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It's the Plutonium, Stupid

November 18, 2001|GRAHAM ALLISON | Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. A portion of this piece originally appeared in The Economist

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Osama bin Laden gave them the perfect opening. Just before President Bush welcomed Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to the White House for last week's summit, a Pakistani newspaper quoted the Al Qaeda leader claiming to have "chemical and nuclear weapons" and "the right to use them." The specter of a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda should have caused the Russian and American presidents to focus intensely on the single most urgent unmet threat to the civilized community of nations. But As we applaud the success of Putin and Bush in cutting strategic nuclear forces, we must express bewilderment at their failure to take comparable steps to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

No one can seriously doubt that Bin Laden wants to acquire nuclear weapons, has been seeking nuclear weapons and would not hesitate to carry out a nuclear assault were he capable of doing so. On Thursday, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge confirmed that nuclear weapons-related documents were found in an Al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan. Last year, the CIA intercepted a message in which a member of the Al Qaeda group boasted of plans for a "Hiroshima" against America. According to the Justice Department indictment for the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, "At various times from at least as early as 1992, Osama bin Laden and others, known and unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons." Additional evidence from a former member of Al Qaeda describes attempts to buy uranium of South African origin, repeated travels to three Central Asian states to try to buy a complete warhead or weapons-useable material and discussions with Chechens in which money and drugs were offered for nuclear weapons.

While it is by no means certain that Bin Laden has acquired nuclear material, he has declared that acquiring nuclear weapons is a "religious duty." "If I have indeed acquired [nuclear] weapons," he once said, "then I thank God for enabling me to do so."

But the danger of nuclear terror is by no means limited to Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. As Bush took office in January, a bipartisan task force, chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (now ambassador to Japan) and Lloyd N. Cutler, former counsel to presidents Carter and Clinton, presented a report card on nonproliferation programs with Russia. The principal finding of the task force is that "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen, sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home."

Without immediate action, the threat of nuclear terrorism is high. The question is whether the horror of Sept. 11 can now motivate the United States, Russia and other governments to act urgently--not only against Al Qaeda, but also in taking meaningful, fast action to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism.

So far, the answer must be no. Of the six joint statements issued by Presidents Bush and Putin on Nov. 13, none focused on cooperation to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. A single sentence in one joint statement mentioned the need to secure nuclear weapons and prevent their theft.

Post-Cold War relations should begin with shared vital national interests that require cooperation for their fulfillment. The urgency and importance of one such interest was made vivid on Sept. 11: to minimize dangers of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction terrorism. As the inventors and builders of 99% of the world's weapons-of-mass-destruction, Russia and the U.S. have a special responsibility to exercise leadership in this arena.

A new alliance against nuclear terrorism would have multiple dimensions, including defenses against ballistic missile threats from rogue states. But to focus on that more distant threat to the neglect of the larger and more urgent danger would be a grave strategic blunder.

The surest way to prevent nuclear assaults on Russia, America and the world is to prevent terrorists from gaining control of these weapons and the materials to make them. The readiest source of such weapons and materials is the vast arsenals and stockpiles Russia and America accumulated over four decades of Cold War competition. America and Russia should act now to assure each other that their own houses are in order by securing or neutralizing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material to agreed international security standards on the fastest timetable technically feasible. An ambitious program of action to achieve this objective should be jointly funded by the U.S., Russia and other members of the international coalition against terrorism.

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