9/11 was a body blow to America's national sense of security,
Hurricane Katrina knocked the wind out of it. Across the
land, the call can be heard: If a natural disaster laid
us low, what kind of straits will we be left in if terrorists
attack us with a weapon of mass destruction? Of course,
beyond biological or chemical, the most pernicious form
of a WMD attack is nuclear.
months after 9/11, Vice President Cheney appeared on CBS-TV's
Sixty Minutes II and warned us of an element "able
to come into the country and perhaps smuggle weapons of
mass destruction in with them and... try to decapitate the
hear such a declaration by the administration was unusual
on three counts. First, for fear of scaring off its audience,
the mainstream media avoids nuclear issues. To much of the
progressive press, meanwhile, warnings about nuclear terrorism
are viewed as fear mongering by the administration to justify
intervention in foreign land and curtailment of domestic
unusual feature of Cheney's statement was that, for once,
he was telling the truth, at least in part. He knew that,
one month after 9/11, the Department of Energy's Nuclear
Emergency Search Team (NEST) conducted a search for a loose
nuclear weapon in New York City so secret that even Mayor
Giuliani was left out of the loop.
was also aware, as reported in 2004 by Kaushik Kapisthalam
in the Asia Times, that the original targets of 9/11
mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his associate Ramzi
bin al-Shibh were nuclear reactors. But they decided against
it for fear it "would go out of control." (Was
this also a rare sighting of Al Qaeda flinching at the prospect
of retaliation, no matter how martyr-making?)
addition, Cheney was privy to what Michael Scheuer, the
ex-CIA agent who authored Imperial Hubris as Anonymous,
chillingly described as "an extraordinarily sophisticated
and professional effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction."
one can only speculate on what Cheney knows about the reporting
of Paul L. Williams, who works the NewsMax.com side of the
nuclear terrorism tracks with his books Osama's Revenge
and The Al Qaeda Connection. (Graham Allison, author
of Nuclear Terrorism, mines the Beltway vein.) Williams,
on the basis of mainstream newspaper articles -- a few,
surprisingly, American; most foreign -- claims nuclear suitcase
bombs have already been smuggled into the US.
final reason Cheney's statement is unique is that the government
usually shields us from nuclear terrorism for fear we'll
panic and the markets will drop. Or, as Gary North wrote
in a 2004 article on LewRockwell.com: "The warning
would create such horrendous economic effects -- call this
the ATM effect -- that it would paralyze the [the US. Then,
should the worst happen] after a nuclear bomb hits an American
city, your credit cards will be rejected by all card-swipe
machines.... The long-feared inter-bank cascading cross
defaults will take down the banks."
according to J.R. Nyquist, author of a 2004 article on FinancialSense.com,
warnings are futile. "The most effective security measures
are impossible under the present political system,"
he writes. To admit the reality of nuclear suitcase bombs
on US soil, "would be tantamount to admitting that
our form of government must come to an end." We'll
leave how uncivil our liberties would then become for another
also claims, "The country is not convinced that such
measures are absolutely necessary." That's because,
thanks to the government and press not warning them about
the threat, the public remains ignorant. And because the
public doesn't know, it would never agree to extreme security
measures. And, of course, the public doesn't know because
the government and press won't warn them. The whir of the
centrifuge goes round and round.
it any wonder then that in New York City concern for nuclear
terrorism is subliminal at best? It would probably require
the same sensors to detect it as were used during the search
for that hypothetical post-9/11 bomb.
on the commuter trains, successful suburbanites extrapolate
national security from their personal financial comfort.
Not even Hurricane Katrina packed enough power to shake
their underlying belief that the government will protect
them. The Securities and Exchange Commission will prevent
another crash like 1929; military intelligence will head
off a weapon of mass destruction at the pass.
however handcuffed they might feel over their inability
to impose extraordinary security measures on the state,
are the executive office and other departments tasked with
terror prevention still taking steps to protect us? Or has
Iraq -- despite the professed WMD pretext for invading it
-- diverted their attention? One shudders to think the war
instills terrorists with an increased impetus to procure
or set off a nuclear suitcase.
it turns out, Cheney et al have taken more than a token
stab at reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism. Earlier
this year in American Prospect Graham Allison outlined
moves he views as constructive on their part. Among them
the administration recognized that the gravest danger to
state security lies in what Cheney termed the "nexus
between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."
Second, it overthrew the Taliban, demonstrating it holds
states harboring terrorists responsible.
the administration proposed UN Security Council Resolution
1540, which criminalizes nuclear proliferation. Also, finally
presented with an opportunity to enact an extraordinary
security measure, it promoted the Proliferation Security
Initiative, which allows vehicles be searched for WMDs.
Fourth, the administration enlisted other G8 nations to
match America’s $1 billion annual commitment to secure and
eliminate former Soviet nuclear weapons.
the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program now
attempts to ferret out nuclear weapons and materials in
Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus, as it had been in Russia.
Meanwhile, last year former Secretary of Energy Spencer
Abraham and his Russian counterpart Alexander Rumyantsev
launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which was
designed to remove enriched uranium from research facilities
in those same states.
another front, the administration is trying to launch a
division of the Department of Homeland Security called the
Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to prevent the smuggling
of nuclear materials across nuclear material. Congress,
meanwhile, balked at funding it, in part, because the department
plans to devote more resources to detection technology than
to halting weapons before they reach US borders. In the
interim, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST,) staffed
by Department of Energy scientists, engineers, and support
personnel who volunteer for extra duty, perform that function.
his American Prospect article, Graham Allison next
assesses the adequacy of these efforts. Russia’s twelve
time zones, he writes, contain more than 8,000 warheads
and enough material for 80,000 more. Yet, even after 9/11,
funding for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction
program hasn't increased.
Barlow, a blogger at CrookedTimber.org, offers a plausible
reason why the administration, along with the Pentagon and
intelligence officials, has reservations about Nunn-Lugar.
They believe that we're subsidizing nuclear security for
the Russian, who, in turn, use the funds to develop more
Allison is concerned that when Iran succeeds in producing
plutonium from uranium, it will supply nuclear weapons to
Hezbollah. Meanwhile, since 2003, North Korea has withdrawn
from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ejected the International
Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, turned off the video cameras
monitoring fuel rods, and began producing plutonium.
intransigent administration has refused to negotiate with
Pyongyang until the recent, stumbling, six-party talks.
North Koreans pledge to forgo nuclear weapons one day; the
next they demand a nuclear power plant in return.
Fred Kaplan noted in Slate that North Koreans have
long maintained that they would halt construction of nuclear
weapons if the United States provided aid, resumed trade,
and pledged not to attack.
Kaplan: "... it wouldn't have harmed our national interest
to forgo an option -- invading North Korea -- that we were
never going to exercise in the first place..." In other
words, the administration blew a chance for a major diplomatic
as the president for the Center for Defense Information,
Bruce G. Blair, points out, US and Russian policies are
a paradox. "On the one hand... U.S. and Russian strategic
nuclear forces [are] prepared to fight a large-scale nuclear
war with each other at a moment's notice. On the other hand...
the United States and Russia cooperate closely in securing
Russia's nuclear weapons against theft."
administration is also undermining nuclear security by building
tactical nuclear bombs, like bunker busters. To make matters
worse, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a document in March
titled the "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations."
It empowers field commanders to ask the president for permission
to use nuclear weapons if they think the situation warrants
range from the predictable -- preemption of a nuclear strike
-- to bioterror attacks to the aforementioned bunker busting
to state transference of WMD to non-state actors. Equally
troubling is the plodding pace at which the administration
is widening its focus to include these non-state actors.
Russian nuclear scientists set adrift by their own government
and Iraqi scientists by the US are defecting to terrorist
organizations. They must be lured into American employ.
As Sam Nunn said, "We are in a race between cooperation
and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response."
Allison, however, still finds reasons to be hopeful. Despite
Paul Williams's contention that terrorists have long had
nuclear suitcase bombs on US soil, he believes nuclear terrorism
is preventable. He's distilled his strategy down to three
"No Loose Nukes" means no excuses. After all,
Allison writes, "The United States does not lose gold
from Fort Knox, nor Russia treasures from the Kremlin armory."
"No New Nascent Nukes" refers to a loophole in
the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that must be closed.
It allows states to develop nuclear energy, then withdraw
from the treaty and divert the energy to weapons development.
"No New Nuclear-Weapons States": Both Iran and
North Korea, Allison maintains, must be dealt with through
a policy of "carrots and sticks." Heretofore,
the administration has been all sticks.
as Allison quaintly phrases it, "Citizens must evaluate
elected leaders' actions to keep them safe." In fact,
a presidential election can be broken down to one issue:
example, Senator John Kerry's virtues as a candidate may
have been debatable. But, under the tutelage of Allison,
he devised a simplified version of the latter's three no's:
"No material. No bomb. No nuclear terrorism."
In addition, Kerry planned to create a cabinet-level office
solely devoted to nuclear terrorism.
President Bush himself warned, a year after 9/11, "History
will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but
failed to act."
a new obstacle to the prevention of nuclear terrorism has
arisen. As the Madrid and London bombings have made clear,
Al Qaeda today, more of an ideology than an organization,
embraces individual cells. As Mark Danner writes in the
New York Times, the next attack will come from "viral
Al Qaeda, political sympathizers who nourish themselves
on Salafi rhetoric and bin Laden speeches and draw what
training they require from their computer screens..."
disrespect intended to the invaluable Danner, but when the
rest of the media picks up on this theme and harps on it,
attention is further diverted from bin Laden. In addition,
downplaying his importance only serves to justify our failure
-- or lack of intent -- to locate him.
Qaeda's franchisees may pack up their explosives in their
old backpack. But only bin Laden can secure the financing
for a nuclear suitcase bomb. And only he, his lieutenant
Ayman al Zawahiri, and their shura, or consultation
council, have the power to sign off on its deployment.
can understand the administration's reluctance to lean on
Pakistan President Musharraf to reel in bin Laden, reputed,
in recent years, to walk freely about Islamabad. Riled-up
"fundos," as more urbane Pakistanis call them,
might overthrow his already shaky administration and take
possession of that country's nuclear weapons.
the longer bin Laden remains at large, the longer his trigger
finger remains poised over a metaphorical detonator. When
it comes to nuclear terrorism, groups like the Chechen separatists
may soon rival him, but all roads now lead to bin Laden.