Monday, November 01, 2004
The right (nuclear) war, the right time, the right place
Graham Allison is the like the man in the old Smith Barney commercials -- when he speaks, you need to listen. And he is speaking loudly in his new book, “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.” I heard him give a presentation last Sunday night on C-SPAN2 and spent the rest of the evening extremely uncomfortable with what he said: nuclear terrorism is a preventable threat but elected officials are doing precious little to prevent a nuclear attack from terrorist organizations.
Allison is the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and is now the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at KSG. He has been writing increasingly alarming articles warning that the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal remains inadequately secured and is vulnerable to theft by criminals or poorly paid military guards. Either group would reap a handsome profit by selling nuclear materials to organizations like Al Qaeda that desperately want to get their hands on WMDs. The new book means to shock the American public into putting pressure on either a Republican or Democrat administration to take action on this most pressing threat to national security.
If we maintain the status quo on this issue, Allison predicts a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States within the next decade.
For Allison, the Bush administration’s inaction on controlling the spread of “fissile material” (enriched uranium and plutonium) is hard to understand because prevention of nuclear terrorism is simply a matter of physics: without fissile material, you can’t have a nuclear bomb; thus, no nuclear bomb, no nuclear terrorism. Moreover, the technology exists for keeping these materials from terrorist groups -- Russia does not lose items from the Kremlin Armory nor does the United States from Fort Knox. This should, consequently, be the operational model for controlling the spread of fissile material: storing these materials in Fort Knox-type structures. In the book, Allison proposes a comprehensive strategy for combating the threat of nuclear terror called the “Three No’s” -- no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes, and no new nuclear states.
He strongly criticizes the Bush administration for not:
Furthermore, Allison believes that if the U.S. takes the lead in this initiative, we will find a willing ally in Russian leader Putin. Consequently, Great Britain, France and China will follow suit. He also believes that China can influence recalcitrant states like Pakistan and North Korea to come on board. The European states will likely have the same kind of influence over Iran.
Allison’s proposal is complicated, expensive and would require difficult trade-offs between the U.S. and enemies like Iran and North Korea.
The alternative? The same amount of enriched uranium (as fertilizer) packed in a van like that used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing and detonated in Manhattan would make that section of New York City completely disappear. More than 500,000 people would be killed immediately. The wind would carry the radiation far beyond NYC’s city limits.
Once built, getting a nuclear weapon inside the country is not difficult. For instance, only 2 percent of the cargo containers that arrive at U.S. ports this year will be opened for inspection. Human “mules” can carry softball size balls of enriched uranium across our porous borders with Canada and Mexico. After 9-11, President Bush received word that a nuclear device was in NYC and sent VP Cheney and other ranking officials into secure, underground bunkers in case an attack was imminent. Other national security personnel then attempted to figure out if the report was true and how a nuclear device could have gotten into the country. The grim joke of the day was that it could have been packed into any of the pounds of marijuana that are delivered daily to The Big Apple.
Add to this the chilling desire for an “American Hiroshima” by radical terrorist groups. Allison quotes an Al Qaeda spokesman who has publicly stated that the group aspires to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children, in response to the causalities supposedly inflicted on Muslims by the United States and Israel. Thus, Allison concludes that President Bush is correct in asserting that if Al Qaeda gets nuclear weapons, it would use them against the U.S. in a “heartbeat.”
Yet, neither President Bush or Sen. Kerry addressed this issue during the presidential campaign. Allison is not the only one concerned about nuclear terrorism. The president’s political party colleagues, and Kerry’s Senate brethren, Richard Lugar and (former senator) Sam Nunn have also been sounding the alarm about nuclear terrorism since the fall of the Soviet Union. Still, neither the president nor Kerry has articulated a policy for keeping these materials out of the hands of terrorist groups whose stated goals is to kill Americans.
In making the case for the war against Sadaam Hussein, the president argued, “If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of uranium a little bigger than a softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.” The fact that no WMDs have yet to be found in Iraq has effectively stopped both men from talking about nuclear terrorism. It shouldn’t have. A nuclear explosion on U.S. soil -- not dirty bombs or planes flying into tall buildings -- represents the ultimate terrorist attack.
This is definitely the right time, and the presidential campaign was the right place, to talk about the war against nuclear terrorism.
An earlier book by Graham Allison on the Cuban Missile Crisis outlined how “groupthink” between President Kenney and his advisors nearly lead to nuclear war in October 1962. The groupthink phenomenon was so discussed in management/policymaking circles and academic journals that the concept became archaic. That is, until the 9-11 Commission revealed that the Bush administration had been victimized by this cognitive pathology as well (see Defeating Groupthink, August 2004).
Again, Allison has warned of the hazards of only listening to the reinforcing views of members comprising a tightly closed circle. The desire to be members of the “in-group” precludes perspectives contrary to the group’s norms and worldview. Additionally, it is not a uniquely Republican or Democrat neurosis. Allison believes it will take several more deadly terrorist attacks before any administration will get serious about preventing a nuclear attack by terrorists.
Let’s hope his prediction and timetable are greatly exaggerated.