Preventing the Unthinkable

Preventing the Unthinkable

Mini Teaser: Graham Allison paints a frightful picture of nuclear terrorism. But all is not yet lost.

by Author(s): Robert L. Gallucci

Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate PreventableCatastrophe (New York: Times/Henry Holt, 2004), 263 pp.,$24.

It is becoming common for government officials, members ofCongress, national security commentators and the media in generalto identify a terrorist attack on an American city with a nuclearweapon as the most serious threat to our national security today.But it has taken some years for this wisdom to become conventional,and that is a little surprising. For 15 years, experts have beenwarning about the huge stockpiles of poorly secured fissilematerial, highly enriched uranium and plutonium in the formerSoviet Union. Over the years, we have gotten the details on howmuch material is located at which facilities, in what form it canbe found, and even the specifics on the inadequacies of internaland external security at each. We also learned that thoseresponsible for securing it were poorly paid, that corruption wasrampant in these societies and that organized crime was thriving.With hundreds of thousands of kilograms of the stuff to worryabout, and only five kilos required to make a Nagasaki-sized bomb,supply seemed to be plausibly available if not assured. Demand, ifour assessments of the intentions of Libya, Iraq, Iran and NorthKorea, to name a few, were at all accurate, also appeared to behigh.

And all this was on top of the concern about thousands ofnuclear weapons in Russia, some of which might also be had for theright price. As with fissile material, security, we learned, wasuneven, with particular concern focused on tactical nuclear weaponsbecause they were more portable and perhaps protected by lesssophisticated measures for preventing unauthorized use. And thenthere were the nuclear scientists and engineers themselves, thosewho knew how to build nuclear weapons, more than 10,000 of them inRussia, who were suddenly underemployed or unemployed. They mightbe available too.

Although all this was well reported and serious governmentprograms were created--the Nunn-Lugar legislation, the CooperativeThreat Reduction Program, the International Science and TechnologyCenter--to address vulnerable weapons, material and scientists, thethreat persisted for a decade, into the new Bush Administration.Then the events of 9/11 occurred.

Overnight, attacks on New York City and Washington brought homethe reality of American vulnerability to the country's leadership.Not since the British burned our capital in 1814 had the countryfaced an adversary against whom we had neither a defense nor adeterrent. Defense, in the conventional sense of denying access toour shores, could not be assured against terrorists because themeans by which they would deliver a nuclear weapon would beunconventional: a cargo ship, a truck or a pleasure boat, ratherthan a bomber or a missile. Deterrence, in the sense of devastatingretaliation to deal with, say, the Soviet or Chinese missilesagainst which we had no defense, is not an option with today'sterrorists. We should not expect to deter those who value our deathmore than their life. It was a short step from this realization toanalyzing the implications for the country should our enemy bearmed with a nuclear weapon. Plausibly, America's status as "soleremaining superpower" could change in a nanosecond to that of apsychologically and physically handicapped big power. All it wouldtake would be one or two major U.S. cities suffering a half-millionor more dead and injured with no way of ending our vulnerability orretaliating against the attacker.

It is the reality of America's vulnerability that Graham Allisonconfronts in Nuclear Terrorism. He divides his presentation intotwo parts. The first he titles "inevitable", but he does not meanit. The reader knows he does not, because the title of the secondpart is "preventable." What Allison wants to do in the first partis to show just how an attack on an American city by terroristswith a nuclear weapon could happen. He wants to demonstrate that itcould really happen by first presenting numerous examples of keysteps in the path to that outcome that have already been taken overthe last decade or so. He then goes on to argue, by deduction andanalysis of terrorists and their abilities, the technical issuesinvolved in nuclear weapons manufacturing or theft, and thelogistical challenges involved in the delivery of a weapon, that isnot just possible, but even likely to occur. He concludes that "Ifwe continue along our present course, nuclear terrorism isinevitable", but adds rather hopefully that "unlike the manyintractable problems facing mankind, nuclear terrorism ispreventable if we act now to make it so."

The reader is next immersed in the elements of a prescriptionfor prevention, beginning with a much more focused War on Terror.Allison is critical of the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraqfor diverting attention from a direct assault on the realterrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, while alienating alliesand moderates in the region that we will need if we are to beeffective in finding and destroying those terrorists.

He goes on to underline the critical importance of securingfissile material, particularly in Russia and Pakistan, blocking theconstruction of new fissile-material production facilities,enrichment and reprocessing plants, and preventing any moreadditions to the nuclear club, focusing his attention on keepingNorth Korea from becoming a real nuclear weapons state. How allthis might be accomplished is described in a concluding chapter onprevention that argues for, among other things, much betterintelligence, working more closely with allies, adopting a morehumble foreign policy and, most important, truly making theprevention of nuclear terrorism a national priority.

If most readers come away from Allison's argument persuaded bythe first part--that nuclear terrorism will be in our future if wefail to change our ways--they cannot be blamed if they are lessconvinced that we have the political will to make the necessarychanges in policy. This is frustrating, of course, because the bookis so good and persuasive. It is easy to read and understand,logically organized, well footnoted and makes a very powerfulstatement that, as a nation, we must act if we are to avoidcatastrophe. But one is reminded of the very intelligent cigarettesmoker confronted with overwhelming evidence of the linkage betweendeadly lung cancer and his current behavior, who nevertheless failsto alter that behavior. The will to change has been absent, atleast so far.

That is part of the problem. The other part is that some criticswill not see Allison's prescriptions as aggressive enough to dealwith a threat of this magnitude. The administration described amore aggressive strategy of pre-emptive strikes in the September2002 National Security Strategy. In that document we find theargument that since the legally and morally accepted standard ofself-defense allows a nation to pre-empt an attacker, the realitiesof modern conflict allow for justifiable pre-emption, even when wecannot be sure when or where an attacker may strike us. This hasstruck more than one observer as not so much an updating of theright to pre-emption in self-defense as an assertion of the rightto launch a preventive war. The invasion of Iraq was notpre-emption but, at best, prevention of the acquisition of acapability which, at some later date, might be threatening to oursecurity. If this is to be regarded as a legitimate basis forlaunching an invasion, and the right to do so not exclusive to theUnited States, then surprise attacks in South Asia, northeast Asiaand the Middle East would presumably be legitimate undertakings.Not only does this not seem to be where we wish to be, but it isnot at all clear how this helps us deal with the leakage of fissilematerial from Russia or Pakistan to Al-Qaeda. Just whom are wesupposed to attack?

Similarly, another element in the Bush counter-proliferationstrategy, the Proliferation Security Initiative, has the feel of aforward-leaning, aggressive approach, but it does not bear closescrutiny. Interdiction on the high seas of shipments of weapons ofmass destruction and the means to produce them is arguably a goodidea, but there is no reason to believe that our intelligence willever be good enough to warn us of such shipments in every, most or,indeed, any cases where baseball-sized quantities of fissilematerial are concerned.

Contemplating the current situation, and projecting that it willworsen as more countries with policies hostile to the United Statesacquire fissile material and nuclear weapons, leads us back toAllison and his set of policy prescriptions. These begin with thepresident making the issue of nuclear terrorism the highestnational priority for his administration and taking the stepsnecessary to secure nuclear weapons and fissile material "to thegold standard . . . as secure as gold in Fort Knox." They alsoinclude preventing new fissile-material production facilities fromcoming on line, and that means finding a way to dissuade Iran andNorth Korea from their current courses. It should, in fact, lead usto look with renewed energy for the political will to do virtuallyall of what he argues we must to avoid the ultimate preventablecatastrophe. There is no better book on the subject and for that,no more important one for policymakers and lawmakers, the media andthe public to read and act upon.

Essay Types: Book Review