More Vampire YA in Let Me In

An orphan for all practical purposes, 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has been left to sprout like a weed. At home, he gets sparse recognition from his divorcée mother; at school, he absorbs castrating taunts from a pack of bullies who’ve gleaned “eternal victim” from his spacey stare.

Owen fills the unstructured hours by sucking Now ’n’ Laters, fantasizing about empowering self-defense scenarios, and peeping across the courtyard of his apartment complex. Here, he spies a potential playmate moving in, a girl around his age. Watching her shuffle through the snow in bare feet, led by her embalmed, middle-aged guardian (Richard Jenkins), you might suspect they’re part of a penitent religious cult. You suspect worse soon after, when the town experiences a ritual murder with vampire tracks.

The setting of Let Me In is Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1983. The feathery, slow-falling snow comes with the material’s Scandinavian pedigree: Swede John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Let the Right One In, filmed by Tomas Alfredson in 2008, was enough of a boutique hit to attract this American remake by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. Lina Leandersson’s mysterious neighbor is replaced by Chloe Moretz’s Abby, waifish, home-school-creepy, and even more socially maladjusted than Owen. On the common ground of isolation, they thaw to each other. Unknown to Owen, if not the viewer, is the fact that Abby’s trauma has something to do with the killings, which her guardian is seen to be involved in, which she may be a party to, and to which Owen, as their courtship deepens, will become an accomplice.

Reeves adopts the International-style flatness of Alfredson’s film, a mixture of “philosophical” long shots, brittle scoring, slowed-pulse performances, and blankness passing as clarity. In an opening that assigns Elias Koteas’s cop to investigate the killings, it’s clear this will be a movie with lots of dialogue pitched as if there’s a colicky infant sleeping in the next room. Reeves’s alterations include feeding the plot through Koteas’s police-procedural and a Significant Effect in which Owen’s Mom is seen always with her face just out of frame or as an out-of-focus blur. His greatest addition shows off his knack for action-verisimilitude, a suspense scene culminating in a sustained one-shot inside a getaway car as it backs over an embankment, so perfect and jarringly felt you want to bust out clapping when it’s done.

Lindqvist’s novel and its permutations are akin to the Twilight franchise in their marriage of “doomed young lovers” and vampire tropes. But where Steph Meyer preaches abstinence, Let Me In keeps its hungry carnivores well-fed, as meek Owen gets a confidence boost from supernatural protection, on the way to a grisly Revenge of the Nerds.

Americanizing the material, Reeves contextualizes the story squarely in Moral Majority country. Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” address plays prominently during Let Me In’s prologue. Owen’s Mom’s chintzy Christian décor and grace over silent dinnertimes are presented as further evidence of the all-encompassing lameness of ’80’s flyover, where the only joy is smuggled in on vinyl, on the forgotten LPs from Freur and the Greg Kihn Band, who Owen and Abby illicitly enjoy.

If irreligious, Let Me In believes in the sanctity of suffering, with close-ups of Smit-McPhee swallowing his shamed tears to the Northwest Boychoir. The child performances are credible, likewise the feel for pubescent isolation and vulnerability. But Reeves’s measured style barely conceals a pandering Young Adult sentimentality as the movie approaches ultimate comeuppance for Owen’s tormentors—wish fulfillment without the elan of Piranha 3D’s douchebag mass-slaughter, facile compared to the irony of Massacre at Central High or the head-on collision of morbid faith and polyester pop in Carrie, two movies that anticipated suburban-school killings instead of skating around their consequences.

Let Me In is a slow build-up to irreparable action, to Owen and Abby’s joining paths as a fatal couple. There is no fork in the road for Owen along the way. He is given nothing to leave behind. And there is scant indication that the rest of humanity is anything more than livestock for sensitive souls to feed on. There’s a human tragedy somewhere here—but aggrandized puppy-love romance and stylish revenge fantasy is all that lingers.


Trinity 5:29’s Manhattan Project Story Not Exactly Setting World On Fire

I think too highly of the iconoclastic Axis Company to ever accuse them of producing a bomb, but though their current production Trinity 5:29 concerns the Manhattan Project, it doesn’t precisely set the world on fire.

“Trinity” was the code name for the A-bomb tested at Los Alamos. While this story is about the quest for fission, the company, led by director Randy Sharp, hazards instead a technique of fusion, wedding J. Robert Oppenheimer’s experiment in lethal atom splitting to a number of tales from Medieval cycle plays, ranging from Noah’s Ark to Abraham and Isaac. This is potentially as powerful as dramatic material can get, but the script—generated collaboratively by Sharp and the four-person cast—is at once too literal (in its Biblical allusions), too vague (in its dreamlike transplantations of historical details), and too weak (in emotional thrust). The most interesting performances are done against type: Edgar Oliver’s Oppenheimer is subordinated to the actor’s own Karloffian personality, and Brian Barnhart’s Harry Truman forgoes the tough bandy-legged rooster approach for a kind of befuddled banality. But, like his character, I found myself leaving the theater with an expression more mystified than moved.


Going Nuclear in If You See Something Say Something

Monologuist Mike Daisey uses a few simple props: a microphone, a wooden desk, a glass of water, pages from a legal pad, and a black handkerchief with which to dab at perspiration. This last seems inadequate. Perhaps Daisey might consider a large duvet or a moderately sized cotton field: Sweat clusters at his eyebrows, tumbles down his cheeks, pools at the base of his neck, soaks his forearms—someone hand that man a bath towel.

Currently, Daisey risks dehydration in the service of If You See Something Say Something, a 100-minute speech that details the rise of the Department of Homeland Security, the biography of neutron-bomb inventor Sam Cohen, and Daisey’s own tourist jaunt to Los Alamos. Some of the material Daisey shares is not terribly fresh, like his ridicule of Tom Ridge’s color-coded alert system. But Daisey brings a tremendous (nearly nuclear) energy to the proceedings, stating that yellow stands for “terrified,” orange for “really fucking terrified,” and red—here, his imp-cherub face erupts into a scream—for “Oh, my God! We’re burning! We’re burning right now!”

Daisey isn’t a subtle performer. Though he clearly models his setup on Spalding Gray, he doesn’t ape Gray’s Waspy ironizing. Nor do he and director Jean-Michele Gregory show much interest in variance or modulation. Nearly every moment’s a big moment, each new detail another excuse for Daisey to screech “What the fuck!” as he toggles between bafflement and rage. Though enjoyable, it’s an exhausting evening, for Daisey as well as the audience.

As in his last piece, How Theater Failed America, the best moments, and the few quiet ones, come when Daisey leaves off discussing larger trends and narrates personal experience. Here, it’s his fascination with trinitite, a glassy substance produced when plutonium and sand have a little party. As Daisey handles a few pieces of what might be trinitite, his eyes soften and his face relaxes. If only for a moment, his personal alert level shifts down to green.


John Adams’s Doctor Atomic at the Met Doesn’t Radiate

In his new autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, composer John Adams calls the 1944 creation of the atom bomb at Los Alamos “the American myth par excellence.” That’s precisely the trouble with Adams’s opera, Doctor Atomic, currently receiving its New York premiere at the Met: It turns something that real human beings actually did into a mythic event so abstract that you hardly feel anything’s going on at all.

Myth is one major part of opera’s essence, but it works dialectically with the other: drama transmitted through the human voice. A brilliant orchestral colorist whose smaller symphonic pieces like The Chairman Dances are bestsellers, Adams writes for singers skillfully but mechanically: The voices play their part in the larger musical texture, but rarely shape it. The result is the opposite of operatic. His short, recitative-like vocal phrases, rarely coalescing into anything substantive enough to be called an aria, also tend to turn downwards, producing a soporific effect. Doctor Atomic‘s heroine has trouble sleeping; her audience constantly has to fight off the temptation to nod out.

Adams’s pallid sense of theater isn’t energized by either his librettist or his stage director. Not a writer by trade, Peter Sellars, who staged the work’s world premiere in San Francisco, has provided a cut-and-paste text, mingling documentary excerpts from memoirs, interviews, and newspaper accounts with poems favored by the opera’s hero, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom tabloids baptized “Doctor Atomic” and “father of the atom bomb.” To convey Oppenheimer’s conflicted feelings over the monstrous destructive power he’s unleashing, the first act ends with a setting of John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”—a notoriously convoluted work, not particularly pertinent, which Adams’s blips of melody can neither elucidate nor galvanize emotionally. His tenderest music is puzzlingly reserved for a passage in which General Groves, the military commander at Los Alamos, sings about his efforts to lose weight.

Battling the prosy, patchwork text, Adams hits another snag with his director, Penny Woolcock, primarily a film and video artist. Her physical production, like Adams’s music, is handsome but emptily abstract: two enormous wall units that function as giant projection screens or, lit differently, reveal rows of tiny cubicles, with singers looking uncomfortably trapped in them.

Adams supplies some musical excitement, of course, particularly in the long orchestral interlude that leads into the first act’s third scene. He enriches the score with startling “found” sounds, from old-time radio dance bands to warning sirens. Inevitably, there’s a big, effective, blast-you-out-of-your-seats moment when we reach the final countdown for the test at Alamogordo. But far too often, what we hear, though sumptuously rendered by the Met orchestra under conductor Alan Gilbert, is an interesting orchestral piece with the vocal lines only a mildly annoying distraction sprinkled on top.

And only a few brief sections, in which Oppenheimer confronts a young physicist troubled by the bomb’s moral implications, even begin to adumbrate the real and vitally important drama that transpired at Los Alamos and after. You could hardly gauge from Doctor Atomic that a remorseful Oppenheimer would soon become the nuclear arms race’s fiercest opponent, while his colleague Edward Teller, seen here questioning the enterprise, would confront him as the scientific world’s strongest supporter of American armed might. The absence of this most dramatic aspect of Oppenheimer’s story points up to the opera’s ineffectuality as a comment on history. It doesn’t offer its singers much opportunity, either, though Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer and Thomas Glenn as the argumentative young physicist, Robert Wilson, give shining accounts of their constricted roles.


Wonders Are Many: Atomic Doc

One consonant away from an icon of American innocence, “Oppie,” as the spindly genius and nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was known to his friends, had become a pariah by the time Opie Taylor hit the scene in the 1960s. Oppie had been an innocent in his own right 20 years earlier, when unyielding curiosity about the mysterious force of the atom led him and a band of scientists at Los Alamos to build the most catastrophic weapon known to man. Jon Else’s Wonders Are Many closes in on the Trinity atomic test of July 1945, twinning it with the production of an opera based on those events called Doctor Atomic and offering the creative dilemma faced by both operations as common ground. Opera director Peter Sellars calls the phlegmatic Oppenheimer “every dramatist’s dream,” and composer John Adams’s libretto is a pastiche of interview material, Donne poetry, and the Bhagavad Gita, which makes for some seriously clunky going in the rehearsals. And director Else’s decision to blend recently declassified footage of nuclear testing with interviews of major players from both the Manhattan Project and the San Francisco Opera Company results in an unusual, occasionally uncomfortable mélange. The historical narrative easily outpaces that of the opera, and at times, the difference between crying “bomb” in a crowded theater and the New Mexico desert takes this otherwise engrossing film one juxtaposition too far.


Unclear Physicist

Half a century ago, red was the nastiest cussword in the right-wing lexicon. Today it’s the symbol of right-wing voterhood. Half a century ago, Republicans made great political hay out of a Democratic administration’s having “lost” the giant country they invariably referred to as “Red China.” Today, they’re all running eagerly to make deals with the same government to which we “lost” it. That’s the trouble with Republicans: They have no principles, and haven’t had any for most of the last century. What they have instead, of course, is the love of weaponry, the desire to destroy, at whatever cost. Unmistakably, that’s the unconscious agenda behind George Bush’s unnecessary war in Iraq, and his new nuclear game of chicken with Iran. In the dark recesses at the back of the Republican mind, the lap-dissolve succession of mushroom clouds that closes Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is the happy ending devoutly to be wished.

Considerably less flamboyant than Dr. Strangelove, Heinar Kipphardt’s documentary play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, originally premiered around the same historical moment, ranks as a kind of aesthetic counterbalance to Kubrick’s raucously funny film in its study of right-wing lunacy and how it can affect the arms race. Currently receiving its first major New York revival from the enterprising Keen Company, Kipphardt’s drama is a modest, sober, understated work; its revival, staged by Keen’s artistic director, Carl Forsman, nevertheless manages to pack a vast number of reverberant aftershocks into its soft-spoken few hours. If your ear is attuned to history, almost every second line rings with startling relevance. From national security to Homeland Security, from the Cold War to the Axis of Evil, amazingly little has changed in the way the death peddlers and their political proxies crush dissent while inventing excuses for their own ill will.

Oppenheimer was apparently a natural-born dissenter and a charismatic leader, as well as a gifted physicist. Widely read and inquisitive culturally as well as scientifically, he was the sort of man who would express his reaction on seeing the first successful atom bomb test by citing two contradictory quotes from the Bhagavad Gita. Idolized by many of his colleagues, he had been the natural choice to head the research operation at Los Alamos that made nuclear weaponry possible. The project had been started out of fear: Émigré physicists who had been expelled from Germany knew that Hitler had a team, headed by Werner Heisenberg, working on nuclear fission; they urged FDR to create its equivalent, thus inadvertently causing what they most feared. Heisenberg, it turned out, had mis- calculated—though the notion that he did so deliberately to thwart Hitler, toyed with in Michael Frayn’s recent play Copenhagen, is untenable—but the brilliant phalanx of scientists gathered at Los Alamos under Oppenheimer’s direction did not miscalculate. In 1945, the U.S. dropped atom bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world reeled. The permanent overhanging terror of our time had begun.

Inwardly, Oppenheimer reeled too. A man of his sensitivity and moral intelligence could not have abetted the cause of such destruction without feeling deep, remorseful qualms. Dubbed “father of the atom bomb” in the popular press, he cringed at the title ever after. He wasn’t alone in his self-recriminations: Like every aspect of American intellectual life in the 1930s and ’40s, science was full of secularized, left-leaning freethinkers who found socialist ideals attractive and viewed Soviet Russia as an ally against fascism, from which many leading physicists were refugees. Though Oppenheimer was surrounded by leftists, repeated security checks never found any evidence of disloyalty on his part. At worst, he had occasionally bent a rule to protect a friend from getting into trouble. (There were Soviet spies at Los Alamos, but their activities had nothing to do with Oppenheimer.)

What undid Oppenheimer, causing the Atomic Energy Commission to suspend his security clearance, thus provoking the hearings we watch in Kipphardt’s play, was not his leftist circle but his inner moral conflict. During wartime, he had worked willingly on a hypothetical weapon. Seeing its appalling effects in reality, he became a believer in disarmament. When the Soviet acquisition of nuclear technology made America’s “military-industrial complex”—Eisenhower’s phrase, not mine—crave bigger, more lethal weapons, Oppenheimer put himself in the path of the arms race. While FBI investigators and lawyers niggled over his relations with known or alleged Communists, big-bomb enthusiasts like Oppenheimer’s nemesis Edward Teller fumed about his “lack of enthusiasm.” Lack of enthusiasm for mass destruction manifestly isn’t treason, but they got him anyway. The panel appointed to hear Oppenheimer’s “matter” found that there had been justification for canceling his security clearance, he was ejected from his chairmanship of the AEC’s scientific advisory committee, and overnight, in the tabloids, he turned from national hero into pariah dog.

Tracing the hearings’ path to this foregone conclusion, Kipphardt’s play resembles a horrifying game of hide-and-seek. With the possible exception of Oppenheimer himself, all the characters know exactly how things must turn out. But the predictability is, in a sense, its own surprise. Watching while the government witnesses quibble, the prosecutors slant questions, the defense lawyers bitterly voice their sniping objections, we sit in an agony of tension, waiting for someone to speak out against the idiotic charade, to tell the government that it’s wasting a precious human resource. A few characters—the wartime security officer John Lansdale, the physicist Hans Bethe—do speak sanely, but their sanity went unheard in 1954. All the more praise to Forsman and his cast for letting it speak now.


Don’t Drop It

LOCATION Upper West Side

RENT $3,200 [market]

SQUARE FEET 1,125 [four rooms in pre-war building]

Look at you, balancing a pin on your nose. [Cindy] This apartment is not the ideal place for juggling. [Carter] The ceilings are a little low. [Cindy] This is a seven-ball ceiling. A seven ball-ceiling is not true in every apartment. [She tosses a pin to Carter.] Oooooh. A triple spin here is pushing it because the ceiling was just repainted. [Carter] We can do boxes here.

Oops, you dropped one. But otherwise you’re always perfect. It’s a lateral thing, clacking them in place. That’s why we do boxes on cruise ships. They’re low. [Cindy] These are the clubs I decorated to celebrate my father’s retirement from Columbia and Barnard. He’s a physicist. He’s the one who got me started juggling, completely by accident. He knew how to do three tricks with three balls, but he didn’t know how he knew. My grandmother was Gertrude Tonkonogy. She wrote Three-Cornered Moon. [Carter] It was a big hit in the early ’30s. [Cindy] Ruth Gordon played the lead. The woman who played Auntie Em was in it. My grandmother was the one who taught my father to juggle.

What’s the connection between juggling and physics? Juggling is the physical demonstration of the laws of physics. I am the only American who’s juggled in Los Alamos and Nagasaki. Los Alamos, where they built the atom bomb . . . [Carter] We get a good turnout there because there are so many physicists. [Cindy] Japan hires lots of jugglers.

Did you go to juggling college? [Carter] I went to Ringling Brothers Clown College in ’80. [Cindy] I went to Oberlin. Then I was a student at the Antic Arts Academy. They had to rebel against Ringling. [Carter] Ringling was like the Harvard of clown colleges.

Let’s toss the pin to you, Carter. I grew up at 92nd and West End. My father was a photographer; he did the cover of Vogue in the ’60s. I was in a mime troupe at the University of Vermont. They said, Either you learn to juggle or we’re throwing you out of the troupe. Within three months, I was better than anyone else. Juggling is like walking along and falling into a hole. You never get out. [Cindy] We met in the hole. [Carter] Cindy was taking a workshop in Maine. [Cindy] Paris, Maine. [Carter] I was rehearsing about a mile away. Three years later, I hired her. [Cindy] The love part happened during rehearsal. We were doing serious juggling.

What are you staring at when you’re juggling? You’re focusing on the peak. [Carter] You’re peripherally catching all the props in your field of vision before you physically catch them in your hands.

You can’t be butterfingers. Why is it now that all these affluent families are sending their children to circus school? I’m not speaking of you, who developed your juggling as an art in an earlier time. Historically, circuses were about the remains of society, the freaks. In terms of power, these traveling troupes in their wagons owned no land; they were not rooted in property or financial power. In that movie Trapeze, Biddle, in his tank top, is brooding about the triple spin. Lola the tumbler wants to get in on the act. Who would want their children in such a life? What happened to ballet? A lot of the schools are in exotic places. I think it’s the influence of Cirque de Soleil.

All those slippery leotards. So this non-language-based global theater that can appeal to massive audiences and play forever until everyone drops from hanging on ropes—that’s what brought circus life into the home. [Cindy] I remember being a kid, getting from two balls to three. At music day school, the teacher took away my tennis balls. She said, “When you juggle, the other children get excited. I can’t control them.” Then I’d wrap peach pits in aluminum foil. [Carter] You know the way I get Cindy up in the morning. I spin my diablo ropes though my legs. I’m naked and I get her full attention.


Manhattan Confidential

Chemistry had Marie Curie. Computer science had Ada Byron. But what about physics? Of the hard sciences, physics is typically regarded as the most male, and the most chauvinistic too. For every dorm room poster of cuddly Albert Einstein, there seem to be several accompanying anecdotes about the man’s legendary misogyny.

It should come as little surprise that women have historically occupied supporting roles in physics: secretaries, assistants, and daughters. (There are exceptions, though Nobel winner Maria Goeppert Mayer is hardly a household name.) Subordinate though they often were, women naturally possessed an excellent vantage point from which to observe (and at times influence) the men they served. The female’s view of this hyper-male society is the subject of two recent books that deconstruct the world of the Cold War–era physicist from the outside looking in. Though completely different in approach, both show a probing empathy for these cerebral men, as well as boundless compassion for the women who had to work, live, and put up with them.

The more personal of the books, M.G. Lord’s
Astro Turf could be called a memoir, but it’s both more and less than that. Lord, the daughter of a mid-level astrophysicist at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, recounts her relationship with her father, a man who cocooned himself in his work rather than face the agony of his wife’s death from cancer, or his daughter’s own adolescence. Hardly a conventional memoirist, Lord uses her childhood recollections as a Proustian springboard for such far-reaching (and sometimes bizarrely tangential) explorations of maleness at a time (the late ’50s) when being a man meant that you were stoic, strict, and work-obsessed.

Examining the gender-drag archetypes of the era (as she did in
Forever Barbie), Lord seeks closure on her issues of fatherly abandonment. (“He had come by his misogyny honestly” is her somewhat obvious conclusion.) Plunging headlong into science as a way of reconciling herself with Daddy, Lord positions herself as soul sister to Ellie Arroway, the scientist heroine of Carl Sagan’s novel
Contact. Indeed, the role of women in the lab becomes a major thread in Lord’s book as past turns into present and the male stranglehold thaws into a tolerance (though not full acceptance) of females in leadership positions. What relevance the sexual politics of JPL had on Lord’s family is left for the reader to deduce. (Such is also the case for Lord’s digressions into atomic research and the Mars Mariner missions.) Lord provides the parts; we must assemble the rocket.

Astro Turf is slender but sprawling. Nearly twice as long, Jennet Conant’s 109 East Palace
focuses on the brief 27 months during which the nation’s top physicists gathered in a remote New Mexico outpost to create the first nuclear weapon. As its title suggests,
109 East Palace takes place almost entirely within the compound that today is referred to as Los Alamos. And while J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb, dominates much of the book, the real protagonist is his assistant Dorothy McKibbin, a widowed mother who loyally kept house for a horde of physicists in some of the harshest working conditions known to modern science.

Written in third-person reportage, combining firsthand testimony with second-hand documentation,
109 East Palace
homogenizes its diverse journalistic sources into a straightforward yarn. Whatever personal interest the author has in the story (her grandfather James Conant was an administrator of the Manhattan Project and makes several appearances in the book) is completely sublimated in the person of Dorothy, whose role was to keep the non-physics-related parts of the Los Alamos community running on schedule. Part Ma Joad, part Florence Nightingale, Dorothy gamely fielded a nonstop stream of crises, including shortages of food and water, clashing egos, and Oppenheimer’s high-priest tantrums. “There was never a dull moment,” Dorothy says with somewhat scary zeal. “We worked six days a week but even so I couldn’t wait to get back to work in the morning.”

Conant, like Lord, goes easy on the scientific detail, preferring to evoke the cultural dynamics of this egghead society. (For a nuts-and-bolts account of Oppenheimer’s work, read Kai Bird and Martin Sherman’s just-published
American Prometheus.) As Conant tells it, wives on the Los Alamos range were kept in the dark about their husbands’ classified work. And for the most part, so was Dorothy, despite her proximity to the man in charge. (When the bomb finally fell on Hiroshima, she learned about it the way everyone else did—over the radio.)

In retrospect, Dorothy’s selfless dedication to Oppenheimer qualifies as a kind of insanity—or perhaps just willful ignorance. One wonders exactly how much she actually knew, and how much she chose not to know. Like
Astro Turf, 109 East Palace
leaves the reader to complete the puzzle, though this time, the pieces are slippery. It’s a strange irony that in the end, Dorothy should remain as fundamentally unknowable to us as she did to those she so slavishly served.



  • Small Arms Make Big Trouble

  • Dismember Los Alamos

  • Small Arms Make Big Trouble

    Pocket Rocket

    As the experts spend their time plowing through the 12,000-page arms report released by the Iraqis last week, and as Bush insiders continue their cynical debate on how best to serve their twin desires for warmongering and political advancement, the real source of future terrorist threats keeps percolating, with little official comment. Despite what the Bushies would have us believe, Al Qaeda still poses a far greater danger to so-called homeland security than either Saddam Hussein or the Democrats. And the unsuccessful missile attack last month on an Israeli jet taking off from a Kenyan airport provides a frightening glimpse of what may be to come from bin Laden’s group.

    Called man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, shoulder-fired weapons are easily concealed and, as the name suggests, can be launched by a single individual. They’re able to hit a fast-moving target at over 10,000 feet, which means commercial airliners are vulnerable over many miles of their takeoff and landing paths. These weapons have been used widely against military planes, and are cited as one reason for keeping long-range bombers at high altitudes in the recent U.S. bombing runs over Afghanistan.

    The attack on the Israeli plane came from old Soviet Strela missiles, a weapon similar to the American Stinger. These missiles are heat-seeking and were used against aerial targets during the Cold War. After the Afghan war between the Soviets and the U.S.-sponsored mujahideen in the 1980s, piles of shoulder-fired missiles remained for the pilfering. They’re also easily procured on the international market, and can even be welded together with home-mixed explosives and timing devices bought at Radio Shack.

    “Persistent rumors indicate that bin Laden’s personal bodyguards may be equipped with Stingers, ostensibly to counter airborne attack,” wrote Jane’s International Security News. “If this is true, then Al Qaeda represents the most significant threat to international civil aviation.” The magazine lists 24 publicly reported shoot-downs from 1996 to 2000, many of them by rebels from Chechnya. Planes were also attacked in South Asia, Bosnia, and Colombia, where top Irish Republican Army technical people are on trial for helping the insurgent FARC.

    To understand the disruptive power of relatively small arms fire, you need only turn to the IRA’s campaign against English rule. Between 1985 and 1987, the IRA managed to import SA-7s from Libya with the intent of deploying them against British planes patrolling the southern border of Northern Ireland. But by the time the IRA got around to firing them, the batteries were dead. As Ed Moloney, the knowledgeable Irish journalist and author of A Secret History of the IRA, said in a Voice interview, IRA operatives—world experts in kitchen-table munitions—also came to the United States in that era and hooked up with Richard Johnson, an American scientist with high-level security clearance. He was arrested while helping them develop a scheme for their own brand of shoulder-launched missile, and he’s still in jail today.

    Though foiled in their efforts to shoot down planes, the IRA showed what havoc could be wreaked with similar low-level munitions. In addition to inventing the car bomb, which they used to shut down London’s financial center, they paralyzed Heathrow Airport in the early 1990s in a mock attack with mortars buried in the ground nearby and stashed in the trunks of cars in the parking lot. Deliberately left unarmed, these caused little damage yet briefly disrupted international travel and sounded a warning of what might one day happen.

    One can imagine the panic if a similar mortar were shot from the back of a car parked on a New York City street, not to mention the effect of a shoulder-launched missile blasted off a Long Island beach at a plane approaching a JFK runway. Even a near miss could have a devastating impact on the economy. “There is no protection against these kinds of attacks,” said Moloney. “The only solution to this problem, in the end, is a political solution.”

    Today, an estimated 500 million such weapons circulate freely around the globe. The situation is likely to worsen in the near future, when more of these outdated but deadly weapons hit the market as former Eastern-bloc countries upgrade their arsenals to meet NATO standards. Between 1997 and 2000, for example, the Ukrainian arms business grew tenfold, as it exported some $1.5 billion worth of guns. Ukrainian traders have been linked to the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

    Making matters worse is the American policy of privatizing the military, opening the way for private multinational companies to get involved in providing the personnel, as well as the weaponry, to wage the world’s wars. A major report released last month by the Center for Public Integrity reports that some 90 such companies are engaged in 110 countries around the globe.

    “The strong links between the U.S. government and many of the private military companies that contract with them has presented questions regarding the revolving door between government and the private sector,” said the center’s report. The study notes that in 1992, the Pentagon—under then defense secretary Dick Cheney—paid a firm called Brown & Root $3.9 million for a classified analysis of ways private companies could support American troops in hot spots. That same year, wrote the center, the Pentagon handed Brown & Root another $5 million “to update the report.” Of course, Brown & Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation, where Dick Cheney later served as CEO, from 1995 to 1999. Maybe it was money well spent. If anyone knows how the mercenary business works, it ought to be the vice president.

    Lab Workers Looting the Plant

    Dismember Los Alamos

    Think back to the Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was held in solitary confinement for nine months under suspicion of being a spy. The basis of this accusation was that he had transferred classified computer codes from a secure system at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked, to unclassified computers and then to portable cassette tapes—presumably a rare breach of security.

    But in a recent report, prepared by the lab’s chief financial officer, Los Alamos reveals that its employees seem to play fast and loose with gear from this highly secret atomic research institute. Last month Los Alamos fired two of the key whistle-blowing employees who brought the lab’s widespread fraud and theft to public attention.

    Here’s a sampling of the 141 items (in all, worth $1.3 million) listed as lost or stolen:

  • Personal computer ($3467)
  • Printer ($11,037)
  • DVD recorder ($450)
  • Power transformer ($9290)
  • Still camera ($600)
  • Workstation ($9750)
  • Leak detector ($18,685)
  • Printer ($473)
  • Handheld computer ($371)
  • Digital camera ($869)

  • Additional reporting: Rebecca Winsor and Josh Saltzman


    I’ll Cut the Fence, You Grab the Plutonium

    For all the difficulty protecting nuclear reactors, safeguarding nuclear weapons facilities has proved no easier. According to a newly released study by the watchdog Project on Government Oversight, “terrorists” making mock attacks on labs and munitions plants were able to breach security at least 50 percent of the time, even making off once with the goods in a garden cart from Home Depot.

    The drills, conducted by the Department of Energy, featured U.S. Special Forces as the enemies. POGO got access to the startling results with the assistance of a dozen whistle-blowers who took part in the exercises.

    In one 1997 episode at Los Alamos, a nuclear lab on the floor of a desert canyon in New Mexico, U.S. Special Forces were able to “steal” enough weapons-grade uranium for multiple nuclear warheads.

    At Rocky Flats, a major Cold War weapons-production site outside Denver, federal security overseers easily entered a high-security area with a pistol hidden in a coffee can. In another exercise there, Navy SEALs were able to breach the facility by cutting a hole in a chain-link fence. They climbed through, stole a significant amount of plutonium, and ducked back out.

    For future drills, Rocky Flats management set new guidelines: SEALs couldn’t leave through the fence, but had to climb the guard tower and rope the plutonium over the fence. Instead, the SEALs brought a lacrosse stick, stole the material, then winged it over the fence to allies on the other side.

    “The Department of Energy has been too unwilling to deal with its own failure for too long,” says Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director. “They never really believed there would be a threat, and they never believed terrorists would be sophisticated. Now we’ve seen what we’re dealing with—and you don’t have to be that sophisticated to access these materials.”

    The report also details the complexes’ failure to protect against truck bombs, simulated theft of nuclear secrets, attacks during transport of weapons-grade material, and, at Los Alamos, mock adversaries intent on constructing an “Improvised Nuclear Device”—a quickie bomb.

    One problem, the authors note, is that the protective forces at these sites are privately contracted—”fancy rent-a-cops,” one expert calls them. POGO recommends positioning small SWAT teams inside the complexes, then consolidating the nuclear materials at more secure facilities, like the underground Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and the brand-new, but unused, Device Assembly Facility in Nevada.

    These proposals have been on the DOE’s table and should be in place by now, the group says, but charges that the budget-plagued department has suffered from poor leadership and has ignored—then hidden—the embarrassing test results. A spokesperson from the DOE’s National Nuclear Security division did not return phone calls for comment.

    “In a bureaucracy, shit rolls downhill,” says Peter Stockton, a special assistant to former secretary of energy Bill Richardson, and a paid consultant to this report. “We spend $3 billion on securing these places, and the American people expect and believe they are secure. To think that [theft or sabotage] will never happen is horseshit. Nobody thought a rubber boat could sink a warship, and nobody thought two damn planes could sink the World Trade Center.”

    Related Article:
    Unsafe at Any Price: If Terrorists Take Down Nuclear Plants, You Pay—By the Hundreds of Billions” by Erik Baard