Sept. 11, 2002 -- On July 4, in a train station in Europe, a suitcase containing 15 pounds of depleted uranium, shielded by a steel pipe with a lead lining, began a secret 25-day, seven-country journey. Its destination was the United States.
It was the kind of uranium that — if highly enriched — would, by some estimates, provide about half the material required for a crude nuclear device and more than enough for a so-called dirty bomb — a nightmare scenario for U.S. authorities.
"I would say that the single largest, most urgent threat to Americans today is the threat of nuclear terrorism," said Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear terrorism. Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense.
This suitcase's journey was not part of a terrorist plot, but rather part of an ABCNEWS investigation into whether American authorities could, in fact, stop a shipment of radioactive material. The depleted uranium packed in the suitcase was not highly enriched and therefore not dangerous, but similar in many other key respects.
In other words, to the to the human eye or to an X-ray scanner, the depleted uranium would look the same as an actual radioactive shipment.
ABCNEWS' project was designed with the help of three of the world's leading authorities on nuclear terrorism: Dr. Thomas Cochran, senior scientist and nuclear weapons expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that lent the depleted uranium to ABCNEWS for the investigation; Dr. Fritz Steinhausler of Stanford University in California and the University of Salzburg in Austria; and Allison of Harvard's Belfer Center.
"It is a perfect mockup," said Cochran. "It replicates everything but the capability to explode.
"This is what [customs is] looking for, or should be looking for," he added, "and this is what they absolutely have to stop."
"What I hope your program will help people do, is say, 'My God, this could really happen.' And this could really happen," said Allison. "There [are] things we could do to prevent it."
Route Well-Traveled by Smugglers
Starting in Austria on July 4, the suitcase began its journey by rail, traveling first across the border to Hungary, where the ABCNEWS team's passports were checked — but there was no inspection of the suitcase. From there, it was on to Romania, through the Transylvanian Alps, across the fields of Bulgaria and into Turkey — all without even one inspection of the suitcase.
This is precisely the route and the method authorities say has been used in the past to transport radioactive material smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. But throughout the 47-hour European rail trip, the suitcase, packed with depleted uranium, sat untouched on a rack in the cabin. ABCNEWS saw no evidence of radiation detectors in use anywhere.
"Well, that's a pretty good test," said Allison. "I would have wished or hoped that you would have at least gotten some look."
But there was nothing. The suitcase traveled all the way to Istanbul, Turkey, which is considered a hub of the world's nuclear black market. Steinhausler, an expert in weapons trafficking who has compiled a database of nuclear-smuggling incidents, described it as "a crossroad between a leaking Central Asian region and possibly a receptive Middle East."
Turkish authorities report they have detected more than 100 cases of such attempted smuggling in the last few years.
ABCNEWS was doing what some law enforcement officials say al Qaeda terrorists have known how to do for years.
"For a decade, they've sought nuclear weapons," said Allison."[Osama] bin Laden has said it is his and al Qaeda's religious duty … to acquire nuclear weapons."
Documents in Arabic seized from one of bin Laden's top aides five years ago show how he apparently planned to use shipping containers packed with sesame seeds as part of a plan to smuggle high-grade radioactive material to the United States.
Allison is concerned that what ABCNEWS did as a test may have already been done for real. "There's no reason to think that they haven't," he said.
Suitcase Labeled ‘Depleted Uranium’
Hours after the ABCNEWS team arrived in Istanbul, the suitcase of radioactive material was prepared for shipment by sea to the United States. The suitcase was placed inside an ornamental Turkish chest that was carefully marked as containing depleted uranium, in case inspectors discovered it.
Then, in the middle of a busy Istanbul street, the chest itself was crated and nailed shut. The crate containing the suitcase was then nestled alongside crates of huge vases and Turkish horse carts in a large metal shipping container that was ordered from a company that arranges shipments to the United States.
"If it were a real weapon, you know, that you'd managed to get out of the Soviet inventory, [it] would fit in this container," said Allison. "A battlefield nuclear weapon, an artillery shell would fit fine in there."
The company hired to handle the shipping did not know, nor did its workers check to see, what was inside the crate. The company told ABCNEWS this week that it is re-evaluating its practices in light of this report.
The container, with the suitcase inside, left Istanbul on July 10, bound for the Port of New York, where U.S. Customs Service officials have very publicly claimed they've made huge improvements to prevent anything radioactive from getting through.
"We're doing everything we possibly can to keep terrorists and terrorists weapons out of this country," said Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner.
At 2 a.m. on July 29, the ship carrying this suitcase cleared the Verrazano Bridge and entered New York Harbor. At this point, no one had asked a single a question about what was in the container.
A Dangerous Delivery Device
This scenario was too close for comfort for Allison, who explained that a weapon smuggled in this way could be armed in advance and ready to fire — and the ship could be the delivery device.
"The ship, I think, is one of the most dangerous delivery devices," said Allison. "A weapon or material in the belly of a ship has been one of the nightmare scenarios for people that think about how nuclear weapons might arrive in the U.S."
The ship carrying the container was tied up at the Staten Island dock in New York, where the Customs Service says it has a state-of-the-art system in place to detect even a small, low-level amount of radioactive material.
"We're doing whatever it takes to screen the high-risk containers," said customs inspector Kevin McCabe, the chief of the contraband enforcement team, who did not know about the test when he demonstrated the screening measures to ABCNEWS.
During an interview in August, he gave ABCNEWS the same demonstration he said he had given to President Bush when he visited the port. McCabe displayed the small radiation pager used by inspectors, which he said could detect even a shielded, low-level radiation shipment — like depleted uranium.
In addition, the customs inspector demonstrated a second screening device, an X-ray scanning machine on wheels, used on suspect containers to detect even small items.
"The inspector should see [that] even if it's something small, [of] unusual density, unusual something … would lead us to strip that container and look," said McCabe.
"If we can't tell exactly what is in that container by those screenings, we're going to get into that container and find out for ourselves."
And while the shipping container holding ABCNEWS' suitcase was selected by customs for this kind of screening, it sailed right through the inspection and left the port without ever being opened by customs inspectors. And a few days after its arrival in the United States, the container was on the back of a truck headed for New York City.
Customs Defends Detection Capabilities
Bonner, the customs commissioner, says his inspectors correctly singled out the container for screening and would have detected anything truly dangerous.
"We ran it for radiation detection and we also did a large-scale X-ray," he said. "Nothing appeared that would indicate that there was a potential for a nuclear device to be in the container."
When asked why a large piece of metal in the shipment of Turkish horse carts didn't stand out, Bonner responded, "Well, look I'm not gonna get into it … We have the X-ray pictures."
Bonner refused to show ABCNEWS what the Customs Service saw on the X-ray scans taken by its equipment. But when ABCNEWS later put the suitcase through a much less sophisticated X-ray machine, the outline of the depleted uranium in its shielded casing was clear. It looked like a pipe bomb was inside.
The experts ABCNEWS consulted say that with the screening devices custom officials said they used on the shipping container, without opening the crate there would be no way for customs inspectors to know whether the material was the low-level, safe, depleted uranium of the kind used by ABCNEWS in this investigation, or the highly enriched, dangerous uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.
"If you didn't detect this, you wouldn't have detected … the real thing," said Cochran. "[Bonner] missed it and he's covering up."
Cochran says the ABCNEWS test demonstrated an important shortcoming of the customs screening process — that the radiation pagers are essentially useless unless the pager is placed right on top of the radioactive material. "U.S. Customs absolutely … missed it," he said.
‘We Are Not Safe’
Finally, the container was taken to a New York Port Authority warehouse on Pier No. 1, just across the river from lower Manhattan, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
When the crate was pulled out, it was easy to see it had never been opened since leaving Istanbul.
Port Authority police are assigned to this warehouse facility, but there are no radiation detectors there and no one asked about the unusual shipment in a container full of Turkish horse carts.
"If that were a weapon and you blew it up, you would have very, very substantial consequences," said Allison.
The material ABCNEWS moved was not dangerous and entirely legal to transport.
"You provided an illustration, a vivid illustration of the fact that this could happen tomorrow," Allison said. "We are not safe. Not safe from that."