Nuclear Threats, Real and Imagined

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States – which was required, inter alia, to recommend actions the federal government should take to prevent future attacks – issued its final report 18 months ago.

Its members have now issued an ad hoc “report card” [.pdf] on the actions thus far taken on the commission’s recommendations. From the preface [.pdf]:

"In the report card we issue today, our purpose is not to praise or to criticize. Our purpose is to be constructive – to point out those areas where attention and improvement are still needed. …

"First, the risk-based allocation of homeland security funding.

"It should be obvious that our defenses should be strongest where the enemy intends to strike – and where we are most vulnerable.

"The first responders to any attack will be local police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. They are a crucial part of our national defense. Therefore, the Commission recommended that federal grants to first responders be distributed based on an impartial assessment of risk and vulnerability.

"However, the current formula for allocating these grants has no risk assessments or benchmarks to guide this spending.

"One city used its homeland security money for air-conditioned garbage trucks.

"One used it to buy Kevlar body armor for dogs.

"These are not the priorities of a nation under threat."

Indeed, they are not.

What should they be?

Almost every threat assessment made over the past 15 years has concluded that the most serious threat would involve terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon.

In the fall of 1991, Soviet officials visited the United States to request financial and technical assistance in the dismantling of excess Soviet nukes and the peaceful disposition of fissile material recovered.

A few weeks later, the Soviet Union having disintegrated, then-President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act (usually referred to thereafter as the Nunn-Lugar Act) providing up to $400 million in U.S. aid to help the Russians securely and safely transport, store, dismantle, and peacefully dispose of the excess Soviet nukes.

Although most of the billions of Nunn-Lugar funds that have been appropriated during the past 15 years have been spent by the Pentagon on things that had nothing whatever to do with reducing the nuke threat, the Russians have nevertheless managed to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on a nuke or the makings thereof.

After Pakistan tested several “Islamic” bombs in 1998 – demonstrating to the world that they had a relatively sophisticated nuclear weapons production capability – the most obvious source for terrorists getting a nuke or the makings thereof became Pakistan.

However, in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush had nothing to say about Pakistan, but had this to say about the terrorist “threat” posed by Iraq, Iran, and North Korea:

"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."

In his 2003 State of the Union address, again nothing about Pakistan. Instead, Bush focused in on the terrorist “threat” posed by Saddam Hussein:

"Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.

"Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses, and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."

Well, now, after more than 2,000 of our servicemen have been killed in Bush’s war of aggression in Iraq, we know that Saddam’s vials, canisters, and crates, were, indeed, imaginary, and the allegations that Saddam aided and protected terrorists were bold-faced lies.

So, in addressing the terrorist threat in his 2006 State of the Union address, what will Bush focus on?

Well, you can bet it won’t be Pakistani nukes.


Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.