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January 3, 2005

Overblown Threats


Now they tell us

by Gordon Prather

Now that President Bush has been reelected and Franks-Bremer-Tenet awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Washington Post has apparently decided to spill the beans about the true "weapons of mass destruction" threat.

In particular, Dafna Linzer spilled the beans about the nuke threat and John Mintz about the chem-bio weapons threat. You ought to read Linzer-Mintz, but you'll learn much more by reading the annual reports – beginning in 1999 – of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the panel's first report.

"Many government officials and concerned citizens believe that 'it is not a question of if, but when' an incident will occur that involves the use by a terrorist of a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapon – a so-called 'weapon of mass destruction' (WMD) – that is designed, intended, or has the capability to cause 'mass destruction' or 'mass casualties.'

"[W]ith the exception of nuclear weapons, none of the unconventional weapons by itself is, in fact, capable of wreaking mass destruction, at least not in structural terms. Indeed, the terminology 'weapons of mass casualties' may be a more accurate depiction of the potentially lethal power that could be unleashed by chemical, biological, or non-explosive radiological weapons.

"The distinction is more than rhetorical and is critical to understanding the vastly different levels of technological skills and capabilities, weapons expertise, production requirements, and dissemination or delivery methods needed to undertake an effective attack using either chemical or biological weapons in particular.

"The report explains, with some specificity, the challenges involved in each of the four device or agent topic areas – biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological – which suggests that some public pronouncements and media depictions about the ease with which terrorists might wreak genuine mass destruction or inflict widespread casualties do not always reflect the significant hurdles currently confronting any non-state entity seeking to employ such weapons.

"Although the collapse of the Soviet Union heightened Western fears about security at Russian military facilities, it appears that Russian strategic and tactical weapons are perhaps more secure than had been initially feared.

"But even if terrorists were able to steal or acquire through black-market purchase a stolen nuclear weapon, they would still face a number of significant obstacles in using or detonating it.

"Moreover, many tactical nuclear weapons, and most strategic nuclear devices, are equipped with permissive action links (PALs) or other protective mechanisms designed to prevent accidental or unauthorized detonation. In addition, some nuclear devices have tamper-proof seals that will disable the weapon if unauthorized personnel attempt to disassemble it.

"It would be extremely difficult, therefore, for terrorists to circumvent or overcome these built-in protective measures.

"Building a nuclear device capable of producing mass destruction presents Herculean challenges for terrorists and indeed even for states with well-funded and sophisticated programs. According to one analysis, minimum requirements include 'personnel, skills, information, money, facilities, equipment, supplies, security, special nuclear materials ... and, usually, other specialized and hard-to-obtain material.'

"That being said, it is clear that certain types of nuclear devices are easier to create than others.

"Two types of weapons systems, for example, can create nuclear fission: the implosion device and the 'gun' type. In the former, explosives compress a sphere of HEU or plutonium into a small ball, thus achieving supercriticality and a nuclear chain reaction.

"Even the simplest implosion weapon, however, requires the fabrication of complex components, such as high-explosive lenses, high-performance detonation systems, and fusing and firing circuitry.

"The gun-type device, on the other hand, employs HEU exclusively. Using a high explosive, the system fires a subcritical HEU projectile into a subcritical cylinder of HEU to form a solid mass of critical material. Although it uses relatively scarce HEU, the gun-type device is considered technically easier to fabricate; and many analysts accordingly argue that terrorists attempting to make a bomb 'in house' will build a gun-type device."

Note that the panel focused – as does the Department of Homeland Security – on domestic response to terrorist acts, not on preventing them.

That's just as well, since it will be virtually impossible to prevent all, or even most, high-probability low-consequence acts.

However, it would have been possible to prevent a terrorist nuke attack. But then Bush accused Iraq, Iran, and North Korea of developing nukes to give to terrorists for use against us. Bush launched a "preemptive" strike against Iraq and is currently threatening similar strikes against Iran and North Korea.

Result? Stay tuned.


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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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