppe, a work crew had to take a blow torch to the side of their frozen water tank truck just to melt a supply of drinking water. The Kazakh work crews were guided by Russian nuclear scientists and U.S. experts from the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who traveled to the site every four to six weeks, also braving difficult conditions.

U.S. assistance also went to help the Kazakh government enforce its exclusion zone, pay for fences, patrol vehicles, aerial surveillance drones, and even seismic sensors disguised as rocks to alert security forces to the presence of an intruder. These measures have worked. No scavenger activity has been observed at the site since 2009.

Related initiatives to secure other types of nuclear material are ongoing around the world -- and more will be required. The work at Degelen Mountain is a model of how the international community, and Republican and Democratic administrations alike, is cooperating to reduce the nuclear threat. The world is safer for this effort, and it deserves to be recognized.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Exit Taylor

The former Liberian leader is going to jail for war crimes. But he leaves behind a host of unanswered questions.

One afternoon, just before he took a job as a state judge in 1990, federal prosecutor Richard G. Stearns was clearing out his desk at the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston when he came across an old piece of evidence: the wallet belonging to Charles Taylor, a young Liberian bureaucrat he had attempted to extradite back to his homeland in 1985.

"He was a reasonably educated and polished in his own way," Stearns recalled. "But I did not honestly see him at that time as what he became, which was bloodthirsty."

Taylor was educated at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts before returning home to serve in the government of brutal dictator Samuel Doe. After falling out of favor with Doe, Taylor returned to the United States, where he was arrested in 1984 on embezzlement charges. Famously, however, he escaped from a jail in Plymouth before he could be extradited, emerged a short time later as a warlord in the Liberian bush, and fought his way toward the presidency of his country, building a political career through a succession of humanitarian catastrophes in West Africa.

The Taylor case remained a dangling thread for Stearns. Until Thursday.

Stearns -- now a federal judge in Massachusetts -- heard, along with rapt audiences in Freetown, Monrovia, and in the gallery at the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague, what may be the final word on the former Liberian president's career: Taylor was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting Sierra Leonean rebels in crimes including the murder, rape, and conscription of child soldiers during that country's 1990s civil war.

Yet, for all the finality of the decision, questions linger. Was justice served in his trial? Did the proceedings clarify or further obscure Taylor's myth? And what impact, if any, will the court's decision have of on the future of Liberia?

Both Taylor's enemies and supporters, of whom many are still in influential political position in Monrovia, criticize the Special Court for holding Taylor to account for crimes related to Sierra Leone, rather than the civil war he launched in Liberia. As Taylor's former Defense Minister Tom Woewiyu said in an interview this week, "Those who are trying Taylor for Sierra Leone, they're more or less saying to what he did in Liberia, to hell with the Liberians."

Woewiyu said the nature of the court's indictment of the president while he was still in power in 2003 prompted questions over whether the international community -- the United States and Britain in particular -- were using the court as a means to remove him from office. The Special Court was intended to be an organ of international justice, not a cudgel of Western policies. But many of those involved, including Taylor himself, saw it as just that.

Before this week's verdict, Woewiyu said he received a call from Taylor at The Hague.

"Oh, Tom. I should've listened to you many years ago," Taylor told him.

"I always used to tell him this parable about when the elephant tells you to do something, you don't look at the elephant and say ‘no.' Because the elephant is the most powerful animal on the face of the Earth," said Woewiyu, who now lives in Pennsylvania. "America is the elephant of the world today." Taylor told Woewiyu he believes his unwillingness to open up offshore oil development to U.S. companies led to his prosecution, a theory one former U.S. Embassy official described to me as "a crock of shit."

Documents received through a Freedom of Information request show that as early as December 2000, the State Department sought information "to weaken and discredit the Taylor regime internationally" as part of a "long-term campaign" to be waged at the United Nations. The court was created by a joint U.N.-Sierra Leone agreement in 2002.

Taylor supporters have consistently decried the U.S. influence over the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Two Americans -- prosecutor, David M. Crane, and chief investigator, Alan White -- launched the case for the tribunal and indicted Taylor in 2003.

In the end, those closest to Taylor provided the most damning evidence for the prosecution. "I was fortunate enough to be able to flip some people very quickly that were insiders that took me straight to the top and could lay things out," White told me this week. "Once that happened it quickly became what Taylor was about, what his role was."

Following Taylor's arrest and indictment, the State Department, through actions at the United Nations and active fundraising for the tribunal, continued to play an outside role in the proceedings. U.S. diplomats were briefed on Taylor's finances and the quotidian details of his incarceration -- from his diet to his phone allowance to the number of visitors he received -- at the ICC detention unit. There, Taylor had struck up a friendship with fellow detainee, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was convicted in March.

"The two detainees are apparently getting along well," an August 2006 cable noted.

Even during his incarceration, Taylor inspired fear -- particularly among prosecution witnesses. One prosecutor told an American diplomat that "he was surprised that someone had not been killed yet" in March 2008.

Despite the active involvement of Western powers in the operations of the tribunal, the Special Court fought the impression that Taylor was facing U.S. and European justice for African crimes. But after WikiLeaked State Department cables showed that the U.S. had considered the possibility of trying Taylor in the United States if the Special Court failed to convict him, Taylor's counsel attempted to use to reopen the defense's case based on "grave doubts about the independence and impartiality of the Special Court's prosecution of Charles Taylor." The court dismissed the motion, but there's enough evidence of U.S. interest throughout the case that many Liberians may share Taylor's doubts about the tribunal's independence.

Others worry that with Taylor's conviction, those who were complicit in crimes during the period of his rule will be let off the hook.

"For Taylor, justice was served, but for Liberia and, actually, for Sierra Leone, there are more people that need to come down," said Robert Ferguson, a former operations coordinator for the Defense Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia from 2001 to 2003, citing Taylor associates who remain in power in Liberia.

Liberia, unlike Sierra Leone, has made no efforts to hold perpetrators from the nation's 14-year civil war to account. A Truth and Reconciliation process established by the Liberian government is now moribund. After the commission issued its findings in 2009 -- including the recommendation that Sirleaf be barred from office for 30 years for her part in supporting Taylor while he was a guerrilla fighter -- nothing has happened.

In fact, just two weeks before the Taylor verdict, Sirleaf named one those implicated as a chief perpetrators of human rights crimes during Liberia's civil war -- Alhaji Kromah -- ambassador-at-large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Last month, a U.S. judge deported another alleged chief perpetrator -- George Boley -- from Rochester, New York to Liberia for suspected role in war crimes. Neither he nor any other faction leader, including Charles Taylor, has been charged with any crime in Liberia.

"They're not going down the justice route, that's obvious," Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. State Department's ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, said of the Liberian government. "It still has to work through this process because obviously people involved in the crimes other than Charles Taylor still have to answer for those crimes."

To critics, the long, expensive trial, which at times bordered on theater of the absurd -- such as a 2010 cameo by supermodel Naomi Campbell -- meandered from the intended purpose of justice and reconciliation for the people of Sierra Leone.

"The process was outlandish. All the years that it took and all of the money that was spent, I think there must be a better method," said Herman J. Cohen, a former ambassador and assistant secretary of state for Africa during the first Bush administration.

Cohen was among the first U.S. diplomats to meet Taylor when he was fighting to depose Samuel K. Doe in the early 1990s. Later, following the leader's election as president in 1997, he counted Taylor as a client of his lobbying firm, Cohen and Woods.

The tribunal, which ran from June 2008 until November 2010, cost American taxpayers $81 million, according to U.S. officials. It also provided Taylor a platform to rewrite his own biography. Over five and half months, the former president retraced the narrative of his political career from his jailbreak in Plymouth to training in the Libyan desert with Muammar al-Qaddafi's sponsorship through the Liberian civil war and his rise and fall as president.

Taylor also used his testimony to promote the persistent rumors of his connections to intelligence services, including the CIA, whom he claims engineered his escape from jail. (The Plymouth House of Corrections, a chronically overcrowded and out-of-date facility, had suffered a series of escapes prior to Taylor's.)

The reports of Taylor's alleged CIA connections continued to draw scrutiny. In January, the Boston Globe pulled back from a front-page story that had suggested that Taylor was a U.S. intelligence asset during his rise to power.

For now, there's not much evidence to substantiate the story. Cohen, who served as the head of the Bureau of African Affairs until 1993, said "I've seen no evidence that the CIA was in liaison with him -- in fact the only one who was really a liaison with him [from 1990-93] was me."

Nor was Taylor working for the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to Robert Ferguson, who worked under two defense attaches in Monrovia: "He was not a DIA asset. Period."

These may turn out to be questions for historians rather than prosecutors. Judging by the muted reaction the verdict received in Monrovia, it seems that Liberians aren't particularly interested in delving into the remaining mysteries of the Taylor era.

"Even the Barcelona and Chelsea game had more excitement than this," a former Taylor commander and current intelligence official told me. "The country has outgrown this guy. The country wants to develop. Everyone wants to get their life back in order."