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Russ Wellen: A Super-Power Stripped Bare

A Super-Power Stripped Bare

Powerless in the Face of a Hurricane, the US Cringes at the Thought of Nuclear Terrorism
By Russ Wellen

If 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.

Two 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 federal government."

To 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 civil liberties.

Another 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 US 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.

Cheney 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?)

In addition, Cheney was privy to what Michael Scheuer, the ex-CIA agent who authored Imperial Hubris as Anonymous, chillingly described as "the careful, professional manner in which al-Qaeda was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."

Meanwhile one can only speculate on what Cheney knows about the reporting of Paul L. Williams, who works the 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 Washington 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. The 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 "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."

Besides, according to J.R. Nyquist, author of a 2004 article on, 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 debate.

Nyquist 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.

Is 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

But, 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.

As 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 are:

First, 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.

Third, 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.

Fifth, 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.

On another front, as Siobahn Gorman and Sidney Freedberg reported in National Journal this year, the Department of Homeland Security is supposed to act as the lead federal agency in finding nukes loose in the US. But it has almost no assets for searching for a weapon of mass destruction.

The FBI, meanwhile, retains the authority and the agents, but lacks the technical expertise. Thus the administration seeks approval for the creation of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office in its 2006 budget.

In the interim, Department of Energy scientists, engineers, and support personnel volunteer for the Nuclear Emergency Search Team. "Since 9/11," Gorman and Freedberg write, "[NEST has] been called out again and again." So far, false alarms.

Meanwhile, the DOE's Office of the Under Secretary for Energy, Science and Environment manages -- and guards with a paramilitary force -- five sites that contain weapons-grade nuclear material. The International Atomic Energy Agency also works to prevent terrorists from acquiring enriched uranium and plutonium.

In 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 hasn't increased.

Ted Barlow, a blogger at, 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 weapons.

Next, 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.

An 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.

Journalist 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.

Writes 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 coup.

Meanwhile, as the president for the Center for Defense Information, Bruce G. Blair, points out on, 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."

The 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 it.

Those 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.

Meanwhile, 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."

Graham 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's.

First, "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."

Second, "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.

Third, "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.

Finally, 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: survival.

For 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 created a cabinet-level office solely devoted to nuclear terrorism.

As President Bush himself warned, a year after 9/11, "History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act."

Finally, 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. . ."

No 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.

Al Qaeda's franchisees may pack up their explosives in their old backpack. But only bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al Zawahiri have the money and power to sign off on the deployment of a nuclear suitcase.

One 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.

But 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.


Russ Wellen is the editor of the online political journal

© Scoop Media

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