Dropping the Ball on Terrorists' Nuclear Bomb

Just days before this year’s presidential election, the majority of Americans considered terrorism to be a low-on-the-totem-pole concern. Studies by CNN put the average citizen’s fear of a terrorist attack at its post-9/11 low. One month later, with at least 188 people murdered by terrorists in Mumbai, terrorism concerns are — surprise, surprise — with us again. Suddenly, the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) falling into the hands of terrorists is being headlined across the media stage.


This comes, in part, because of a bipartisan, congressionally mandated task force report released this week, one that says that America will likely face a nuclear or biological terrorist attack by 2013. “In our judgment, America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing,” the report says.

But this is not new. The report was over a year in the making. Countless high-profile WMD threat experts have been saying the very same thing for years. Americans seem to face or ignore these facts at whim. The attacks in Mumbai simply shifted people’s perception. They had to come to terms with the fact that while many folks were telling CNN pollsters that terrorism was on the way out, suicide squads in the tribal areas of Pakistan were practicing aiming AK-47s at hotel guests.

Ostrich buries head in sand; jihadist sharpens swords.

The low-technology attacks in India dominated the world’s attention for days. (You can buy a Russian-made AK-47 for $899.00 at GunBroker.com.) Imagine what a nuclear event would do. “Psychologically, a nuclear attack would stagger the world’s imagination,” says Graham Allison, an advisor on nuclear threats for decades, from the Reagan to the Clinton administrations. For years, Mr. Allison has been saying that terrorists getting hold of nukes is a threat that is very probable and real. In fact, he puts the odds of a nuclear terrorist event in the next decade at “more than 50 percent.”


In last month’s issue of Technology Review, published by MIT, Allison outlines the devastating results of one nuclear bomb exploded in a heavily populated city. Never mind the human death toll.

The immediate reaction would be to block all entry points to prevent another bomb from reaching its target, disrupting the global flow of raw materials and manufactured goods. Vital markets for international products would disappear, and financial markets would crash. Researchers at Rand, a think tank funded by the U.S. government, have estimated that a nuclear explosion at the Port of Long Beach, CA, would cause immediate indirect costs of more than $1 trillion worldwide and that shutting down U.S. ports would cut world trade by 7.5 percent.

This was published before the election, by the way. And Graham Allison makes clear he’s not alone in the odds department. He quotes “legendary odds maker” and über-investor Warren Buffet as also saying that nuclear terrorism in a major city is “inevitable.”

“I don’t see any way that it won’t happen,” Warren Buffet has said. So why then are so many well-read Americans willing to lull themselves into thinking the terrorist threat is on the wane? What does it take to get the ostrich to lift its long, exposed neck from the sand?

Even more disquieting is the fact that the WMD threat report released this week warns that a biological weapons attack is an even greater threat than the nuclear one: “The acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device,” the authors of the report state. “The United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists,” it adds.


Again, this is not new. Fifteen months ago, Congress passed a law requiring a new cabinet-level position for a WMD prevention chief. It was quickly signed into law by President Bush. The post has been vacant ever since. This week, the Boston Globe reports that three unnamed advisers to President-elect Obama say this will be among his first orders of business come January.

We’ll see how that goes.


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