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Kirkus Reviews
June 15, 2004

SECTION: NONFICTION
HEADLINE: NUCLEAR TERRORISM; The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Al Qaeda promises that four million Americans are slated to die in its jihad. Such numbers mean dirty bombs and worse--and, we're warned here, the government is doing too little to deal with the threat.

"If the United States and other governments keep doing what they are doing today," writes former assistant secretary of defense Allison (Government/Harvard Univ.), "a nuclear terrorist attack on America is more likely than not in the decade ahead." Never mind those other governments; what is ours doing? Many things, and badly, according to Allison. One is failing to assess the whereabouts and to control the flow of extant stores of nuclear materials; at least 84 suitcase-sized bombs once kept by the KGB, for instance, have gone missing since the fall of the Soviet Union, and American intelligence agencies seem to have no idea where they are, to say nothing of homegrown supplies of uranium and plutonium that seem to have fallen off the truck. This failure is perhaps understandable, Allison acknowledges, but it speaks to systemic weaknesses; after all, Western intelligence as a whole failed as well to put Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult on its radar, and the group "spent half a decade building weapons of mass destruction without arousing concern." Another failure is that of squashing Third World powers that have acquired the bomb; Allison proposes a "Three No's" program that begins "with an unambiguous bright line: no nuclear North Korea," even if North Korea may now have more than half-a-dozen tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Still another failure is the war on Iraq, which has diverted attention from North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan--and, of course, from al Qaeda and all its terrible ambitions, which "can make 9/11 a footnote." And so forth, in a somber but unfailingly attention-getting litany.

We can stop the nuclear threat cold, Allison argues--but only by taking it seriously. His criticisms seem eminently well founded and deserving of discussion and debate.

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