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RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

Nuclear Threat Is Real, Experts Warn

The former Soviet stockpile is seen as a likely source of weaponry for terrorists. Specialists cite lax security, missing materials and attempted thefts.

November 11, 2001|DAVID WILLMAN and ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The guards who oversee the vast, remaining nuclear stockpile of the former Soviet Union have gone months at a time without pay. Highly enriched uranium--usable for a nuclear bomb--has disappeared. Among the buyers-in-waiting is the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.

President Bush last week underscored the threat, noting that Bin Laden has vowed to seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs.

Before the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, many government officials assumed that terrorists would refrain from using radioactive materials because of the grave risk to themselves. This assumption now appears outdated, raising dire questions about the possibility of terrorist attacks that could kill tens of thousands or more civilians.

"Absent a major new initiative, we have every reason to expect there will be an act of nuclear terrorism in the next decade, maybe sooner," said Graham T. Allison, an assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton.

Interviews and documents show that U.S. and Russian leaders over the last decade have taken incomplete steps to safeguard a potentially large nuclear shopping mart in which scientists or officials motivated by cash meet terrorists seeking the ultimate weapon.

Although Bush said his administration "will do everything we can" to thwart Bin Laden's nuclear ambitions, past promises have fallen short: As a candidate, Bush vowed to increase spending for securing the former Soviet nuclear arsenal and to press for "an accurate inventory of all this material." As president, he has done the opposite--proposing spending cuts in his first budget. And Bush has not sought to use any of the $40 billion provided for anti-terrorism spending after Sept. 11 to better secure the coveted stockpile.

With new urgency, experts are examining the widespread opportunities for terrorists to acquire nuclear materials and know-how from the former Soviet Union.

A report prepared for the U.S. secretary of Energy early this year warned of "dozens" of worrisome incidents. Other government consultants have verified the disappearance of highly enriched uranium from an unguarded plant on the Black Sea, interviews and records show. A prominent U.S. physicist told The Times of being presented with an offer to buy neutron "guns," devices that can be used to detonate a nuclear bomb.

And according to U.S. experts, neither the Russians nor the Americans have a complete inventory of all the highly enriched uranium and plutonium, another ingredient for a nuclear bomb.

"I am concerned that weapons-usable nuclear material may have gone astray," said Rose Gottemoeller, who served as assistant secretary of Energy for nonproliferation and national security during the Clinton administration.

Bin Laden Claims He Has Weapons

For now, American officials say they do not know whether Bin Laden's international terror network, Al Qaeda, possesses either intact nuclear weapons or the materials to make them.

But Bin Laden, in interviews in December 1998 with U.S. television and magazine reporters, said it was a "religious duty" to possess nuclear materials and chemical weapons. When Bin Laden and others were indicted in November 1998 for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, federal prosecutors alleged that "from at least as early as 1993, Osama bin Laden and others known and unknown made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons."

On Friday, a leading Pakistani newspaper quoted Bin Laden as saying in an interview Wednesday that he has both nuclear and chemical weapons. "I wish to declare that if America used nuclear or chemical weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as deterrent," Bin Laden said, according to the account in the English-language newspaper, Dawn. Bin Laden declined to say where he might have acquired the weapons.

Al Qaeda would not be the only terrorist group to pursue nuclear materials. Aum Shinrikyo, a wealthy doomsday cult based in Japan, recruited nuclear physicists from Moscow. Investigators determined that the group also tried to mine its own uranium in Australia and to buy Russian nuclear warheads.

Some analysts speculate that Bin Laden or others also could seek nuclear materials from "rogue" states such as Iran and Iraq, suspected of fomenting attacks against the U.S. The shared border and Islamic ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan have helped spur conjecture that Bin Laden has gained assistance from two or more Pakistani nuclear scientists, who were recently detained for questioning and released. The government of Pakistan insists that its nuclear weapons have remained secure.

For U.S. officials, the nature of the nuclear threat has evolved since December 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved into Russia and 14 other independent states, with thousands of assembled nuclear weapons still aimed at North America.

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