You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Old Guard

W. forgets the nuclear threat.

The United States added a critical ounce of prevention to its war on terrorism last week. One hundred pounds of prevention, actually, in the form of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium airlifted from Serbia to Russia for safekeeping. The nuclear material had been sitting around for more than a decade at Belgrade's Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences—a decrepit civilian nuclear reactor—in small, low-radiation canisters that would have been easy to carry off without special equipment. The site was protected by little more than a barbed-wire fence and a few lightly armed guards. And of course it was located in a country with which we had recently been at war, in a region home to Albanian Muslim fundamentalists allied with Al Qaeda. All of which made U.S. officials very, very nervous. If the material were stolen, it would have taken only modest expertise and equipment to make it into two or three crude, Hiroshima-sized bombs. Instead the Russians will now convert it into a relatively harmless form for commercial use. The operation was hailed, understandably, as a major advance in the war on terrorism. One administration official described it to The Washington Post as a "ground-breaking event." Another bragged to The New York Times, "This is a big win."

But it's a win that almost didn't happen. Indeed, what's most striking about "Project Vinca" is less its deft execution than the fact that it took so long. The Vinca mission was first conceived well before September 11. And even after the September 11 attacks, it took nearly one year for the United States to overcome the bureaucratic infighting and legal technicalities that hindered the operation. For instance, the Serbians were happy to part with their uranium—but only on the condition that the United States clean up the residual radioactive waste left behind. Yet Congress has strictly prohibited the use of federal funds for purely "environmental" purposes. And so the George W. Bush administration had to go begging to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a private nonprofit group, which donated $5 million for the cleanup. (Send your thank-you notes to CNN mogul Ted Turner, who bankrolls NTI.) "The notion that the U.S. government has to go to the private sector to get handouts for fundamental security issues is just ridiculous," says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear proliferation expert at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Given that there are at least two dozen more nuclear sites around the world with bomb-grade material and shoddy security—sites that should have been secured long ago—the government's reliance on private funding is also unacceptable. Yet no one expects rapid progress anytime soon.

This is not how it was supposed to be. After September 11 the Bush administration made preventing terrorist acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) its highest priority. The president himself was said to be particularly fixated on the threat of nuclear terror. An October briefing about the potential for nuclear terrorism in the United States from CIA Director George Tenet "sent the president through the roof," intelligence sources told The Washington Post. "With considerable emotion, two officials said, Bush ordered his national security team to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to the United States." Nothing would better demonstrate our new post-September 11 resolve than a fierce, uncompromising, worldwide clampdown on nuclear materials and expertise. No expense would be spared. Bold action would replace idle talk. And yet so far, it hasn't.

THE FIRST SIGN that the Bush administration still doesn't get it when it comes to nuclear terrorism is the homeland security strategy it released this summer. The document narrowly defines homeland security as limited to prevention and response within America's borders. It addresses chemical and biological weapons, for instance, solely from the perspective of vaccines and decontamination. And it likewise proposes to defend against a nuclear blast by "[p]revent[ing] terrorist use of nuclear weapons through better sensors and [inspection] procedures." Of course, the ability to respond to domestic chemical, biological, or nuclear attacks is essential. But the White House strategy makes almost no mention of efforts to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on these weapons in the first place. That may be a more complicated task, but it is ultimately a lot more effective. The harsh truth is that once terrorists have a bomb, finding it, much less disarming it in time, will be exceedingly difficult. Therefore homeland security begins abroad—and that doesn't just mean invading Iraq. It means putting together a broad-based campaign for the nonmilitary preemption of materials that could be used to make a terrorist—or Iraqi—bomb.

The administration's questionable policy posture was illustrated earlier this year, as millions of Americans flocked to movie theaters to watch a stolen nuke annihilate Baltimore in The Sum of All Fears. Days after the Tom Clancy thriller opened, the U.S. Customs Service mounted a p.r. campaign to reassure the nation that the film's terrorists—who smuggle a bomb by ship into Baltimore's harbor—could be thwarted. Customs officials showed off radiation and gamma-ray detectors and proudly declared, as Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner put it, that "any kind of nuclear weapon is going to stand out like a sore thumb." As CNN showed footage of inspectors scanning cargo containers, Bonner assured viewers the "Sum" scenario was implausible.

It was a deft exercise in p.r. but a highly misleading one. Even after September 11, Customs only inspects between 2 percent and 10 percent of the 40-foot-long shipping containers that arrive in the United States every day by the thousands. A nuclear device, moreover, could be shielded with lead from detection by most sensors. And a terrorist could make a mockery of Bonner's boast by detonating his cargo, remotely or by timer, before it is ever unloaded and subject to scanning—when, for example, the ship carrying it first enters the harbor. When I asked Stephen Flynn, a National Security Council (NSC) official in the Clinton administration and a well-known border-security expert, what he thought of Customs' public reassurances, he laughed. The only semi- reliable way to stave off such a disaster, Flynn says, is to create a high-tech system of shipping security that includes inspection of cargo headed to the United States before it leaves foreign ports. But Rotterdam is the only one of the 20 "megaports" through which cargo passes where inspections have begun. Negotiations with other foreign governments are moving slowly. What's more, Bush's recent pocket veto of $5.1 billion in congressional emergency spending will prevent $39 million budgeted for this new Container Security Initiative from being spent.

But even if a comprehensive system for detecting nuclear devices in foreign ports were in place—and adequately funded—it wouldn't be enough. Terrorists might still be able to hide the bomb in lead or otherwise circumvent detection; and even if they were caught, the disclosure that they had come so close to a successful nuclear attack on the United States would have unpredictable effects on society and the economy. A true anti-nuclear homeland security strategy needs to start before terrorists get nuclear materials—by clamping down on such materials at sources such as the Vinca Institute and similar sites in places like Belarus, Ukraine, and even the Republic of Congo. But rather than give preemption efforts the kind of high-level attention one would expect for a top-priority threat, Bush's homeland security strategy leaves them to midlevel bureaucracies in the State and Defense Departments—the same places where they have languished, underfunded and largely ignored, for years.

UNDER THE ADMINISTRATION'S existing nuclear security regime, bureaucratic problems like the one that nearly derailed last week's Belgrade airlift are endemic. When the Clinton administration pulled off a similar removal of nuclear materials from Kazakhstan in 1995, the operation bogged down at one point over the question of whether the Energy or Defense Departments would pay for the cost of "ready to eat" meals for the U.S. teams in the former Soviet republic. It is not uncommon, says Harvard's Bunn, for three U.S. teams from different agencies to arrive at the American Embassy in Moscow en route to inspect the same Russian nuclear site—none of them aware of the others' missions. This year millions of dollars for new initiatives in the former Soviet Union—including security upgrades at ten former Soviet nuclear weapons sites and training for guards at nuclear storage sites—were stalled for months as administration officials haggled over whether to "certify" full Russian cooperation with conditions of U.S. aid. (And because the administration must certify Russian compliance annually—in six different categories, ranging from compliance with arms control agreements to protection of human and minority rights--progress could easily stall again when the next deadline comes in October.) Current regulations also put very narrow limitations on how the United States can employ former Russian scientists who might be tempted to work for terrorists or for "axis of evil" states; simply paying a scientist to go into retirement, for instance, is prohibited by law. Moreover, regulations mandate that American contractors play a role in security upgrades at Russian nuclear sites, a requirement that often leads to delays. The Russians may be willing to build a new electric security fence, for instance--but not if it means an American contractor is tromping around a nuclear weapons plant. Standoffs like this have left U.S.-bought security equipment lying in unopened crates at Russian sites as recently as this spring.

And those are just the problems faced by U.S. programs in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many of the most worrisome nuclear sites are in other, still more lawless areas in Africa and the Middle East. One reactor in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, for instance, is protected by only a rusted, padlocked metal gate. It has been missing a fuel rod since the 1980s, when the director evidently lent out his key ring without realizing the reactor key was on it. (When recently questioned on the matter by a Western reporter, the director feigned deafness.) Some reports suggest the rod was stolen and shopped around by the Italian mafia, although its fate is unclear. Nor is anyone quite sure what's happening at the plant now. Since a 1997 coup in the Congo, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not been allowed to inspect the plant. There are disputes about whether this reactor produces material fissile enough to build a crude nuke, but certainly it could provide the key components of a dreaded, radiation-spewing "dirty bomb." And the Kinshasa reactor is just one example of the similarly appalling conditions that can be found at several other reactors in nations like Romania, Uzbekistan, and Ghana.

Listening to Bush's uncompromising post-September 11 rhetoric, you might have expected that the U.S. shock troops would have flown to Kinshasa within days of the World Trade Center's collapse. Yet even now the administration and Congress haven't cut through the legal restrictions that make such an operation difficult. Current law still makes it extremely difficult for Washington to expand some of its most effective nuclear-security programs beyond the former USSR, where American efforts have been focused since 1991. To its credit, the Senate recently passed legislation giving the Defense Department broad new flexibility to spend nuclear security funds wherever it wants. But incredibly, House Republicans—motivated by residual anti-communism and skepticism about anything that sounds like foreign aid—passed a specific prohibition this summer against using these funds in other countries. The White House has exerted no visible effort against this senseless provision.

THERE'S WIDE AGREEMENT that the fundamental problem with U.S. efforts to secure WMD abroad is a lack of vision, coordination, and leadership at the heart of our government--that is, in the White House itself. According to a May 2002 General Accounting Office report, for instance, existing efforts to combat nuclear smuggling are "not effectively coordinated and [lack] an overall governmentwide plan to guide [them]." The obvious solution would be the creation of a White House post, with direct access to the president, to oversee the myriad programs run by the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy. Yet despite years of admonitions from foreign policy luminaries of both parties, there is still no one in the executive branch with both the mandate and the authority to create a broader vision for a campaign against nightmare weapons. Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security, with its domestic focus, doesn't solve this problem. ("[Tom] Ridge wonders, `How do we deal with something?'" says NTI's Laura Holgate. "But that's very different from, `How do we prevent something in the first place?'") Until a high-level post is created, coordinating America's nuclear counterproliferation programs will remain the principal task of Susan Cook, a midlevel deputy at the NSC, who does not even report directly to Condi Rice, let alone the president.

Until nuclear security is coordinated at the highest levels, the White House will continue to muddle along, giving some programs more money than they can spend, while senselessly chopping the budgets of others. The IAEA, for instance, is the only global institution charged with policing nuclear material around the world. It is a fine frontline watchdog. And yet its $100 million budget for monitoring materials in dozens of countries is on par with the police department of a midsize American city. Moreover, that budget has seen zero real growth over the past 15 years, even as the agency's responsibilities have increased enormously. Without more money, for example, the IAEA may no longer be able to operate the security cameras it has installed to monitor the spent fuel pools of several reactors worldwide.

Meanwhile, Congress has had to bully the Bush administration into amply funding the joint U.S.-Russia Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), which the White House initially sought to cut in its last budget. Even now the administration is asking for slightly less money than the Clinton administration's last, pre-September 11 request. Funding to employ "loose geeks"the thousands of Russian scientists whose knowledge poses a proliferation threat--remains paltry, which astonishes Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center. "It's much cheaper to address a proliferation threat at the source than it is to try to defend against it." And at its current pace and budget, the Department of Energy won't be able to secure every vulnerable Russian nuclear site--never mind those in other nations--until 2008.

THAT'S MUCH TOO long to wait. A few months before September 11 a special commission headed by former Senator Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler examined the state of America's anti-nuclear programs and found them disastrously lacking. The nuclear danger is "the most urgent unmet national security threat" to the country, they concluded, adding that "the current budget levels are inadequate and the current management of the U.S. government's response is too diffuse, ... leav[ing] an unacceptable risk of failure and the potential for catastrophic consequences." These facts have not fundamentally changed since September 11. At this summer's G-8 summit the Bush administration pledged more money for these programs--an encouraging step--but has yet to follow through with any short-term commitments of funding. Al Qaeda's leadership, needless to say, has no equivalent delays holding it back. At this pace, says Harvard terrorism expert and former Clinton administration defense official Graham Allison, a nuclear explosion in the United States can be imagined "quite vividly" and is "not even unlikely." Our attitude should be, "Go get that stuff today," Allison says. "Not tomorrow. Today."

Washington's response to the nuclear terror threat is in many ways a case study in its overall attitude toward homeland security. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. economy was quickly and fundamentally redirected toward the war effort. Today the Bush administration is calling for $38 billion in homeland defense spending next year, which equals about 0.4 percent of America's GDP—or roughly one-tenth of the U.S. military budget. Bush's homeland security strategy pledges that "we will spend whatever is necessary to secure the homeland." Yet the president fights with Congress over minuscule increases in homeland security spending—including money for those cargo inspections. And while the Bush administration is prepared to spill American blood to keep Saddam Hussein from building a nuclear bomb, it has failed to untangle the bureaucracy that is giving Osama bin Laden the time to steal one. George W. Bush may say that the nuclear threat is his top priority. But he still isn't acting that way.

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.