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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scientists Say U.S. Raised False Nuclear Alarm

NEW YORK -- Civilian scientists in the United States are strongly criticizing the federal government for saying that a seismic event that rocked the Russian wilds two months ago might have been an underground nuclear blast.

The scientists say the tremor was unquestionably natural in origin, and they suggest that bureaucratic foes of the nuclear test ban treaty are distorting the truth in a bid to torpedo the treaty's ratification in the U.S. Senate.

A nuclear test would violate the global accord signed by Moscow that outlaws such detonations.

"This test scare should be investigated by Congress and the president," Jeremy Stone, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said Monday. The federation, a private group in Washington, advocates arms control.

Lynn Sykes, a seismologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and an authority on detecting nuclear blasts with sensitive instruments that monitor ground vibrations, said he had canvassed peers around the world and could find none who believed the event was nuclear.

"We need an investigation," Sykes said in an interview. "This is a crucial time for the test ban and this issue is absolutely central to whether it appears verifiable. There are a number of people in government who claim we cannot tell if it was a blast or an earthquake."

Advocates of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty contend that it can be policed; its opponents say it cannot. The treaty's goal is to halt the development of new weapons of mass destruction by imposing a global ban on nuclear detonations.

One of the treaty's main tools is an emerging global network of hundreds of seismometers, both public and private, that track ground vibrations. These rumbles are carefully studied to try to find underground nuclear blasts hidden among the natural din of small and large earthquakes that occur regularly.

The treaty has been signed by 146 nations, including the United States, Russia, China and the other declared nuclear powers. U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration recently sent the treaty for ratification by the Senate, which is not expected to act any time soon.

In late August, the administration said it had evidence that Russia might have detonated a nuclear weapon on a remote island in the Kara Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean, and that it was investigating the matter and seeking an explanation from Moscow. Russia later denied that it had conducted a nuclear blast and reaffirmed its commitment to the test ban.

On Monday, an intelligence official who spoke on condition he not be identified confirmed that the government is still divided about the event's nature. "We haven't reached a conclusion on whether that event was an explosion or an earthquake," he said. "The data is rather ambiguous."

A civilian scientist recently briefed by the CIA on the event said that the agency was stretching the truth to the breaking point.

"They've labeled it an enigma to save face," said the expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They've spun out bizarre scenarios of deception and cheating." He accused the agency of failing to retract early assessments when accumulated evidence all but ruled out a blast.

By all accounts, the event was worth worrying about at first. On Aug. 16 in the vicinity of Novaya Zemlya, an arctic island where Russia maintains a site for underground nuclear testing, the ground heaved and alarm bells quickly went off in Washington.

The government's interest was already high because it was remotely monitoring a series of experiments at the site, which Moscow later said were small-scale tests of warhead reliability similar to those conducted by Washington at its underground testing site in Nevada.

Such experiments involve no nuclear blasts and no shaking of the earth, but they do involve nuclear components and are therefore held underground to stem the possibility of leaks of radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

One of these Russian experiments took place on Aug. 14, and another on Aug. 16, a federal intelligence expert said. The seismic event on the 16th rang alarm bells because analysts immediately seized on it as possible evidence that Russia had detonated a nuclear bomb, albeit a small one.

The nation's intelligence agencies quickly informed the State Department and the White House, which asked Moscow for an explanation. The administration's suspicions were first reported publicly in The Washington Times on Aug. 28.

Meanwhile, further analysis showed that the seismic event was centered not on land but about 80 miles southeast of Novaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea, breaking the link to the Russian test site.

The Air Force Technical Applications Center, which aids intelligence agencies in seismic analysis, wrote a secret report on the Kara location dated Sept. 4. That report was distributed widely throughout the White House and executive branch.

Even so, intelligence agencies and administration officials have been reluctant to backpedal.

On Monday, the intelligence official conceded that the event's location was in the Kara Sea but emphasized that the event was still suspicious. "It might have been explosive," he said.

In contrast, scientists say the distinctive seismic signature of the event clearly makes it natural in origin. Its waves, they say, are characteristic of an earthquake.


Carl Kaysen, chairman of the Federation of American Scientists and a White House security adviser during the Kennedy administration, on Monday wrote to Senator Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to ask for a formal investigation of the incident.

"In our view," he said, "this event reflects a long-standing Cold War practice of acting on semidigested intelligence information which is, inevitably, leaked to justify an alarm after which no sound is heard after the alarm turns out to be false."

"Accordingly,'' Kaysen added, "we believe that the director of Central Intelligence should be asked to explain the role of the intelligence community in this matter so that the committee can determine whether or not this kind of intelligence distortion is symptomatic of a larger problem."

But Frank Gaffney Jr., a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who now directs the Center for Security Policy, a private Washington group that opposes the test ban, strongly criticized the scientists' claims of impossibility for the event being atomic.

"There's a lot of thrashing going on to provide certitude where there is no certitude," Gaffney said in an interview. "I believe there is compelling circumstantial evidence to suggest this was a nuclear test."

He added: "The fact that you have these people rushing forward saying we got it wrong, that it was in the ocean, I find to be preposterous. In the service of arms control, the truth is always expendable."