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Nuclear weapon plot deemed not credible

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration received information last October outlining a plot to smuggle a stolen Russian nuclear weapon into the United States, most likely New York City, two administration officials said Sunday.

The intelligence was viewed as suspect from the outset and later was deemed "not to be credible," as one official said, when a polygraph test determined the informant was "bogus."

Nevertheless, it was the source of an alert to government agencies charged with trying to prevent such a scenario, because there are "some things you can't afford to be wrong about," one official said.

One official said the warning "was one of many before and since."

"We have no choice but to take any such information or allegation seriously," another official said. "In this case it was looked into and deemed not to be credible."

The Russian government has said repeatedly in recent years that its nuclear inventory is accounted for.

Some former members of the Russian military, however, have suggested security lapses could have occurred.

And leading members of Congress with access to intelligence reports have said if nothing else Russian documentation is insufficient to say with certainty that nuclear materials have not been stolen.

Word of the October alert was just the latest sign of the concerns U.S. officials have about the possibility al Qaeda or another terrorist network might gain access to a nuclear device -- either a nuclear weapon or a so-called "dirty bomb," one that contains radioactive material spread by detonating a conventional explosive.

That perceived threat was one reason President Bush activated a so-called "standby" government of roughly 100 or so senior officials who stay outside of Washington and would keep government running if the capital was paralyzed by terrorist attacks.

Officials involved in homeland security issues said the White House would soon announce a new ranking system for alerts to law enforcement agencies and the American people if any information suggests the possibility of new attacks.

In the past, the government has been criticized by some local officials and police agencies for warning of potential terrorist threats absent any specific information about the location or type of attack believed possible.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge is scheduled to announce the new system as early as the end of this week and no later than next week, officials said.

The system is modeled after military base security protocols in which a color code signifies the level of precaution and perceived threat, according to two officials involved in developing it.

-- CNN Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.




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