October 20, 2004
|MAUREEN FARRELL ARCHIVES|
Could Bush's Baghdad Blunder Lead to Nukes in New York?by Maureen Farrell
"If a 10-kiloton terrorist nuclear weapon explodes beside the New York Stock Exchange or the U.S. Capitol, or in Times Square, as many nuclear experts believe is likely in the next decade, then the next 9/11 commission will write a devastating critique of how we allowed that to happen." -- Nicholas Kristof, "The Nuclear Shadow," The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2004
"Why were these [nuclear] sites not guarded? Not enough troops. We launched an invasion to prevent dangerous materials from being exported to terror groups or enemy regimes. And yet we stood by as exactly this happened - on our watch. Unbelievable. Unforgivable." – Andrew Sullivan, Andrew Sullivan.com, Oct. 15, 2004
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Anyone who’s been paying attention to the Bush administration’s mishandling of the war in Iraq could not have been surprised by last week’s announcement that nuclear equipment and material had been pilfered at dozens of sites across the country.
After all, soon after Baghdad fell, and in response to reports of looting at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center (which had been the center of Saddam Hussein’s former nuclear program before the first Gulf War), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Mohammed ElBaradei wrote to U.S. officials, reminding them that until inspectors could return to Iraq, the United States, as the occupying power, was responsible for providing security at Iraq's nuclear storage facilities and for safeguarding nuclear material that had been under IAEA seal since 1991.
With insufficient levels of troops on the ground, however, the U.S. had to prioritize. And so, American soldiers, while promptly guarding Iraq's oil fields, left its nuclear sites wholly vulnerable. "The International Atomic Energy Agency has found reports of looting at Iraq's nuclear facilities ‘disturbing’ and repeated its request Washington allow it to inspect them," the UPI reported in early May, 2003. "A dispute between Washington and the U.N. nuclear watchdog on what role the IAEA should play in postwar Iraq has delayed inspections of Tuwaitha's nuclear storage depots," CBS reported around the same time.
By April, 2003, misguided troops, thinking they'd stumbled across WMD stockpiles, made the situation decidedly more dangerous. "Marines apparently broke U.N. seals designed to ensure [nuclear] materials aren't diverted for weapons use -- or end up in the wrong hands," the Associated Press reported, one day after the toppling of Saddam's statue. Meanwhile, FOX News misinterpreted the unfortunate incident, running the headline: "Weapons-Grade Plutonium Possibly Found at Iraqi Nuke Complex.")
In the midst of all this, the U.S. Government promised to keep nuclear material under a watchful eye. Or, as the UPI put it, "Assurances were received." But other than limited and short-lived initial inspections, the U.S. virtually barred IAEA inspectors from returning to Iraq, and last week, the consequences reverberated across the globe. "An alarming report that nuclear material had disappeared from Iraq under the noses of the US-led Allies and Iraqi authorities yesterday prompted calls for the return of UN weapons inspectors," the U.K. Independent reported, referring to satellite photos which revealed "widespread and apparently systematic" dismantling of the country's nuclear sites.
Back when Bush declared major combat officially over in Iraq, you might recall, the focus was on uranium stored at Tuwaitha, which could be used in the manufacture of "dirty bombs." Today, however, the concern is over full-blown nukes. "Equipment which could be used in an illicit nuclear bomb program has disappeared from previously monitored sites in Iraq," the Guardian explained, referring to the machinery that was dismantled and carted away.
Jon Wolfsthal, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained why this is of concern. "It's equipment that is very specialized, very hard to come by, that's tightly controlled, so it could be very helpful for [those] seeking to build weapons," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "It's very troubling that any of this stuff should be unprotected, let alone go missing," he said, adding that only specialized items were lifted, suggesting that "it wasn't just the work of looters, but that there was some strategic purpose."
This equipment is thought to have landed in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, the Netherlands -- and possibly even Iran, which could use it for its fledgling program. "Looking at the state of Iraq's nuclear program, [the stolen machinery] wouldn't be particularly useful to a country with an advanced program," nuclear terrorism expert Michael Levi told the Christian Science Monitor. "But there is a danger it can be used to fill gaps. Sometimes there are holes [in budding programs], and they can be filled." And, as as the Guardian explained, "Iran is widely suspected of conducting a clandestine bomb project and might be keen to obtain some of the sophisticated engineering equipment on the loose in Iraq."
Moreover, according to diplomats with ties to the IAEA, the process of dismantling these sites, which most likely continued throughout 2003 and into 2004, took considerable time and planning. "We're talking about dozens of sites being dismantled," a diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "Large numbers of buildings taken down, warehouses were emptied and removed. This would require heavy machinery, demolition equipment. This is not something that you'd do overnight."
Which begs the question: How on earth did this happen, in light of the previously mentioned "assurances"?
Though the White House used a litany of imaginary threats to sell the war in Iraq (which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists chronicled in case such justification ever "becomes confused with the plot of a Marx Brothers movie."), in the aftermath, as a direct result of ignoring Gen. Eric Shinseki's estimations of the number of troops needed to secure the peace, the administration made what could become its most deadly mistake. To put it bluntly, when President Bush warned against "the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," few realized that Bush’s invasion of Iraq might make that scenario even more likely.
Amazingly, however, those who readily bought into the Bush adminstration's widely touted nuclear nonsense appear to dismiss the danger posed by these new developments. "Some of you scoffed at the notion that WMD equipment and materials might have been lost in Iraq under allied occupation. What WMDs? But the point is not that nuclear bombs have been looted -- but that equipment that could be used in such efforts has been purloined," blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote.
But even more importantly, in August, Nicholas Kristof (the New York Times columnist Dick Cheney outrageously claimed first informed him of his office’s own role in the Yellowcakegate scandal), wrote back-to-back articles exploring the likelihood of an "American Hiroshima." Citing the findings of The Aspen Strategy Group, which concluded that the threat of nuclear terrorism is greater than most realize, Kristof pointed to the absurdity of hyping a "peripheral" danger in Iraq while glossing over a real one. Just how big is this threat? "[T]he risk that a nuclear explosion will devastate an American city is greater now than it was during the cold war, and it's growing," Kristof wrote.
Laying the odds at 50-50 that a nuclear bomb will be set off by 2010, former Secretary of Defense William Perry put it bluntly: "We're racing toward unprecedented catastrophe. This is preventable, but we're not doing the things that could prevent it."
It’s not as if the government was not aware of the risk to unguarded nuclear waste sites, however. A newly created database at Stanford University designed to track stolen nuclear material had been in "Danger, Will Robinson" mode well before the war. "International researchers have warned that the world may be awash in unaccounted weapons-grade uranium and plutonium," the BBC reported in March 2002, referring to nearly 40 kilograms of uranium and plutonium that had been stolen from nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union.
"It truly is frightening. I think this is the tip of the iceberg," Lyudmila Zaitseva, one of the researchers, explained.
That was more than two and a half years ago. And thanks to Mr. Bush, Iraq is now "awash" as well.
But could Bush’s Baghdad blunder actually lead to the nuclear nightmare the administration shamelessly hyped?
The irony in all of this would be remarkable, if it were not so thoroughly terrifying.
Maureen Farrell is a writer and media consultant who specializes in helping other writers get television and radio exposure.
© Copyright 2004, Maureen Farrell