Playing Keep Away
From Spies and Terrorists
|A triggered spark gap like this can be
used to set off a nuclear bomb.
There’s a wild car chase down the streets of L.A. An FBI agent—let’s call him, I don’t know, Jack—is racing after a rogue terrorist who has made off with a soup can-sized electrical device that looks like a spool of thread with a hook on top.
In the hands of a medical professional, this device, called a “triggered spark gap,” plays a constructive role: it serves as the ignition switch of sorts in a machine that uses electrical shock waves to break up kidney stones. But in the hands of a terrorist, the device has a sinister secondary purpose: it can detonate a nuclear bomb.
With Jack in hot pursuit, one hand on the wheel of his SUV and the other calling for backup on his cell, the terrorist races towards a nearby warehouse where his fellow operatives have a nuclear bomb just waiting for this one last part…
Okay, this is a made-for-TV scenario, purely hypothetical. Except for the triggered spark gap. It’s entirely real…and yes, it can be used to set off a nuclear bomb.
And such a possibility—though rarely as exciting as portrayed on screen—is exactly why keeping such “dual-use” or restricted technologies out of wrong hands is one of our highest national security priorities.
We call it “counterproliferation,” and it’s a complicated business. It requires an understanding of intricate export laws, international diplomatic sensitivities, and a variety of sophisticated technologies. And it encompasses several different yet related threats—terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, international espionage, and the theft of intellectual property and its trafficking on black market trade networks.
A lot of countries are after our controlled technologies and software—as many as 108 according to an intelligence report last year—but the primary culprits are China and Iran, which have been involved in a majority of cases in recent years.
Their targets include everything from parts for nuclear weapons to night vision goggles, from military equipment (rocket guidance systems, naval warship data, fighter jet components, etc.) to obscure technologies like the triggered spark gaps that can’t be bought without the express permission of our government because they might be used in weapons or war-fighting machines.
Our response to the threat has been increasingly aggressive, and it includes:
- At least one special agent in each of our 56 field offices dedicated to counterproliferation cases;
- Specialized support and training provided by our Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at FBI Headquarters, which manages our overall counterproliferation efforts;
- National and local intelligence analysts who work to identify trends within proliferation networks and who share their analysis throughout the FBI; and
- Closer cooperation with many government partners—especially Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol, and the departments of Commerce, Energy, State, and Treasury—including on new counterproliferation task forces being set up in U.S. Attorneys offices around the country.
“The theft of sensitive technologies doesn’t make news like a terrorist bomb, but it’s a serious threat that we take very seriously,” says Dr. Vahid Majidi, head of our Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. “It’s all about prevention—making sure our own technologies don’t come back to hurt us or even another country one day.”
For more information and a list of recent cases, see:
- FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction webpage
- FBI Counterintelligence webpage
- National Counterproliferation Initiative
- Major U.S. Export Cases and Actions