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More Activist Intrusions at Belgian Nuclear Base Stoke Worries
WASHINGTON -- At least three times since January, peace activists have slipped onto a Belgian military base and on one occasion, they contend, made it inside an aircraft shelter where nuclear weapons are stored (see GSN, Feb. 17).
The Belgian organization Peace Action in February produced an initial video documenting how five of its members on Jan. 31 wandered unimpeded for roughly an hour at the Kleine Brogel Air Base, northeast of Brussels, before being apprehended by an unarmed guard.
This month the Belgian group revealed that over the past nine months, its members have repeatedly penetrated base security. The Antwerp-based outfit is unaffiliated with Peace Action headquartered in Washington.
"We visited 15 other bunkers, some of which still contain nuclear weapons," an unidentified Peace Action narrator states in a new video posted Oct. 10 to YouTube. "We took pictures in one of them."
The nine-minute release includes video and still footage from three or more incidents this year in which several individuals jumped the Kleine Brogel perimeter fence and identified what they believe are storage locations for U.S. nuclear-armed B-61 gravity bombs.
At a time when NATO nations are weighing whether the United States should pull back roughly 200 tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, the repeated trespassing incidents at the Belgian facility are fueling concerns that some of the arms are poorly secured against would-be terrorists (see GSN, Sept. 8).
"I am running out of things to say each time activists in Belgium get inside the wire at Kleine Brogel Air Base," Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said recently on his "Arms Control Wonk" blog. "You can't say keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists is your top priority, then let stuff like this happen."
In response to the latest Peace Action video -- titled "Nuclear Terrorism: Proof of Concept" -- a Belgian Defense Ministry spokeswoman told the Dutch-language daily De Standaard that the activists failed to get anywhere near nuclear weapons.
"Kleine Brogel is a very large base," the Belgian newspaper quoted spokeswoman Ingrid Baeck as saying. "It is true that in some places [it] is not hermetically sealed." The activists, she said, were not at "the operational heart of the base" and the Belgian responsibility for securing the weapons "succeeded."
However, in the video, the activists identify the locations of six different aircraft shelters they suspect house underground storage sites for U.S. nuclear bombs that could be loaded onto Belgian military aircraft. They based their assertions largely on a February 1999 U.S. Air Force document and on-site observation of six WS3 security vaults believed necessary for storing nuclear warheads. Peace Action said that 11 nuclear storage installations exist at 26 hardened aircraft shelters at the base.
The group said that although its members early this month penetrated at least one aircraft shelter, the trespassers made no effort to actually enter underground chambers where the weapons are likely to be held or to trigger nearby proximity sensors.
During one visit, "we could make the inspections of the bunkers during more than two hours and could get out without being seen," Calvi Benoit, a self-described Peace Action "bomb-spotter," told Global Security Newswire this week. "At our last inspection, on Sunday, Oct. 3, we could visit bunkers during more than one hour [but] we got arrested."
The activists repeatedly refer to their trespassing episodes as "inspections." Peace Action spokesman Hans Lammerant said his organization is "gathering evidence on the presence of illegal weapons of mass destruction," much as United Nations WMD watchdogs inspected Iraqi facilities prior to the U.S.-led war in 2003.
Lammerant and Benoit, both based at the Peace Action or "Vredesactie" offices in Belgium, told GSN they are intent on "provoking a court case" in which they can argue that a 1996 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice makes it illegal to deploy nuclear weapons because they are "contrary to international humanitarian law."
A Belgian arms control envoy, Werner Bauwens, last spring called on Moscow and Washington to launch talks on withdrawing their deployed tactical nuclear weapons "as soon as possible" (see GSN, May 7). Russia maintains roughly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
However, the Belgian government has opted not to engage the activists in a major legal debate over nuclear arms. Although trespassers have been arrested, no cases have recently gone to court, the two activists said.
"In practice, we are not prosecuted anymore because the prosecutor does not want such a court case before a jury," they both said in e-mailed messages.
Benoit and Lammerant opted to be vague about selected events in which trespassing occurred, citing legal concerns. However, Benoit said base infiltrations since the Jan. 31 incident have included a 15-person team on Feb. 20, a four-person team on an undisclosed date and a two-person team on Oct. 3.
In addition, more than 400 demonstrators on April 3 breached perimeter security at Kleine Brogel and were arrested during an announced protest, Lammerant said.
Activists over the past decade "have been regularly inside the military base with small or large groups," and the smaller teams have often gone undetected, according to Benoit. Peace Action only began videotaping its incursions this year, he said.
Lammerant said that although the latest tape offers specific locations and detailed images showing where the activists believe nuclear weapons are held, the data does not significantly heighten security risks.
"In theory, our video gives extra information which could be used by terrorists," he told GSN. "But it rather exposes how easy it is to gather this information and how near you can get to a WS3 vault. If you can shoot a picture of such a vault, you can also shoot something else."
The Vredesactie website urges government leaders to "be happy we are peace activists" rather than terrorists.
The group's illegal entry onto base and inside one of the shelters "does not mean you can steal a nuclear weapon without being noticed," Lammerant acknowledged. However, the risk of a violent terror attack that results in atomic material being spread or stolen could not be ruled out, especially if a vault is already open for maintenance, he said.
NATO does not discuss specific deployments, but U.S. tactical-range bombs are known to be held at six air bases in five European nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
One critic doubted claims that Peace Action had documented the placement of nuclear arms at Kleine Brogel.
"Their 'inspections' produced no pictures of any nuclear weapons," David Trachtenberg, a defense policy official during George W. Bush's administration, said by e-mail this week. "To say 'we know' there are nuclear weapons here because we read an old report and saw some electrical components that could maybe support nuclear weapons storage, even though our on-site 'inspection' produced no evidence of any nuclear weapons present, is a bit of a stretch."
For Lewis, though, it was chilling enough that intruders could bypass bunker security to the extent that the activists did. In fact, he questioned whether nuclear weapons actually remain at the Belgian base.
"If there are still nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel, the activists were near them in any reasonable sense of the word," he wrote this month. "Security at Kleine Brogel is terribly, terribly lax. So lax, in fact, I am beginning to wonder if the U.S. Air Force pulled the weapons, either as a temporary security measure or as a more permanent solution to the problem illustrated in January.
"If not," Lewis added, "this would be a good time to do so."
Benoit said that after Peace Action released its first video in February, a Belgian newspaper and activists reported stepped-up security at Kleine Brogel, including the use of more guards, barbed wire, cameras and electronic sensors.
Trachtenberg alleged that the activists are taking advantage of concerns about the weapons' potential vulnerability to terrorist theft to achieve the broader objective of European denuclearization.
"Playing on concerns over nuclear terrorism appears to be their way of advancing their agenda," he told GSN. "This is the intellectual equivalent of saying the best way to solve the problem of stolen cars is to eliminate automobiles."
The analyst added that "security is an extremely important issue," but declined to comment on safeguards at the Belgian base without a fuller understanding of the activists' apparent violations.
Meanwhile, Lewis told GSN that improved security at Kleine Brogel appears hamstrung by the Belgian government's inability to fill a key position at the air base: dog-handler.
He tracked down an April response by the Belgian Defense Ministry to a lawmaker's questions about how the January security breach could have occurred. NATO nations are responsible for safeguarding the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed on their bases, a facet of what the alliance has long termed "burden-sharing."
At the time, there were 32 vacancies for "guard strike security" at Kleine Brogel's 10th air wing, according to the government document. "The problems are mainly situated in filling the vacant places [for] guardian dog master."
"It makes a mockery of burden-sharing if they can't even find a guy to watch the dogs," said Lewis, who previously directed the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative.
He now heads the CNS East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
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