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August 23, 2004

Every Reason to Be Afraid
By: Christian Caryl

In October 2001 the White House found itself scrambling to respond to a threat that could have made 9/11 look like a pinprick. Just weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration received a tip from a CIA source that Al Qaeda had smuggled an atomic bomb into the United States. As Graham Allison tells the story, the government took the warning so seriously that it sent bomb hunters from its supersecret Nuclear Emergency Support Teams into New York City to look for the presumed device using radiation detectors concealed in backpacks and briefcases. The Feds didn't even inform Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But, says Allison--a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs--they were right to keep mum. "A news flash about an Al Qaeda nuclear weapon in Manhattan," he notes, "would create chaos."

That time around, luckily, the threat turned out to be a dud. But, as Allison points out, Westerners have every reason to stay scared. Osama bin Laden and his minions have clearly stated their desire to use nukes if they could only get their hands on some. And revelations about the nuclear black market run by renegade Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan dramatize just how easily terrorists could acquire the necessary materials and equipment. Putting a bomb together wouldn't be hard, and getting it to the target as easy as sending a FedEx package, Allison says. And Iran and North Korea continue to move steadily toward membership in the nuclear club.

Allison goes beyond the usual hand-wringing about a nuclear-armed Qaeda. He presents sharp critiques of White House failures to tackle the problem and proposes concrete solutions. You might think, for example, that the first thing the Bush administration ought to have done on the morning after 9/11 was to step up U.S. efforts to secure Russia's crumbling arsenal of nuclear weapons and its weapons-grade material. Instead, the president's team focused all their energies on invading Iraq. Allison also accuses the Bush administration of "dumbfounding" passivity in response to North Korea's weapons program, which experts identified as "a greater potential threat than Iraq" in the days after 9/11.

Allison tries to be optimistic. He insists that nuclear terrorism is preventable. But he ends up demonstrating just how devilish the problems remain. He recommends threatening the North Koreans with precision strikes against their nuclear facilities, then acknowledges that this is probably impractical. The threat of nuclear terror isn't going to go away any time soon. But we'll probably be better equipped to deal with it if we face up to the fact.






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