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Pittsburgh Post Gazette
September 19, 2004

Author Allison Presents Nuclear Terrorism as Avoidable -- If the U.S. Takes Action
By: Dan Simpson

Graham Allison's new book argues that the threat of an event that would kill more people and cause more destruction than Sept. 11, 2001, exists right now for the United States.
The ingredients for a nuclear bomb -- fissile nuclear material -- are easily available, to be found in many countries around the world. They are in many cases not carefully guarded nor even systematically accounted for.

The technology isn't that complicated. A nuclear packet the size of a football would level an area within a half-mile radius of the blast and, depending on the city, kill close to 500,000.

In spite of post-Sept. 11 precautions, United States borders are sieve-like -- they are actually indefensible -- from the rocky coast of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bringing a nuclear football or its makings in would be a piece of cake. And there is no shortage of people out there who would like to deliver Americans another setback and major disruptive scare, particularly in a world context that includes the Iraq war and hostility towards the United States based on its position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and its go-it-alone foreign and defense policy.

Allison walks us through the problem, inducing an increasing sense of looming terror with facts, not inflammatory language.

Nuclear-weapons states are now up to eight, from five, with Iran and North Korea scratching at the door to join Pakistan, India and Israel, new members added in recent years to the original five members of the nuclear club: the United States, the former Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China.

Apart from whatever tremors the idea of a country as instable as Pakistan with nuclear weapons might provoke, there is the fact that since it acquired such weapons in 1998, it has also served as what Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the "Wal-Mart" of nuclear weapons proliferation for the Libya's, Iran's, North Korea's and heaven-only-knows-who-else of this world.

It claims to have sworn off selling the stuff now, but who knows what some of its citizens might still do for money or religious zeal?

The author, the founding dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans, lays out the case that it is very likely, without immediate, comprehensive U.S. government action, that America will suffer such an attack within 10 years. His cold- blooded presentation of the case, in fact, makes it even more terrifying in its promise.

In the second half of the book, Allison seeks to give us reason not to completely jump out of our skins by telling us that such an attack is preventable. He lays out systematically a program of "three no's":

No unsecured nuclear weapons; no new countries capable of enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, the ingredients of nuclear weapons; and no more states with nuclear weapons.

He also presents a program that the U.S. government would need to follow to deal with the problem of vulnerability to this sort of nuclear attack.

His "seven yeses" include, first of all, giving the issue of the prevention of nuclear terrorism top national priority. Then would come a focused war on terrorism, what he calls a "humble" foreign policy (no thumbs in the eyes of our allies, no gratuitous wars), plus the construction of a global alliance against nuclear terrorism, strengthening and targeting U.S. intelligence capabilities on this subject, a quick fix policy on "dirty bombs" (low-yield but lethal attacks with radioactive or other toxic materials) and the building of a multilayered defense against nuclear terrorism.

Allison's book is short and readable, albeit horrifying in its implications. A paragraph describes a small, easily deliverable weapon that, if set off in New York's Times Square -- according to him, not that hard to do -- would generate temperatures in the tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit and produce a fireball and blast wave that would fry New York's theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, the Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden.

Perhaps to head off any suspicions that he might be a Boston Red Sox fan, he also presents us snapshots of the impact of the same weapon on San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C. To drive home the message, he then immediately quotes a retired four-star general, formerly in charge of nuclear anti-terror programs at the Department of Energy who says, "It is not a matter of if; it's a matter of when," with respect to the probability of such an attack occurring.

In the face of the threat the author describes and worse, the difficulty of carrying out the program he puts forward for dealing with it, the reader's reaction will almost automatically be, "This is too hard; no American administration is going to do what is necessary."

If that is true, given the convincing case Allison makes for such an attack's occurring, there is almost certainly something very bad waiting for us out there: this very well informed man is saying that we are doomed to suffer such an attack.

The book is an absolute "must" read.






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