"What we have is a failure to communicate"
Graham Allison, former Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard, writes about the discounted but real danger of a nuclear terrorist strike on America at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. One of our chief weaknesses he argues, is a "failure of imagination".
Prior to 9/11, most Americans found the idea that international terrorists could mount an attack on their homeland and kill thousands of innocent citizens not just unlikely, but inconceivable. Psychologically, Americans imagined that they lived in a security bubble. ... As we approach the fifth year without a second successful terrorist attack upon U.S. soil, a chorus of skeptics now suggests that 9/11 was a 100-year flood. They conveniently forget the deadly explosions in Bali, Madrid, London, and Mumbai, and dismiss scores of attacks planned against the United States and others that have been disrupted. ...
As one attempts to assess where we now stand, and what the risks are, the major conclusion of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission deserves repetition: The principal failure to act to prevent the September 11 attack was a "failure of imagination." A similar failure of imagination leads many today to discount the risk of a nuclear 9/11.
A few hours ago the Belmont Club related Vladimir Putin's warning to Nathan Sharansky in a quiet moment at the Kremlin a year before September 11 about just such a terrorist attack. Sharansky's full article is at the LA Times, but the opening paragraphs give the flavor of Putin's prediction of proxy warfare as the future of international conflict.
"Imagine a sunny and beautiful day in a suburb of Manhattan," he [Putin] said. "An elderly man is tending to the roses in his small garden with his nephew visiting from Europe. Life seems perfectly normal. The following day, the nephew, carrying a suitcase, takes a train to Manhattan. Inside the suitcase is a nuclear bomb."
The threat, Putin explained to me a year before 9/11, was not from this or that country but from their terrorist proxies — aided and supported quietly by a sovereign state that doesn't want to get its hands dirty — who will perpetrate their attacks without a return address. This scenario became real when Al Qaeda plotted its 9/11 attacks from within Afghanistan and received support from the Taliban government. Then it happened again this summer, when Iran was allowed to wage a proxy war through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Like Graham Allison, I considered denial -- an outright refusal to believe the possibility of such a threat -- to be America's greatest vulnerability. And that vulnerability has grown in direct proportion to the myth that terrorism has nothing to do with state sponsors. It was a myth initially contrived for the specific political purpose of discrediting neoconservatives who urged action against Saddam Hussein to prevent him from getting and distributing weapons of mass destruction. But the myth proved so convenient that it was allowed to grow. In the first three years of Bush administration, two regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq were toppled; Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and Pakistan's AQ Khan came under scrutiny. Today the myth -- admittedly distorted -- has grown so strong that Iran, Syria and North Korea are secure behind it. The result is that today, no quantity of intelligence reports reaching an American President's desk would likely move him to take action against a state preparing to arm terrorists with nuclear weapons. As I wrote in A Joke at the Kremlin:
One consequence of the politics of the last five years will be to ensure that such warnings will on no account be taken seriously. 'A sovereign state attacking America through proxies? Don't be ridiculous. Those are stories that neoconservatives tell. If there were secret links between terrorist enabling states and terrorists we would have found out.' Now whether such accusations were ever true in the past is immaterial. They won't be considered true in the future. Not because there is some physical or factual bar to its existence but because of a political prohibition of its utterance.
Where would terrorists get nuclear weapons? Graham Allison answers categorically: from States.
Terrorists could acquire a bomb one of two ways: by obtaining a ready-made weapon from the arsenal of one of the nuclear weapon states or by constructing an elementary nuclear bomb from highly enriched uranium made by a state. Theft of a warhead by insiders, or a combination of insiders and intruders, would not be easy. But attempted thefts in Russia and elsewhere are not uncommon.
As to how this can be stopped, Allison notes that it is not rocket science. It is all a matter of trying: it is a matter of national and international willpower.
Nonetheless, I believe that the largely unrecognized good news is that this ultimate catastrophe is, in fact, preventable. There exists a feasible, affordable checklist of actions that, if taken, would shrink the risk of nuclear terrorism to nearly zero. ... organized under a "Doctrine of Three Nos":
- No loose nukes requires securing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material, as quickly as possible. The United States and Russia have proven themselves adept at locking up valuable or dangerous items: Gold is not stolen from Fort Knox, nor treasures from the Kremlin Armory.
- No new nascent nukes means no new domestic capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.
- No new nuclear weapon states unambiguously declares the nuclear club will not expand beyond its current eight members.
But what has been done on these fronts to combat nuclear terrorism? Are we any safer from a nuclear terrorist attack than we were on 9/11?
After the Trade Center towers fell, President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism; toppled the Taliban, eliminating Al Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan; and articulated a new doctrine in which the United States would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." The Bush administration made an important conceptual advance in recognizing that the gravest danger lies in what Vice President Dick Cheney termed the "nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction." ... On the other hand, in combating what Bush has rightly identified as "the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States" and the only terrorist attack that could kill a million Americans in one blow, the Bush administration has demonstrated a puzzling absence of focus, energy, and urgency. Indeed, some of the administration's actions have, in fact, made U.S. citizens more vulnerable.
And a large part of that lack of focus would probably come under the heading of "wasting" American effort on Iraq. Yet does anyone doubt that if Iran or Pakistan had been invaded to enforce Allison's third "no" there would have been persistent calls to leave that "quagmire" within two election cycles? And can anyone doubt that an Iran or Pakistan once invaded, then left to revert to its former condition would provide a ground for nuclear terrorism far more lethal than before? Here is the key problem with Graham Allison's excellent plan and the sticker price of believing in Vladimir Putin's cautionary tale: where is there the will to go down the long road that may prevent nuclear terrorism from becoming a reality?