The Ultimate (Preventable) Catastrophe

A nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more than likely, says Graham Allison — and the administration isn’t doing nearly enough to prevent it.

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George W. Bush is on record as saying that nuclear terrorism is the gravest security threat facing the nation, and that the government’s No. 1 job is preventing it. But look at his record and you have to wonder how serious he is. The Bush administration has lagged in efforts to secure nuclear materials and weapons in Russia, the likeliest source of terrorist nukes. Meanwhile, with the United States busy with Iraq and its non-existent nuclear weapons, North Korea has restarted its nuclear production line, and Iran has moved perilously close to wrapping up work on new facilities for making highly enriched uranium.

Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, argues that if the U.S. government continues along its current path, a nuclear attack on the United States in the next ten years is “more likely than not.” Allison, who served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans in the Clinton administration and is now a professor at Harvard, calls nuclear terrorism “the ultimate preventable catastrophe” — preventable, that is, given sustained attention, investment, and massive international cooperation, none of which have been in abundant supply since the U.S. invaded Iraq.

In this interview with, Allison talks about the nuclear terrorist threat, and what the government needs to do to prevent this “ultimate catastrophe.” What’s the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack on the U.S.?

Graham Allison: I would say more likely than not — so greater than 51 percent — in the next decade if we just keep doing what we’re doing today. Which terrorist groups that we know of have tried to attain these weapons?

GA: Well, the one that is of greatest interest to us is of course Al-Qaeda. In the 9/11 Commission Report, and in my book, there are extensive discussions about their nuclear ambitions, which stretch back at least a decade. So I describe bin Laden’s having two of the Pakistani nuclear scientists who were colleagues of A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, visit him on several occasions. As they’ve told interrogators, he was mainly interested in quizzing them about nuclear weapons and how he could get them. We know that Al-Qaeda has actually spent some money to buy material. In one scam, they bought some South African material that was not the stuff of a nuclear bomb. And we know that bin Laden has said that getting nuclear weapons is a religious duty.

Then there are the Chechens, this fellow [Shamil] Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for the killing of the children at the Russian school in Beslan. They actually planted a dirty bomb — not a nuclear bomb, but a dirty bomb — in a park in Moscow several years ago, and then called the police to warn them, rather than exploding it. How difficult would it be to smuggle this weapon into the United States?

GA: There are so many ways to do it. I have two sections in my book on this. The first is titled, “Follow the Golf Clubs.” If a person wants to play golf at Pebble Beach, let’s say a lady in Jakarta, how does she get her golf clubs there? She opens up her yellow pages, calls a freight forwarder. They come and pick them up, and if they need to come fast, they put them in one of these small cargo containers that go in the belly of an airplane. Or if they need to be there in a month, they put them in a cargo container that goes on a ship, and the ship comes to Long Beach. Then these cargo containers are opened up and packages are sorted, and then they go on a truck, and then they go to Pebble Beach. Nobody ever opens or inspects that golf bag, which could just as well have a hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium in it.

The second section is titled, “Follow the Drugs.” As one of my colleagues always teases, if you have any doubt about terrorists’ ability to bring a nuclear bomb to San Francisco or New York, remember they can always hide it in a bale of marijuana. There was actually quite a good cover issue of Time magazine on American borders, in which they point out that since 9/11 there’s been a doubling in the number of people crossing the borders illegally from Mexico. So they estimate that maybe two or three million people came across. Now, how do they do that? They walk. They sometimes are carried by these people that are called “mules.” They sometimes go on motorbikes. They sometimes are carrying big backpacks that carry drugs, but they also come in sailboats or motorboats from Baja that don’t ever get inspected. And they come across the border from Canada. The number of ways to get something into San Francisco or Boston or New Orleans is almost unlimited. It’s no easy thing to assemble a nuclear weapon. What’s the procedure that the terrorists go about, short of attaining a ready-made weapon?

GA: The difficult part of making a nuclear bomb is producing highly enriched uranium or plutonium. No highly enriched uranium or plutonium, no nuclear bomb. Making highly enriched uranium or plutonium requires multi-billion dollar investments over many years in building huge facilities and very sophisticated facilities. This is beyond the competence of any terrorist group, and no terrorist is going to be successful in producing highly enriched uranium or plutonium. That’s the good news.

On the other hand, if a terrorist gets a hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium, then making a homemade nuclear bomb is relatively straightforward. The design for that bomb is the design that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, which was very simple — so simple that it was never tested. That design has been public information now for 30 years, so you can go find it on the Internet in a 10-minute search. If they were successful in getting a hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium, which is smaller than a football, they would buy electronics and industrial material — all available off the shelf in American stores and in the commercial market — and use this basic Hiroshima design. That could make a homemade nuclear bomb that would fit in a back of a van. Where will terrorists get nuclear materials and weapons?

GA: The first, and most likely, is Russia. Not because Russia wants to lose any weapons, but on the Willy Sutton principle. Willy Sutton was the famous American bank robber and when he was asked at his trials why did he rob banks, he said because that’s where the money is. The most material and weapons that are stored in conditions vulnerable to theft are in Russia, and in the two years after 9/11, we secured fewer weapons than in the two years before. How bad are the safety problems in places like Russia and the former Soviet republics?

GA: Fortunately, all of the nuclear weapons that were left in what were fifteen newly independent countries when the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991 were taken back to Russia — we believe. Then there is the material from which weapons could be made. Almost of all of that was taken back to Russia. There’s been a project to secure those weapons and material from which we you can make weapons. That’s called the Nunn-Lugar program, for two Senators — Senator Nunn, a Democrat and Senator Lugar, a Republican — who initiated this program back in 1991. Over 13 years there’s been a cooperative program with the Russians, but currently about half of the nuclear weapons and materials are secured. That means that the number of weapons and potential weapons not secured amounts to over 20,000. The pace at which this has been occurring, if it continued, stretches out to something like almost 2020 before one would ever get this job completed. But the Bush administration hasn’t increased funding for the Nunn-Lugar program.

GA: For whatever combination of reasons, the Bush administration has not given high priority to this whole set of tasks. The fact is that if you look at their behavior, it’s not behavior that’s consistent with feeling that this an urgent, imminent threat. Initially, they came in and proposed cutting the money for Nunn-Lugar. Then because of Senator Lugar, an important Republican, and others, they restored the funds back to about the Clinton level. But after 9/11, when you would have thought that we would see a great acceleration of this activity, fewer potential nuclear weapons in Russia were secured than in the two years before 9/11. That seems just crazy, but that’s a fact. Apart from Russia, where else might terrorists get nuclear materials?

GA: Unfortunately, there are a number of answers to the question. First, Pakistan. We know that they have 50 nuclear weapons, approximately, and they’ve made material for another 50. A.Q. Khan turned out to be simultaneously the world’s leading black marketer in nuclear weapons, materials, bomb designs, and consulting services, and he had developed a global network for supplying this, which he supplied — at least — to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps even to terrorists. Many people in the Pakistani military and intelligence services are very sympathetic to bin Laden. There’ve been two attempts within a second or second and a half, of killing [Pervez] Musharraf, the president, just in the past year. So Pakistan is a ticking nuclear time bomb.

Then there’ s North Korea, which has been producing plutonium every day now for the last year and a half. The U.S. has done nothing about it, hardly even noticed it. And then there are risky research reactors in about twenty developing and transitional countries like Uzbekistan and Belarus. How much are we spending on nuclear safety compared to other defense spending?

GA: We spend $550 billion, approximately, on our whole national security effort: defense, homeland security, intelligence, the war in Iraq. We spend about $10 billion on missile defense this year and we’re spending about $1 billion on this activity. So, if this is, as President Bush says, the greatest threat our country faces, the fact that we’re spending a very small percent of one percent of the total effort would seem out of proportion. You argue that the war in Iraq has made us less, not more safe from the threat of a nuclear attack.

GA: It’s a complicated argument because one’s got to weigh the positives and the negatives, but I would say the big facts are the following. First, Iraq has consumed all of the attention, all of the energy, all of the high-level focus, all of the diplomatic leverage, all of our military capabilities, and a lot of money. It’s kind of sucked the air out of attention to any other major task.

Second, while we’ve been in Iraq, what has been happening in North Korea? North Korea has seen that we were not been paying attention to [them] so they’ve been racing ahead with their nuclear ambitions. While we were getting ready to go to Iraq in January, North Korea withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty, kicked out the IAEA inspectors, turned off the video cams that were watching the 8,000 fuel rods that contain enough plutonium for six more bombs, and have been reprocessing these fuel rods every day, making more plutonium. They’re soon going to have enough more plutonium for six more bombs. We’re now faced the specter of a country that is sometimes half facetiously called Missiles “R” Us becoming Nukes “R” Us.

And then Iran, which also has serious nuclear ambitions, has, while we’ve been distracted, been racing ahead to try and finish its factories that will allow it to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. It’s just about to get across those lines as well, and if it gets across those lines, there is no further policeable line between that and them having nuclear weapons.

I’d say the only thing on the positive side of the ledger is Libya. Libya was more than a decade away from fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, but the fact that it’s confessed and come clean, and now that activity is being dismantled is a positive. You complained that nuclear terrorism wasn’t an issue last election. How does this election compare?

GA: I hope that this comes up as an issue in defining the differences between the two candidates, and it would be great even if they were competing in terms of their pledges about what they would do to prevent nuclear terrorism. So far, what do we know? We know first that Bush says, as he has said all along, that this is the greatest danger. He also says that it is our most urgent priority to prevent this. So he got the words, but when I look at the deeds, they are just not there. The book I’ve written is not for partisan purposes, but I’d say that if you had a report card, the administration would get Bs and Fs in terms of performance in the actions that need to be taken to prevent nuclear terrorism.

On the other hand, Kerry, in terms of what he says — now he’s a candidate, not the president, so it’s easier to say than to do — but he has given a very strong speech on this topic. He says that this is the gravest threat to Americans’ lives and liberties and he says he would have no higher priority in his administration than addressing it. Then he lays out a plan, which, in its outline, is similar to much of strategy that I propose and urge. It’s always hard to compare what one has done and what’s the other has said because those are two different currencies. But I would say the first has clearly failed and the second clearly holds major promise in terms of what he says. What steps would you like the United States to take to avert a nuclear terrorist attack?

GA: A president should feel it in his head, and in his heart, and in his gut that this is the gravest threat to Americans. It’s really the only existential threat to America as we know it — as a free country that plays a leading role in the world. And he should say publicly: I am going to do everything humanely possible to prevent this. Then, he would have an administration in which you had people which were convinced of this, including somebody who worked for him at the presidential level, whose job it would be to get up each morning and say, the president has said that this is the most important problem and that we’re going to do everything humanely possible, what is the list of the things that I am going to do today? And go to bed at night saying, which of those things did I accomplish, and which ones been laying, and what else needs to be done? So you’re going to have people doing heavy lifting on this topic everyday. This would include the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Energy, and a number of others.

Then, the president would initially sit down with the Russian president, [Vladimir] Putin — because the U.S. and Russia made the mess: 95 percent of the stuff is in our territories — and they would first talk about the problem and see whether they agree. Putin needs to understand and feel in his gut that if the Chechens get a nuclear bomb, they’re going to Moscow first, they’re not coming to New York. Maybe the fifth nuclear bomb they sell to bin Laden, and he brings it to New York and we are more worried about that, but Putin should be worrying about Moscow and St. Petersburg. Then they should mutually pledge to each other that each of them is going to do everything possible to not let this happen. They should have the people who work for them find that gold standard, which would be done jointly, and each would pledge that in his country, every nuclear weapon and all materials from which weapons can be made would be secured to this gold standard on the fastest possible technically feasible timetable.

The next stage, [they] should go around and sign up, personally, the heads of every other nuclear weapons state. I think we should be organized in something called an Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism. In the same way that NATO was the great alliance of the Cold War and served a great purpose then, we need now, in the war on terrorism, a new alliance, the mission of which would be to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorist attacks, and the members would agree to sign on to the gold standard. The parties would agree to work together in a common strategy to prevent any new production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, starting with Iran. And there would have to be some common undertaking with respect to North Korea.

I would say this would be a big, international undertaking. But to put it in perspective, it’s a lot smaller than the effort the U.S. made during the Cold War, where we developed a strategy, pursued it for four decades, spent more than two trillion dollars, and persisted to victory over communism. Indeed, if one compares what we need to do to prevent nuclear terrorism to what has been done to date in the case of Iraq, if one quarter of the focus, determination, stubbornness, and investment of American military and diplomatic power that we have devoted to Iraq had instead targeted nuclear terrorism, we would now be celebrating the fact that this ultimate catastrophe had essentially been defeated.



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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

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