Loose Canons

CIA Independence Day

America today is not prepared to preempt the growing threat of nuclear terrorism.

By 5.3.04

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We don't speak often about the worst of the "what ifs" -- a terrorist attack on the United States that unleashes nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons on our people. John Kerry seems to think that our principal answer to the threat of terrorism is to hire more police, firemen, and emergency medical technicians. But the way to deal with this threat is to preempt it, by destroying the terrorists' ability to attack and to erect defenses against what they may bring against us.

That our borders are still porous and that we don't yet have the cooperation of very many countries in interdicting terrorist movements -- or the movement of weapons that terrorists might use -- means we have to think about what other methods and means of defense can be derived. Before we can devise the defenses, we need to analyze the threat. Two of the very few experts who got it right on Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney and Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, describe the threat in their book, Endgame: The Blue Print for Victory in the War on Terror (Regnery Publishing, 256 pages, $27.95).

McInerney and Vallely pose what they call "nuclear nightmares" caused by three nations. First, a suicidal North Korea could threaten America and Japan with nuclear attack if we defended South Korea from invasion. Second -- and I think most dangerous -- is the Iranian nuclear weapons program, which is likely to lead directly to the third, nuclear terrorism in the United States.

For all the efforts of Tom Ridge's Department of Homeland Security, the threat of nuclear terrorism is virtually undiminished. As McInerney and Vallely write:

Getting the bombs or the components for the bombs into the United States would be simple. They are relatively small and easily concealed in larger cargo or in a shipping container. Smuggling them into the United States would not be difficult…If the price was right, the criminal gangs that currently move illegal narcotics and immigrants into this country would help smuggle nuclear weapons [or] nuclear materials over our borders. The bombs would not have to be huge "city busters." Weapons with even the relatively small yield of twenty kilotons and exploded on the ground…would produce catastrophic results in the target cities.

A 20 kiloton nuclear weapon exploded at ground level would create a crater about 1,200 feet across. The heaviest damage would be within a radius of about 2.5 miles, with the killing zone spread out to over 3 miles. If the explosion occurred on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the White House and the Capitol would be destroyed entirely, the Pentagon as well as Reagan Airport would be heavily damaged. If the bomb were carried in a hijacked airliner and exploded at an altitude of one thousand feet, the range of the damage would almost double. If the explosion occurred during a normal business day, the casualties would number more than 600,000. Two or three times that number could be killed in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR terrorism grows daily, as North Korea and Iran continue to develop these weapons. North Korea will sell them to all comers, and Iran -- which regards obtaining nuclear weapons as a religious obligation -- will give them away. It is not enough for us to say that we can respond to a nuclear attack in kind, because we probably cannot. If our intelligence services were good enough to say with certainty which nation harbored or supported nuclear terrorists, they would be good enough to enable us to prevent the attack. They aren't that good, and aren't likely to be any time soon. We have one option that is working now, and need to devise others.

The president's Proliferation Security Initiative is an eleven-nation agreement to interdict the movement of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons being shipped to terrorist nations. It's working, and its effect is spreading. But it is not enough: It doesn't reach inside the web of terrorist nations to interdict ground shipment. And it also relies on our erratically effective intelligence services. The most important gap in our policy today is the lack of one to preempt nuclear terrorism that is independent of our weak intelligence services. If we don't come up with the answer, some "nuclear 9/11" commission may have to meet in a bunker in West Virginia.

It's much easier to say what won't work than to define what may. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency is willfully ignorant of Iran's nuclear programs. Nothing the U.N. can or will do is likely to have any effect on the threat of nuclear terrorism. Regime change in Iran and North Korea is the short answer, but we are not now willing or perhaps even able to force the mullahs in Tehran or the Stalinists in Pyongyang out of power. Ending those regimes must be our goal, but we need something that can work now, not five years from now. There is no "one size fits all" policy that will solve this problem. Iran and North Korea -- and any others of that ilk -- will have to be dealt with one by one.

Iran -- as we hear endlessly -- is ripe for revolution. Perhaps. But we cannot wait for it to happen. Revolution should be brought there now, in several measures. First, we must more openly and substantially aid the Iranian opposition. No minute should go by without a radio and television broadcast into Iran promising freedom and support for the coming revolution. No day should go by without aid -- in terms of arms, money, and special operations advisers -- slipping into Iran to make the revolution succeed. When it begins, and there is fighting between the revolutionaries and the mullahs' forces, we should do for them what we failed to do at the Bay of Pigs: bring massive air power to bear immediately, assuring the fall of the theocracy.

Revolution will not happen in North Korea, no matter how much we try to foment it. But we can weaken North Korea and lessen its threat by preempting its nuclear abilities. A military strike on the nuclear facility at Yongbyon would cripple North Korea's nuclear program and give us time to find a permanent solution.

THERE ARE OTHER IDEAS of which I am not yet convinced. One is to tell Iran and North Korea and other terrorist nations that we will launch a nuclear strike at them all if any terrorist -- regardless of which one, or the source of the weapon -- explodes such a weapon here. Would any of these nations bow to such a nuclear threat? There are two very big flaws in this idea. First, the credibility of the threat will depend on the president who delivers it. The Iranians would have believed Ronald Reagan. Would they believe George Bush? Maybe. Would they believe John Kerry? Hardly. Second, no American president can, or should, launch nuclear weapons targeted at a nation that only might be responsible for devastating America. No president can, or should, go down in history as the man who killed millions of innocent people by launching nukes at the wrong nation.

We may be able to reduce or even eliminate the threat of nuclear terrorism from Iran and North Korea if we act quickly. But what if we don't? We may, literally, be back to ground zero in more than our policy debates.

TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.