The Gravest Danger

When asked in the first presidential debate of 2004 what constitutes the “single most serious threat to American national security,” there was a brief instant of agreement between President Bush and Senator Kerry. Both answered, “Nuclear terrorism.” The president repeated that he agreed with his opponent that the biggest threat facing the country is nuclear weapons “in the hands of a terrorist enemy.”

To prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on an American city, the administration accomplished a great deal more in its first term than the critics acknowledge. But if one stands back and examines the forest rather than the trees, even more remains to be done. The first step in meeting this threat is to realize its urgency, recognize the weaknesses in the current response, and define an agenda of actions that can stop terrorists from destroying the core of an American city.

For Americans to fully grasp what an act of nuclear terrorism would mean, they should imagine such an event happening in their own neighborhood. To assist in that effort, allows one to put in his or her own zip code and visualize the consequence of the explosion of a small (10 kiloton) nuclear bomb. From the epicenter of the blast to a distance of approximately one-third of a mile, temperatures reaching 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit would vaporize every structure and individual instantly. A second circle of destruction extending three-quarters of a mile from ground zero would leave buildings looking like the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Fires and radiation would scorch the earth up to a mile away.

Does the Bush's administration's performance suggest it has really gotten its mind around this threat? What has the administration done to combat this frightening specter? And what has been left undone?

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In its attempt to fashion a coherent post–September 11 strategy for combating catastrophic terrorism, the Bush administration got a number of things right. First, it has made an important conceptual advance in recognizing that the gravest danger lies in what Vice President Dick Cheney termed the “nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction” -- terrorists armed with nuclear weapons. It rightly rejected a status quo that let terrorists and weapons-of-mass-destruction threats hide behind a shield of state sovereignty. It employed the full spectrum of American military power to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and deny terrorists sanctuary anywhere in the world. And it has been prepared to revise traditional Cold War policies of deterrence and containment in those cases where they are no longer sufficient. Deterrence, which discouraged other states from launching a nuclear attack on the United States through the threat of overwhelming retaliation, is less applicable to suicide bombers or terrorists with no return address.

Less noticed amid the global uproar over the administration's aggressive foreign policy were specific initiatives it undertook to reduce the danger of a nuclear 9-11. President Bush successfully proposed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to criminalize proliferation, and promoted a new Proliferation Security Initiative, which stretches existing legal frameworks to allow the search of any vehicle suspected of transporting weapons-of-mass-destruction cargo, and now includes more than 60 nations. After its own initial skepticism, the administration eventually enlisted other members of the G8 to match America's $1 billion annual commitment over the next decade to secure and eliminate former Soviet nuclear weapons. The United States took the lead in cooperation with Russia in extracting five potential nuclear weapons from Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Uzbekistan. A new American-led program, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, began the vital work of securing bomb-making materials at risky research reactors around the world. And during Bush's first term, Libyan leader Muammar Quaddafi renounced his nuclear-weapons program, and the secret black-market network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was exposed.

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Despite these praiseworthy successes, if we jump to the bottom-line question of whether we are safer from a nuclear terrorist attack today than we were on September 11, 2001, the answer is no. The threat of a nuclear bomb exploding in the next year is at least as high as it was on the day al-Qaeda crashed jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Al-Qaeda remains a formidable enemy with clear nuclear ambitions. The former head of CIA's bin Laden task force, Michael Scheuer, has detailed how in May 2003, Osama Bin Laden acquired a fatwa from a Saudi cleric, providing a religious justification to use nuclear weapons against America. Titled “A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels,” it asserts that “if a bomb that killed 10 million of them and burned as much of their land as they have burned Muslims' land were dropped on them, it would be permissible.” Scheuer, who followed terrorism and militant Islam for much of his 22-year career, is particularly troubled by “the careful, professional manner in which al-Qaeda was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Russia's 12-time-zone expanse contains more nuclear weapons and materials than any country in the world, including more than 8,000 assembled warheads and enough weapons-usable material for 80,000 more, much of it vulnerable to theft. Thirteen years on, according to Department of Energy data, not even half of Russia's nuclear weapons and materials have been secured to acceptable standards. These present attractive targets for terrorists shopping for a bomb. In her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed, stating, “I really can think of nothing more important than being able to proceed with the safe dismantlement of the Soviet arsenal, with nuclear safeguards to make certain that nuclear-weapons facilities and the like are well secured.”

But after America was attacked by bin Laden, what happened to U.S. spending and related efforts to secure nuclear weapons? Funding for the critical Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program for securing loose fissile material remained at about the same level. And the brute fact is that in Russia, fewer potential nuclear bombs were secured in the two years after 9-11 than in the two years before.

Nuclear materials remain vulnerable to theft in a number of other countries as well. As inspectors have been unraveling and retracing A.Q. Khan's global black-market network, we now know that Libya was not his only customer. Clearly he traded nuclear secrets and technologies to the North Koreans for their assistance with Pakistani missile programs, and inspectors are still searching for the results of his dozen trips to Iran in the '90s. Although in the past four years some highly enriched uranium has been removed from five countries, bombs-worth amounts of nuclear material remain at risky research reactors in more than 20 transitional and developing states, including Belarus and Uzbekistan. In some cases, there is little more protecting the weapons-quality material than a padlock and an unarmed guard.

In the past two years, Iran has rushed to complete its factories for producing highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Today it stands only months from that finish line. Once Tehran achieves this goal, it will be able to transfer nuclear weapons to its terrorist client and collaborator, Hezbollah, which has already killed 260 Americans in attacks in Lebanon and at Khobar Towers.

Certifiably the world's most promiscuous proliferator, the economically desperate North Korean regime has demonstrated that it will sell missiles to whomever will pay: Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Yemen. Yet the United States has looked the other way while, since January 2003, North Korea has withdrawn from the nonproliferation treaty, kicked out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, turned off the video cameras that were monitoring the 8,000 fuel rods that contain enough plutonium for six additional nuclear weapons, trucked the fuel rods to reprocessing plants, and begun producing more plutonium every day that will allow them to make more nuclear arms. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is shopping the black market for a nuclear bomb, and North Korea may soon have bombs to sell. Those who imagine that Kim Jong-Il would stop short of selling nuclear-weapon materials should reflect on a New York Times report that Pyongyang supplied Libya with enough uranium hexafluoride to make a bomb.

Thus, despite progress made on some fronts in the battle against nuclear terrorism, developments in Russia, Iran, and North Korea leave Americans more vulnerable to a nuclear 9-11 today than we were four years ago. And despite the president and vice president's clarity in identifying this threat and calling on Americans to “get our minds around it,” the gap between the administration's words and deeds remains wide.

The gravity of the potential consequences requires that the president give absolute priority to this challenge. In the Cold War, we recognized that preventing a global nuclear war was a necessary condition for pursuing any other objective. In Ronald Reagan's oft-quoted one-liner, “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” The face of that danger today is a nuclear terrorist attack on an American city. This would be a world-altering event. The categorical imperative, therefore, is to do everything technically feasible on the fastest possible time line to prevent it.

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What is to be done? As it establishes priorities for the second term, the Bush administration should begin by getting its mind around the largely unrecognized good news: Nuclear terrorism is preventable. There is an agenda of specific, feasible, and affordable actions that, if taken, would reduce the likelihood of a terrorist's Hiroshima essentially to zero. A strategy for pursuing that agenda should be organized under a Doctrine of Three No's: No Loose Nukes, No New Nascent Nukes and No New Nuclear Weapons States. The strategic imperative is to keep terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons or the materials from which weapons could be made. As a fact of physics: no highly enriched uranium or plutonium, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. It is that simple.

No Loose Nukes first requires securing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material, on the fastest possible timetable, to a new “gold standard.” Locking up valuable or dangerous items is something human beings know how to do. The United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox, nor Russia treasures from the Kremlin armory. The United States and Russia should jointly develop a standard and then act at once to secure their own nuclear materials. Russian President Vladimir Putin must be made to feel this in his gut. He has to visualize the Chechens who killed 172 schoolchildren at Beslan exploding a nuclear bomb in Moscow. President Bush must use his influence to talk Putin into doing what only he can do: Guarantee that every weapon and potential weapon is locked up with utmost urgency. Moscow must come to see safeguarding those weapons not as a favor to the United States but as an essential protection for its own country and citizens.

Once Putin is on board, the two countries should launch a new “Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism.” Its mission would be to lock down all weapons and materials everywhere and cleaning out what cannot be locked down. This would require engaging the leaders of other nuclear states on the basis of a bedrock of vital national interest: No nuclear bomb can ever go off in my capital. The global clean-out of at-risk nuclear material must be a multilateral effort with a target of finishing in 12 or 18 months -- not mañana.

No New Nascent Nukes means no new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. A loophole in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows states to develop these capacities in civilian programs, then withdraw from the treaty and declare themselves a nuclear state. The proposition of no new nascent nukes acknowledges what the national-security community is just beginning to realize: Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are bombs just about to hatch.

The crucial challenge to this today is Iran. Preventing Iranian completion of its nuclear infrastructure will require a combination of benefits and credible threats to persuade Tehran to accept a grand bargain for denuclearization. Such a bargain should include a generous fuel-cycle agreement, acceptance of Iran's Bushehr reactor, the relaxation of trade sanctions, and a security guarantee that the United States will not attack Iran to change its regime by force. In exchange, Iran would freeze and, over time, dismantle its enrichment and reprocessing facilities. In current negotiations, British, French, and German leaders have focused on an extended voluntary moratorium on enrichment or reprocessing. But unless and until the United States enters the game, the haggling between Europeans and Iranians will likely offer little more than temporary delay, or even cover for secret Iranian efforts to complete its nuclear-enrichment program.

No New Nuclear-Weapons States draws a line under the current eight nuclear powers and says unambiguously “no more.” The immediate test of this principle is North Korea. To prevent Pyongyang from becoming a Nukes “R” Us for terrorists will require both carrots and sticks, including a bilateral nonaggression promise should Pyongyang concede the nuclear issue and a credible military threat to the country's nuclear facilities should negotiations fail. The great powers share real national interests here, because each fears nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, whether they are al-Qaeda or Chinese separatists.

In the case of North Korea, sharp internal divisions have paralyzed the Bush administration. As a result, it has offered a policy of no carrots and no sticks. In Cheney's words, “We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” But rather than defeat it, the administration has simultaneously threatened North Korea and ignored it. The United States needs a new strategy, one that subordinates all other Korean Peninsula policy objectives to the goal of preventing a nuclear 9-11.

In these dangerous times, when terrorists target civilians with acts of unprecedented destruction, citizens must evaluate elected leaders' actions to keep them safe. Assessing what the Bush administration has done, and left undone, to prevent nuclear terrorism, what grade would it earn at protecting America from this ultimate catastrophe?

After 9-11, the White House warned, “History will judge harshly those who saw coming danger but failed to act.” If so, President Bush is fortunate that his first-term report need not be his final grade. What is needed to earn an “A” is clear. All Americans must hope that the president and his renewed administration rise to this challenge.

Graham Allison is the founding dean of Harvard's modern John F. Kennedy School of Government and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration.