blogenlust
8.11.2004

Kristof: An American Hiroshima


In today's Times, Nick Kristof has a sobering piece on nuclear terrorism:
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor whose terrifying new book, "Nuclear Terrorism," offers the example cited above, notes that he did not pluck it from thin air. He writes that on Oct. 11, 2001, exactly a month after 9/11, aides told President Bush that a C.I.A. source code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda had obtained a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon and smuggled it into New York City. The C.I.A. found the report plausible. The weapon had supposedly been stolen from Russia, which indeed has many 10-kiloton weapons. Russia is reported to have lost some of its nuclear materials, and Al Qaeda has mounted a determined effort to get or make such a weapon. And the C.I.A. had picked up Al Qaeda chatter about an "American Hiroshima." [...] Professor Allison offers a standing bet at 51-to-49 odds that, barring radical new antiproliferation steps, a terrorist nuclear strike will occur somewhere in the world in the next 10 years. So I took his bet. If there is no such nuclear attack by August 2014, he owes me $5.10. If there is an attack, I owe him $4.90. [...] Unfortunately, plenty of smart people think I've made a bad bet. William Perry, the former secretary of defense, says there is an even chance of a nuclear terror strike within this decade - that is, in the next six years. "We're racing toward unprecedented catastrophe," Mr. Perry warns. "This is preventable, but we're not doing the things that could prevent it." That is what I find baffling: an utter failure of the political process. The Bush administration responded aggressively on military fronts after 9/11, and in November 2003, Mr. Bush observed, "The greatest threat of our age is nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in the hands of terrorists, and the dictators who aid them." But the White House has insisted on tackling the most peripheral elements of the W.M.D. threat, like Iraq, while largely ignoring the central threat, nuclear proliferation. The upshot is that the risk that a nuclear explosion will devastate an American city is greater now than it was during the cold war, and it's growing.
This is something I've been concerned about for years. I once saw a Frontline episode entitled "Loose Nukes," where the journalist actually walked into a former Soviet weapons lab, no questions asked. I wouldn't take the bet that Kristof did, and I've been thinking what Perry has been thinking even before 9/11. I don't think it is a matter of if, but when. Unfortunately, we have not done nearly enough in anti-proliferation efforts. Fortunately, Kerry has an agenda for this problem:
[Kerry gave a] speech outlining proposals on preventing a terrorist attack using nuclear and biological weapons, which include creating a high-level White House coordinator to oversee his plan to secure nuclear material around the world and accelerating efforts to secure such materials in the former Soviet Union. On Thursday, Kerry will present his proposals for restructuring the armed forces.
Unfortunately, any such plan put forth by Bush is too little, too late. As the incubment, it was his responsibility to get on this from the beginning, and especially more forcefully after 9/11. As Kristof notes, Bush took his chances with finding WMD in Iraq. What Kristof doesn't mention is that the war might have made our security situation even worse.