October 24, 2005
Graham Allison on Nuclear Terrorism -- the Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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The likelihood of terrorists detonating a nuclear weapon in an American city is inevitable if the United States continues on its present course with respect to preventing nuclear terrorism.
These are the chilling words of Graham Allison, the founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Allison has served as Special Advisor to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan and as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton administration. His new book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, is a wake-up call to the American people and our government on how stop such a horrific and unthinkable scenario.
Allison's remarkable book articulates the scope and many facets of the nuclear terrorism threat, including theft of nuclear weapons and material, Al Qaeda's pursuit of the bomb, potential missing suitcase nuclear weapons in Russia, Pakistan's proliferation of nuclear secrets on the black market, and North Korea and Iran's nuclear ambitions. But Allison is anything but a fear monger. Allison says that nuclear terrorism can be prevented and he lays out a clear action plan he calls the Doctrine of 3 No's.
Allison blasts the Bush administration's lackadaisical efforts to launch a comprehensive plan to prevent nuclear terrorism, despite George W. Bush's self-proclaimed "war on terror." Although Bush said that a WMD attack on American soil is the single greatest threat facing our country, Allison shows that the Bush administration has failed to make the threat of nuclear terrorism the upmost priority for his administration and to protect national security.
At the end of our interview with Graham Allison, we've linked to Allison's nuclear terror web site where you can punch in your zip code and see "blast maps" of the devastation in your hometown if a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon was detonated.
Thankfully, Graham Allison is trying to get America's attention. He certainly got ours.
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BuzzFlash: Your new book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, argues that the United States and our allies are not doing all that we can to prevent a horrific attack from terrorists using a nuclear weapon. In short, what should we be doing and why aren’t we doing it?
Graham Allison: During last year's election, both President Bush and Senator Kerry identified nuclear terrorism as the single greatest threat to American national security. It is incredible that there are things we could be doing that would measurably reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism, and we’re simply not doing them. The facts are the facts, and I try to call them as I see them.
In the book, I organize a strategy for preventing nuclear terrorism under a doctrine of "Three No's" – no loose nukes, no nascent nukes, and no new nuclear states. "No loose nukes" means locking up and securing nuclear weapons to the highest possible standards, beyond the reach of terrorists. "No new nascent nukes" means stopping new production of fissionable material – the stuff from which a nuclear bomb could be made. "No new nuclear weapon states" is drawing a line after the eight nations that are nuclear armed and saying no more countries are permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
Let's assess the Bush Administration’s first term under these three criteria. Under the category “no loose nuclear weapons," the fact is that in the four years after 9/11 no more nuclear weapons or potential nuclear weapons in Russia were secured than in the four years before 9/11. Most people believe 9/11 was a wake up call that reminded us that Osama bin Laden is out there, and that he really would attack us with a nuclear bomb if he had one. However, Russian and American cooperation in securing nuclear weapons and material in Russia has not accelerated since September 11th and has moved at a lackadaisical pace. Even by my standards, I would give the Bush administration a low mark – let’s say a D.
Secondly, "no new nascent nukes" is a neologism for highly rich uranium and plutonium, the two substances from which nuclear bombs could be made. And “no new nascent nukes” means there should be no new national production of this material.
BuzzFlash: Does that criteria of "no nascent nukes" apply to all nations?
Graham Allison: Yes, to all nations, there should be no new national production. The only new nation that’s seeking to get in that business right now is Iran. Iran is a country that had serious nuclear ambitions long before Bush came to power, and had been working on a program for a long time. However, during the first term of the Bush Administration, Iran succeeded in moving from being a number of years away from its nuclear goal line to some number of months. You could have an argument about how many months away, but it certainly has gotten much, much closer to the goal line. I would estimate Iran is about 24 months away under the current scheme. Clearly, another low-mark for the Bush administration.
And thirdly, the criteria "no new nuclear weapons states" one could look at the issue of North Korea. When the Bush administration came to power, North Korea had two bombs’ worth of plutonium that had been acquired under the first President Bush and had six bombs’ worth of plutonium frozen in warehouses where they were watched 24 hours a day by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) video cameras. North Korea also had an undeclared program to build a secret facility that would allow it to create nuclear material for additional bombs through the HEU [highly enriched uranium) route.
Since January of 2003, while the U.S. has been focused on Iraq, North Korea has gone from having two bombs’ worth of plutonium to taking 8,000 spent fuel rods and trucking them off to secret facilities for reprocessing to build more nuclear bombs. The American intelligence community believes North Korea has up to eight more bombs’ worth of plutonium. North Korea has kept working on their HEU track while the U.S. stood by with a policy of no carrots and no sticks. So I would give us an F with respect to that criteria.
So if I just take those three criteria – no loose nukes, no nascent nukes, and no new nuclear weapons states, I would say first-term performance is poor with respect to the issue that the President identified as the single most important national security threat.
BuzzFlash: You stated in your book that a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon is in fact preventable. You wrote, “As a simple matter of physics, without fissionable material, there can be no nuclear explosion.” In short this gives national security officials a certain focus in stopping terrorists from acquiring a nuclear weapon or nuclear material. Should the United States simply go on the black market and buy up all the nuclear weapons we can, especially in the former Soviet Union?
Graham Allison: What we should do is make it our first priority that all nuclear weapons and all nuclear materials everywhere – in the former Soviet Union, and anywhere else in the world – be secured to a gold standard. I gave this presentation at the Kremlin last spring, and I asked with all the chaos and corruption, how many of Russia's national treasures from the Kremlin Armory, which is their Fort Knox equivalent, have been stolen. The answer is zero. Next question: why should treasures in their Armory be more secure than nuclear weapons? The answer of course is they shouldn’t.
The U.S. should lead a global program to lock up all nuclear weapons and materials everywhere, and to clean them out of places where we can’t lock them up. And the timetable for that should be absolutely urgent – that is, as technically as fast as possible.
BuzzFlash: You document in your book how Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have sought nuclear materials. I know there is debate about this, but do you believe that Al Qaeda is already in possession of a nuclear weapon or are they in the stage of trying to build or acquire one? Obviously there’s a significant difference in national security and our response if we believe terrorists are already in possession of a nuclear device.
Graham Allison: That’s a very good question, and the bottom line is that we do not know. Myself, in my gut, I certainly know that Al Qaeda has been seriously seeking nuclear weapons for more than a decade. And the 9/11 Commission report offers a lot of interesting detail on that point.
If an Al Qaeda cell which began working about the same time that 9/11 occurred is now in the advanced stages of bringing a nuclear bomb to an American city, and does so in the next day, week, month, year, one would say it is quite plausible. They have motive, it is conceivable they could get their hands on a nuclear weapon, and their opportunity for bringing it to an American city is basically unlimited. So that could be happening. I hope not. I pray not.
I know no evidence, nor have I seen any evidence, nor do I know of anybody in the U.S. government who’s seen evidence that Al Qaeda has succeeded in acquiring a nuclear weapon.
On the other hand, when Porter Goss, the Director of CIA, made his first public testimony last spring, he was pressed by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the question, was there enough nuclear material missing from Russia to make a bomb? He said yes. And did he know where it was? Goss said no.
If Al Qaeda has already succeeded in acquiring a bomb, or the material from which they can make a bomb, then the strategy I propose for reducing the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack to zero will be changed to reducing the likelihood of more nuclear attacks. If Al Qaeda obtains a nuclear bomb, the likelihood of finding them in the course of bringing it to an American city and preventing terrorists from detonating it becomes very, very low.
BuzzFlash: I want to pick up on another contentious issue among security officials. Do you believe or have knowledge whether the former Soviet Union produced suitcase nuclear weapons? Some Russian and American security officials deny that those types of nuclear weapons were created?
Graham Allison: I have never myself seen a Russian suitcase or backpack nuclear weapon. But I believe that it is very, very likely – more than 99% - that Russia did produce some such weapons and I think the evidence is pretty well developed in my book Nuclear Terrorism.
After Boris Yeltsin's assistant for national security, General Alexander Lebed stated that 84 suitcase nuclear weapons were missing, there was this full-scale, Soviet-style denial that any were missing and later, that any had ever been made at all. I tried to look into this to try to pin this down and I would say there still remains a little bit of uncertainty out there. General Igor Valynkin, who retired as the head of the unit in the Russian Ministry of Defense that’s responsible for nuclear weapons, gave what I thought was a very plausible account. He said he is certain that Russia's suitcase nuclear weapons had all been destroyed.
Now he also provided information that would lead you to believe that, unlike the rest of their nuclear weapons, these weapons had no individual serial numbers on them. So as opposed to most nuclear weapons that have a "fingerprint" – a number that’s a unique identifier of the warhead – General Valynkin asserted that this was not the case for suitcase nuclear weapons. This is yet another reason for thinking some of these weapons may be unaccounted for.
BuzzFlash: Assuming there are loose suitcase nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union, would you agree that the threat of a terrorist organization acquiring one is at the top of the threat list amongst all over nuclear terrorism scenarios?
Graham Allison: I’d say it’s complicated because now we’re getting a little bit into the weeds. If the weapons were made during the Cold War, the likelihood that there may be some degradation of the associated electronics in the suitcase bomb is not small. So the weapon may need to have some little repair to be used. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, so it’s going to last for a long time, so there’s nothing wrong with the stuff that really is the essential element. But in most bomb designs, you have electronics. And the radioactivity and other circumstances may lead to the wiring not working just right, or some of the associated explosives not working just right. So terrorists may need to do some reconfiguration to make the nuclear weapon work.
Your point that it’s quite small, and therefore easily transportable and difficult to find, is certainly correct. As I described in the book, if terrorists got a hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium they could fit it very easily in the back of an SUV which would be a very good delivery method. In addition, there are tactical nuclear warheads, of which there were some 22,000 at least in the former Soviet Union, many of them located in states that became newly independent states when the Soviet Union disappeared in December of 1991. So some of those may have gone missing.
BuzzFlash: There are some people who deny that there are loose nukes from the former Soviet Union by the simple argument if they were loose, they would have been used by now in a terrorist attack. Besides the United States, one of the countries most susceptible to a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon is Russia, most likely from Chechen rebels or separatists. We know that Chechen rebels and separatists have shown a willingness to launch attacks against Russia in response to the brutal civil war where both sides have committed atrocities. For example, Chechen fighters launched an attack on a Moscow theatre in 2003 that killed hundreds, and took an entire school hostage in Beslan, Russia in September of 2004 that killed 335 people, including 156 children. Why isn't Russia doing more to clamp down on its loose nuclear materials and weapons when Moscow has to rank as one of the most vulnerable targets in the world?
Graham Allison: I think that’s a great question and I ask that to Russians all the time. I say to them that if the Chechen terrorists who killed the schoolchildren at Beslan obtained a nuclear bomb, do you think they’d come into New York or Washington first?
Some Russians have argued the same point of view you started with, which is if it hasn’t happened already then it won't happen. Beslan was a wake up call for a number of the people in the Russian national security establishment who subsequently have said if these guys would kill children, they’ll do anything. So this was more of a demonstration that many of these people really do have no limits – a similar belief Americans had before 9/11.
The first part of your question that if it hadn’t happened already, does that mean it won’t happen or can’t happen? I think that we should be very thankful that it hasn’t happened already. I think the fact that it hasn’t happened already should, in fact, lead us to be more appreciative of the fact that the Russians have done a better job than we’ve probably given them credit for. Part of the worry is that we simply don’t know what Vladimir Putin and Russia are doing and what they’re not doing to prevent nuclear terrorism.
BuzzFlash: Pakistan is also a potential source for terrorists to acquire a nuclear weapon, either material or technical information to construct a bomb. And this is especially true after it was revealed that the father and leading scientist of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Dr. A.Q. Kahn, shared nuclear secrets with Iran, Libya, North Korea, and terrorist organizations.
A major objective of the United States has to be preventing the assassination of General Musharraf or a coup that would put Islamic extremists in power because they would be in control of up to fifty nuclear warheads which they could use or transfer to terrorists. That scenario, as a precursor to a nuclear attack, has to be unthinkable to security officials, and yet extremely plausible considering Pervez Musharraf himself seized power in Pakistan by a coup.
Graham Allison: Yes, and Musharraf has come within a second and a half of being assassinated twice in the past eighteen months. I think Pakistan is one of the most dangerous spots in the world for things to go awry. There is frustration with the Musharraf government for not allowing us to interrogate Dr. Khan about his smuggling of nuclear secrets. Dr. Khan was not selling nuclear secrets all by himself, and clearly he had associates. There were at least hundreds in the Pakistani establishment that were part of this activity, most of whom have not been brought to justice. There is also frustration how well Pakistan is securing their own weapons and materials and being transparent about their efforts.
Destabilization of Pakistan would be a huge security problem. If Musharraf were assassinated then I would say the most likely successor government – based on the people whom I talked to – would likely be some other general. But you could also see an unraveling of Pakistan that could make some of the nuclear weapons come loose or be sold to terrorists groups. It's entirely possible that a Taliban style government or bin Laden sympathizers could even take power. We could have a bin Laden-like state, God forbid. So I would say Pakistan is a very dangerous place.
BuzzFlash: Do you believe the United States government should create a cabinet-level officer to specifically prevent the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack?
Graham Allison: I don't think a cabinet-level officer, but a person of status and standing. In the White House, you necessarily have lots of departments and agencies working on aspects of this problem. Some of this work is conducted through the Department of Energy, State, Defense and others.
What we need to have is somebody who works directly for the President. Every day this high level person's job when they get up in the morning is to work this problem and at night to see how far they got in reducing the nuclear terrorist threat. Someone whom the President talks to every few days about how they’re doing, and where they got stuck, where there’s an obstacle, what he can do to get through it. So I think you would like to have somebody for whom this is their full-time job of standing.
BuzzFlash: I hate to bring up this question, but I feel like we must talk about it. After we had advance warning of Hurricane Katrina, we were completely unable to deal with a national catastrophe, which put into question the effectiveness of both our Homeland Security Department, as well as how FEMA operates. Clearly, if a country can’t handle advanced warning of a hurricane, you have to conclude that we’re totally unprepared for any type of a weapon of mass destruction attack, especially a nuclear attack. What have you learned from the Katrina catastrophe, and how should that impact our preparedness for "the sum of all fears?"
Graham Allison: After 9/11 I think most people believed we’ve done everything possible to both prevent and prepare to deal with a major national problem. That was a quite plausible claim before Katrina. I think we now know the lights were turned on, it was show time and we saw the performance and it was a failure at all levels – city, state, federal, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the White House.
As a citizen, I have to reassess what I’ve been told about how seriously we took 9/11, and how adequately we applied the lessons of 9/11. I think you could look at the evidence and come to no other conclusion but that our governments, at all levels, failed. Hurricane Katrina was a much easier test than what they’re going to face, God forbid, if we see a serious biological or nuclear weapons attack – for which, as you pointed out, we’re not going to get any warning.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Allison, thank you for your time.
Graham Allison: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Enter your zip code to see "blast maps" from a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon (Internet Explorer 6 is required to view Blast Maps)
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison is available from Powell's bookstore online.
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Graham Allison Bio: http://ksgfaculty.harvard.edu/Graham_Allison