August 23, 2004
Reason to Be Afraid
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.