Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Fail Safe

One of my favorite novels is Fail Safe. A work of political fiction, Fail Safe deals with the strategic maneuverings of Cold War nuclear defense. As a result of human error, US -52 Bombers patrolling the edges of Russian air space receive a coded message instructing them to attack Moscow. Once the Bombers pass the Fail Safe point, now unable to communicate with either the Americans or the Russians, their mission is to drop the payload, an atomic bomb.

The red phones are hot in Moscow and Washington trying to quickly resolve the situation; but, ultimately, the Bombers can't be stopped. It is then agreed that Washington will, in exchange for the imminent Moscow attack, drop a nuclear weapon on New York-- in good faith ( A crazy premise, I know).

So what exactly does this have to do with anything? Well, in an Op-ed in today's New York Times Nicholas D. Kristof speaks to the possibility of a nuclear bomb being detonated in New York city, though not by Americans; but, by terrorist. Take for instance this interesting excerpt:

...on Oct. 11, 2001, exactly a month after 9/11, aides told President Bush that a C.I.A. source code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda had obtained a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon and smuggled it into New York City.

The C.I.A. found the report plausible. The weapon had supposedly been stolen from Russia, which indeed has many 10-kiloton weapons. Russia is reported to have lost some of its nuclear materials, and Al Qaeda has mounted a determined effort to get or make such a weapon. And the C.I.A. had picked up Al Qaeda chatter about an "American Hiroshima."

President Bush dispatched nuclear experts to New York to search for the weapon and sent Dick Cheney and other officials out of town to ensure the continuity of government in case a weapon exploded in Washington instead. But to avoid panic, the White House told no one in New York City, not even Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Dragonfire's report was wrong, but similar reports - that Al Qaeda has its hands on a nuclear weapon from the former Soviet Union - have regularly surfaced in the intelligence community, even though such a report has never been confirmed. We do know several troubling things: Al Qaeda negotiated for a $1.5 million purchase of uranium (apparently of South African origin) from a retired Sudanese cabinet minister; its envoys traveled repeatedly to Central Asia to buy weapons-grade nuclear materials; and Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, boasted, "We sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other Central Asian states, and they negotiated, and we purchased some suitcase [nuclear] bombs."

This is, seriously, some scary stuff. If international terror organizations, with designs of annihilating a major American metropolis, got their hands on nuclear weapons, it difficult to see how the American government would be able to defend Americans against that type of attack.
Some grim estimates see the likelihood of an attack of that scale and magnitude on the near horizon: A 50% chance within in the next 10 years. Steps can be taken to minimize the likelihood of such an attack, however. Counter-proliferation and non-proliferation policy must be indefatigably pursued, and situations like Abdul Qadeer Khan of Pakistan can't happen—period.

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