CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — In the backwaters of Eastern Europe, authorities working with the FBI have interrupted four attempts in the past five years by gangs with suspected Russian connections that sought to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists, The Associated Press has learned. The latest known case came in February this year, when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly cesium — enough to contaminate several city blocks — and specifically sought a buyer from the Islamic State group.
Criminal organizations, some with ties to the Russian KGB’s successor agency, are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny and impoverished Eastern European country of Moldova, investigators say. The successful busts, however, were undercut by striking shortcomings: Kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.
Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files with the AP in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the nuclear black market has become. They say the breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia’s vast store of radioactive materials — an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market.
“We can expect more of these cases,” said Constantin Malic, a Moldovan police officer who investigated all four cases. “As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it.”
In wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews, AP found a troubling vulnerability in the anti-smuggling strategy. From the first known Moldovan case in 2010 to the most recent one in February, a pattern has emerged: Authorities pounce on suspects in the early stages of a deal, giving the ringleaders a chance to escape with their nuclear contraband — an indication that the threat from the nuclear black market in the Balkans is far from under control.
Moldovan investigators can’t be sure that the suspects who fled didn’t hold on to the bulk of the nuclear materials. Nor do they know whether the groups, which are pursuing buyers who are enemies of the West, may have succeeded in selling deadly nuclear material to extremists at a time when the Islamic State has made clear its ambition to use weapons of mass destruction.
The cases involve secret meetings in a high-end nightclub; blueprints for dirty bombs; and a nerve-shattered undercover investigator who slammed vodka shots before heading into meetings with smugglers. Informants and a police officer posing as a connected gangster — complete with a Mercedes Benz provided by the FBI — penetrated the smuggling gangs. The police used a combination of old-fashioned undercover tactics and high-tech gear, from radiation detectors to clothing threaded with recording devices.
The Moldovan operations were built on a partnership between the FBI and a small team of Moldovan investigators — including Malic, who over five years went from near total ignorance of the frightening black market in his backyard to wrapping up four sting operations.
“In the age of the Islamic State, it’s especially terrifying to have real smugglers of nuclear bomb material apparently making connections with real buyers,” says Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who led a secret study for the Clinton administration on the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The Moldovan investigators were well aware of the lethal consequences of just one slip-up. Posing as a representative’s buyer, Malic was so terrified before meetings that he gulped shots of vodka to steel his nerves. Other cases contained elements of farce: In the cesium deal, an informant held a high-stakes meeting with a seller at an elite dance club filled with young people nibbling on sushi.
In the case of the cesium, investigators said the one vial they ultimately recovered was a less radioactive form of cesium than the smugglers originally had advertised, and not suitable for making a dirty bomb.
The most serious case began in the spring of 2011, with the investigation of a group led by a shadowy Russian named Alexandr Agheenco, “the colonel” to his cohorts, whom Moldovan authorities believe to be an officer with the Russian FSB, previously known as the KGB. A middle man working for the colonel was recorded arranging the sale of bomb-grade uranium, U-235, and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a man from Sudan, according to several officials. The blueprints were discovered in a raid of the middleman’s home, according to police and court documents.
Wiretapped conversations repeatedly exposed plots targeting the United States, the Moldovan officials said. At one point the middleman told an informant posing as a buyer that it was essential that the smuggled uranium go to Arabs.
“He said to the informant on a wire: ‘I really want an Islamic buyer because they will bomb the Americans,'” said Malic, the investigator.
As in the other cases, investigators arrested mostly mid-level players after an early exchange of cash and samples of radioactive goods.
The ringleader, the colonel, got away. Police cannot determine whether he had more nuclear material. His partner, who wanted to “annihilate America,” is out of prison.
On Twitter: Desmond Butler at https://twitter.com/desmondbutler
NEW YORK (AP) — Technology giants — Apple, Facebook, Snapchat and now Google — want to take charge of how we get and see news on our phones.
Google on Wednesday was the latest company to announce a news-focused tool that it says will speed up how fast stories load after a Google search. Reading news is increasingly something we do from a hand-held gadget. It’s not widely available yet.
Facebook in May started testing “Instant Articles,” which load news stories faster from a handful of publishers, like the New York Times, BuzzFeed and the Washington Post, inside the social network’s mobile app. Apple’s News app came automatically built into the latest version of its mobile operating system and has stories from dozens of media brands. The Discover feature of disappearing-messages app Snapchat launched in January and currently has stories and video from 14 different media brands, including CNN, Mashable, BuzzFeed, People and Vice.
Phones and tablets are more and more important to publishers, but stories and video can take several seconds to load on the mobile web. Out of 51 top digital news outlets, which encompassed video-heavy sites like Vice, online arms of traditional newspapers and digital-only brands like Slate, only nine had a bigger audience on a computer than on a phone or tablet, according to the Pew Research Center. If stories or video take too long to load, users could be turned off.
ARE THESE NEW APPS?
Not quite. Facebook is speeding up how fast articles from participating publishers load when they’re posted on the social network — you don’t have to do anything new to see them. They say they’re saving you at least several seconds, as the new articles should be visible immediately.
Google’s version speeds up stories you would click on after a Google search or links from Twitter, for example. The company is working with publishers on the back end, but consumers don’t have to do anything differently than they do now.
Apple did build an aggregator that tailors a stream of news stories for you. There are similar services that already exist, like Flipboard. But Apple made it easier on iPhone users — you don’t need to download a separate app.
Snapchat’s popularity with young people came from its disappearing-messages function before it started Discover, which you swipe over to when you’re already inside Snapchat.
IS IT EASIER TO GET NEWS BECAUSE OF THIS?
All of these services are combining content from different publishers. That’s useful because it saves you from having to download individual apps from all the sources you like, or going to lots of different sites. They can help you discover new preferences. But they can also overwhelm you with content.
The ad experience has been better with these tools and apps — I haven’t seen pop-up ads or ads that block what I’m trying to read.
In many cases, they can also help you navigate paywalls that some publishers put on their apps and sites after non-subscribers view a certain number of stories. The Washington Post is publishing its entire lineup of stories and posts to Facebook every day; on the site, you’d be limited to five stories before hitting a paywall. In Apple News, I saw a handful of Wall Street Journal stories offered free each day. It usually blocks stories after a short summary for those who don’t subscribe. The New Yorker, which posts only a summary of some of its stories in Apple News with a link that takes me to a full version on its site, cut me off after several clicks.
On Snapchat, stories change every 24 hours — they’re gone if you miss them that day. Some are exclusive to the app.
I’m not getting breaking-news alerts from the technology companies, as I would with a news app. Some people don’t like these notifications, however, and you can turn them off in publisher apps.
And I can’t get content if I don’t have an Internet connection, unless I saved some previously in Apple News. Some publisher apps will update stories throughout the day and store them, so I can read them when I’m offline. Google says its new tools could let publishers create offline content.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Many Americans buying new cars these days are baffled by a torrent of new safety technology.
Some features will automatically turn a car back into its lane if it begins to drift, or hit the brakes if sensors detect that it’s about to rear-end someone else. There are lane-change and blind-spot monitors, drowsiness alerts and cars that can park themselves. Technologies once limited to high-end models like adaptive cruise control, tire-pressure indicators and rear-view cameras have become more common.
The features hold tremendous potential to reduce deaths and injuries by eliminating collisions or mitigating their severity, safety advocates say.
But there’s one problem: Education on how to use them doesn’t come standard. Bewildered drivers sometimes just turn them off, defeating the safety potential.
“If people don’t understand how that works or what the car is doing, it may startle them or make them uncomfortable,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council. “We want to make sure we’re explaining things to people so that the technology that can make them safer is actually taken advantage of.”
The council and the University of Iowa, along with the Department of Transportation, kicked off an education campaign Wednesday to inform drivers on how the safety features work. The effort includes a website, MyCarDoesWhat.org, with video demonstrations, and new public service announcements designed to raise awareness of the technologies online, at gas pumps around the country, in print and television.
In a survey by the university, a majority of drivers expressed uncertainty about the way many of the safety technologies work. About 40 percent reported that their vehicles had behaved in unexpected ways. The least understood technology was adaptive cruise control, which can slow or speed up a vehicle in order to maintain a constant following distance. That technology has been available in some models for at least a decade.
The features vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, from model to model and from one options package to another.
Joe Kraemer, 70, a retired accountant from Arlington, Virginia, said the first time he drove his wife’s 2015 E-Series Mercedes he nearly jumped out of his seat. He was beginning to change lanes when suddenly there was a piercing “beep beep beep beep. …”
Now when that happens, his wife tells him: “Relax. It’s just that you have somebody in your blind spot and you’re about to kill us.”
Kraemer’s wife, who has been driving for 50 years, has been back to the dealer twice for hour-long lessons on how to use the car’s features.
“She’s really learning a computer,” he said.
But as the technologies become more available in lower-priced models, dealers may not be willing to spend as much time with drivers as Mercedes has with Kraemer’s wife.
Owner’s manuals are also falling short, safety advocates say. They have become “documents written by lawyers for lawyers,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety.
“From perhaps a 50-page understandable document 20 years ago, they have gone to a 500-page opus that is intimidating to all but the most studious car buyer,” he said.
Some manufacturers offer CDs or DVDs on how to use safety systems, but “most of the time drivers don’t actually take the time to review them,” said Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
A study by the foundation of early safety technology adopters found that some drivers believed collision warning systems would brake to stop their vehicles for them, when actually the systems only alert drivers to an impending collision. It’s still up to the driver to hit the brakes.
“That’s a dangerous scenario,” Kissinger said.
Some collision mitigation systems, increasing in availability, do more than warn, actually applying the brake if the driver doesn’t act quickly enough. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced last month that it has reached voluntary agreements with 10 automakers to make automatic braking standard in their cars, although there is no timeline yet.
Ray Harbin, 67, AARP’s state volunteer coordinator for driver safety courses in Montana, said the frustration seniors experience learning new-car technology is similar to what they feel when they are forced to adapt to software changes in computers like a new version of the operating system.
“I’m confident that we’re never going to get people to understand all the things their cars can do,” he said. “It’s just like buying a new computer. You’re never going to understand all the capabilities of your computer. The cars are made now for the very best and most intuitive drivers, and we’re not all that way.”
Tom Pecoraro, a retired police officer who owns “I Drive Smart” schools in California, Maryland and Virginia, said the state-required curriculums taught in driving schools are typically about 15 years behind the latest technology. Classes introduce students to anti-lock brakes and airbags but are unlikely to mention adaptive cruise control and automatic braking.
“Most people don’t even know how to get to their spare tire, let alone understand the technology,” he said. “People want to get in their cars and drive. They want to turn the key and have it all work.”
University of Iowa/National Safety Council https://mycardoeswhat.org/
Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP—Joan—Lowy
JERUSALEM (AP) — A team of Israeli engineers is the first to advance in an international competition sponsored by Google to send a privately-funded spacecraft to the moon, contest organizers announced Wednesday.
The Israeli nonprofit group SpaceIL has signed a contract with American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX to launch an unmanned spacecraft into lunar orbit — the first step a team must take toward landing on the moon and winning the $20 million grand prize. The launch is expected to take place in the second half of 2017.
Google’s contest is meant to encourage private industry to create new technologies to reach the moon at lower costs than what governments have spent in past lunar expeditions.
“We wanted the everyday man and woman to know that they could be innovators. They could literally build a spacecraft at their university or in their garages,” said Chanda Gonzales, senior director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE contest. “You don’t have to be NASA.”
The Israeli group is the first of 16 competing teams to finalize a contract with a launch provider and approve the technical and financial details with contest organizers, Gonzales said.
Contestants include groups and private companies from the United States, Malaysia, Italy, Japan, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, Canada, Chile and India.
Two U.S. companies — Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Moon Express — recently announced that they secured launch contracts, but have not yet submitted their agreements to contest organizers for approval, Gonzales said.
To win the contest, contestants must land a rover on the moon, and it must travel 500 meters (about 1,640 feet) and transmit high definition video and images back to Earth.
Instead of designing a robot that detaches from a lander and travels along the moon’s surface, SpaceIL’s spacecraft would land on the moon and then launch back in the air to land 500 meters away. SpaceIL unveiled its spacecraft design at a conference Wednesday at the Israeli president’s residence.
Contestants have until the end of 2016 to secure an approved launch contract. The lunar mission must be completed by the end of 2017.
PARIS (AP) — A new French government ad campaign features mourning families to discourage young people from joining extremists in Syria — an attempt at a counter-narrative against an Islamic State publicity machine that churns out huge amounts of propaganda.
More than 500 people have left France to join Islamic State and other jihadi groups in the war zones of Syria and Iraq — more than any other country in Western Europe. France has tightened some restrictions, including allowing families to flag their children to law enforcement and put a hold on their travel documents, and set up a hotline for worried parents to call. But still, the departures have accelerated.
“We are not the parents of a terrorist. We are victims,” Baptiste, the father of a girl who left for Syria just shy of her 17th birthday, says in one of the four commercials that began broadcasting Wednesday. He and others in the campaign speak directly to the camera and are only identified by their first names.
The video clips “involve families going through a hard time, and send a very strong message to young people tempted to swing to a terrorist commitment,” said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
The minister said he also would be rescinding the citizenships of five people linked to terrorism and will ramp up deportations for “preachers of hatred.”
Governments have had difficulty countering the extremist IS message, which draws in and keeps followers by glorifying violence, threating retribution for defectors and portraying life under its rule as utopian. In a report this week, Britain’s Quilliam Foundation found that Islamic State had released more than 1,100 pieces of propaganda in a one-month period this summer.
The United States has also expanded an online campaign to counter jihadi messages, sharing stories of defectors, highlighting Muslim victims of terrorism, and showcasing the living conditions and battlefield realities in areas held by the extremist group.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — These days, anybody with a smartphone can snap a selfie in a split second. Back in the Dutch Golden Age, they were called self-portraits and were the preserve of highly trained artists who thought long and hard about every aspect of the painting.
Now the Mauritshuis museum is staging an exhibition focusing solely on these 17th century self-portraits, highlighting the similarities and the differences between modern-day snapshots and historic works of art.
The museum’s director, Emilie Gordenker, said Wednesday there has never been such an exhibition of Golden Age Dutch self-portraits before and her museum was keen to tie the paintings to a modern-day phenomenon — the ubiquitous selfies captured with smartphone cameras and spread via social media.
The exhibition opening Thursday and running through Jan. 3 features 27 self-portraits by artists ranging from Rembrandt van Rijn, a master of the genre, to his student Carel Fabritius — best known for “The Goldfinch,” which hangs elsewhere in the Mauritshuis — and Judith Leyster, whose self-portrait is on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
A less well-known artist, Huygh Pietersz Voskuyl, is the poster boy for the exhibition. His striking 1638 self-portrait features a classic selfie pose; staring over his right shoulder out of the frame. It does not take much imagination to picture him gazing into the lens of a smartphone rather than a mirror — which Golden Age artists used to capture their images for self-portraits. Giant mirrors are spread through the exhibition space, creating reflections within reflections of paintings that are themselves mirror images.
While the similarities between selfies and self-portraits are obvious — the subject matter is the person creating the image — the differences are also apparent. A selfie is often shot speedily with little concern for composition, while these self-portraits are carefully conceived works of art. A video made for the exhibition highlights the thought that went into the paintings and what today’s selfie makers can learn from it to improve their snapshots.
And, yes, you are allowed to take selfies in the museum.
The Voskuyl is a good example of the richness that can be found in such an apparently simple picture.
“He brings out all these little details, like his beard or the little embroidery on his shirt, even a kind of fake wood-paneled wall behind him,” Gordenker said. “So he’s thought very hard about the textures and the things that make him who he is. At the same time, you can see the skill with which he painted this and this will have definitely been a very good advertisement for what he could do.”
That kind of attention to detail and quality made the self-portraits almost a Golden Age calling card — showcasing the artist and his or her talents to potential clients.
“A lot of artists in the 17th century painted self-portraits, not only as portraits of themselves but also as an example of the beautiful art that they could make,” said the exhibition’s curator Ariane van Suchtelen. “For instance, Rembrandt was very famous for his very virtuoso sketchy way of painting. If you would buy a self-portrait by Rembrandt, you would not only have a portrait of this famous artist but also an example of what he could do, what he was famous for — his art.”