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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Missiles Not Biggest Threat, Report Says

Terrorism: 'Ships, trucks, airplanes and other means' are called likely methods of conveyance for chemical, biological or nuclear attack on U.S.

January 12, 2002|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The United States is more likely to be attacked in the coming decade by terrorists with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons than by a hostile nation firing intercontinental missiles, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded.

The annual assessment of the ballistic missile threat, released this week, highlights what Sept. 11 made abundantly clear: that "ships, trucks, airplanes and other means" may be used to deliver--or to become--weapons of devastating power.

An unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate says for the first time that the United States is "more likely to be attacked with [weapons of mass destruction] using non-missile means" than conventional weapon systems.

Such weapons, the report notes, are "less expensive, more reliable and accurate, more effective for disseminating biological warfare agents . . . and would avoid missile defenses."

Overall, the assessment appears more cautious about the development and spread of ballistic missile systems around the world than the last threat report, which was issued in September 1999.

That report suggested that hostile countries were racing to build new ballistic missile systems and that the U.S. was vulnerable to missile attack with little or no warning. It became a key part of the debate that led to the Bush administration's decision to push forward with a national missile defense system.

"I think this is a step away from the hyperbole of the previous assessments," said missile proliferation expert Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. "It's a more balanced appreciation of the threat."

A U.S. intelligence official said the difference was more in tone than substance. "There are no major changes" since the 1999 report, the official said. "The threat remains and is growing."

But the report--the current assessment by the CIA and 12 other intelligence agencies--says the threat is changing.

U.S. intelligence experts do not foresee a "large increase" in the number of nations seeking or obtaining sophisticated missiles. Rather, they expect countries with existing missile programs to try to improve their range, reliability and accuracy.

Overall, before 2015, the United States is most likely to face a ballistic missile threat from North Korea, Iran and "possibly" Iraq, as well as from existing stockpiles in China and Russia, the report concludes.

In a rare sign of dissent, however, the report notes that one agency--said to be the State Department's intelligence bureau--disagreed about the threat from Iran, judging Tehran unlikely to field an intercontinental ballistic missile before 2015.

In 1999, the assessment warned that China could have "tens" of missiles able to hit U.S. shores by 2015. The current report says China's expected nuclear strike force will be "around 75 to 100."

China currently has about 20 such missiles, the same as before. Russia and the U.S. each have more than 4,000.

North Korea again drew intense scrutiny. Pyongyang has extended a voluntary moratorium on flight-testing new missiles until 2003, but the Communist regime "may be ready" to test a multiple-stage Taepo Dong-2 missile capable of reaching U.S. shores with a nuclear weapon-size payload, the report says.

The report also notes that U.S. intelligence concluded in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one or two nuclear weapons. A senior CIA official first disclosed that assessment last April, but his speech drew little notice at the time.

North Korea also is of concern to the U.S. because it "has assumed the role as the missile and manufacturing technology source" for many countries, including Pakistan and Iran.

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