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Homeland Security

SLUG: 1-01296 OTL Terrorism Weapons Mass Destruction 03-18-03.rtf









Host: Terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Next, On the Line.


Host: The United States and its allies are confronting Iraq in large part out of concern that Saddam Hussein might arm terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. President George W. Bush described the danger:

[Bush SOT: October 7, 2002]:

"We've experienced the horror of September the 11th. We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people. Our enemies would be no less willing, in fact, they would be eager to use biological or chemical or a nuclear weapon. Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us."

Host: There is also concern that terrorists like

Al-Qaida are trying to develop their own chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. How serious is the threat? I'll ask my guests: Jon Wolfsthal, Deputy Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Thomas Donnelly, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and joining us by phone, Anthony Wier, Research Associate at the Belfer Center at Harvard University. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.

Jon Wolfsthal, what kind of evidence is there of al-Qaida trying to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction?

Wolfsthal: There is, I think, growing evidence that especially in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida operation -- through documents that we've uncovered and through other intelligence -- were very active in trying to acquire basic chemical and even biological capabilities. We've also seen evidence that they were trying to acquire basic nuclear materials, either for what we call a dirty bomb, or a radiological dispersal device. And I think in their dreams they would have loved to have gotten a full-up nuclear weapon. We haven't seen a lot of hard evidence that they were able to achieve all those things, but the desire was clearly there.

Host: How far do you think they got along with those desires Tom Donnelly?

Donnelly: Well, it's an incomplete picture, which is the most difficult part of this whole question is to know what the benchmark against which to measure what we know as against what the full reality is. In fact, nobody really knows how successful they may have been and its likely that we might won't ever know until something disastrous happens.

Host: Anthony Wier are you there by phone with us?

Wier: I am.

Host: You've recently done a report on the dangers posed by nuclear bombs and nuclear materials that are running around the world. What kind of risks have you found in your studies?

Wier: Obviously the concern, the risk that such a nuclear attack by terrorists [would happen] is much lower than say a chemical or biological or even a radiological [weapon], like a dirty bomb. But the problem is that the consequence is so much higher that when you balance the threat with the consequence, you have to take a great concern. The risk is out there because there is so much nuclear material out there and the security of it is questionable enough that we have to worry about it.

Host: Jon Wolfsthal, the nuclear material that Anthony Wier mentions, is that mostly enriched uranium or is it actual fully assembled nuclear weapons?

Wolfsthal: Well, unfortunately it runs the gamut. We spent, the United States and the Soviet Union and other countries spent fifty years producing gigantic amounts of nuclear material and nuclear weapons. We're talking about enough to build hundreds of thousands of weapons the size of the weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So you have thousands of weapons that are in storage or in still-deployed status that are ready to use at a moment's notice. We have hundreds of tons both of enriched uranium and plutonium -- both of which can be used for a nuclear weapon -- that are loose, poorly secured, some of it in the United States is much more well secured, but you have it in a variety of circumstances around the world, not just in these countries but in dozens of countries all over the globe.

Host: What's being done, Tom Donnelly, to try to secure that material?

Donnelly: Some, not enough, and not enough that's been really very effective. There has been an ongoing program since the collapse of the Soviet Union, essentially, to try to especially get an accounting of and get rid of a lot of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons. But that program, for all our good intentions, and for all the money that we've devoted to it, has not gotten anywhere near what you would call the finish line. In fact, there are so many ex-Soviet nuclear weapons running around, unaccounted for -- battlefield tactical nuclear weapons that they don't even have records for -- again, it's really hard to judge where we are and how much farther we have to go. And it's been difficult to get full Russian compliance. A lot of the former Soviet states have essentially come clean, but we've got a long way to go to get to zero.

Wolfsthal: To be fair, yes, there's a long way for these programs to go and as Anthony can tell us through the report, there's a lot more that needs to be done. But we have made some progress. But it's not as though this money has just sort of, you know, vanished into the ether. I think the question is, are we going to get enough bang for our buck? We have eliminated thousands of nuclear weapons. We have eliminated thousands of launchers. The problem is that it was such a huge hole that when we start it, it's going to take a long way to fill it in.

Host: Anthony Wier, what are the main things that still need to be done?

Wier: I can jump in on that. I mean, obviously, by the Department of Energy's own numbers the material that they look at that they need to secure with the Russians, just nuclear usable materials, they've only gotten initial security upgrades completed on about thirty-seven percent of that. So, there's a lot left to go. They've started, granted, on eighty percent, but there's a pretty big gap of what they need left to go. The same is true, percentages are roughly true, even worse actually, when you look at the warheads, where they've agreed that they need to secure certain warheads in Russia, just in Russia. In addition, there's lots of research reactors around the world that are fueled by weapons-usable material that aren't necessarily secure and aren't necessarily safe. The U-S, you may remember back in August of last year. worked with Yugoslavia and Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency to get some of that material out of Yugoslavia. But that's just one case and the State Department has said there's at least twenty more cases, twenty-four more cases where they're worried.

Host: Now, what are the challenges, Jon Wolfsthal, for terrorists who might get their hands on nuclear material as opposed to getting their hands on an already manufactured nuclear weapon?

Wolfsthal: Well, there are a lot of conventional wisdoms in the field we work in. But by far I think the greatest one is that building a weapon, building a full-up nuclear weapon is hard stuff. By far, the hardest part of it is getting the nuclear material that goes into the heart of a nuclear weapon. You need the enriched uranium. You need the plutonium, not a huge amount of the stuff either. I mean, more than you can get at your local store. Fortunately this stuff doesn't show up on every street corner. But, you can hold it in your hand. You're not talking about gigantic amounts of material. For plutonium, you need as little as four kilograms, maybe even less, uranium it's slightly more. But once you get that material, the rest of it is fifty-year old technology. So, if you have a few graduate students, someone with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, anybody who's ever operated the nuts and bolts of a nuclear reactor probably has enough basic information to put together a crude bomb. In terms of a more sophisticated weapon, a smaller weapon, a weapon that can be delivered by a warhead or missile, that's more complicated. But, I think there's a general appreciation that even a small but well-financed terrorist organization could conceivably pull this off if they get the material.

Host: Tom Donnelly, do you agree that terrorists could do it if they could get the [materials]?

Donnelly: Jon just painted an essentially accurate picture of what the technological challenges are and what the likelihood is and the possibilities. Just as a brief footnote, one of the reasons why there's been such an emphasis on a radiological bomb, a so-called "dirty bomb" is that some of the technological terminologies that Jon described are diminished with that sort of device. Remember, this is meant to be a weapon of terror. This is not a weapon that serves a tactical or any other military purpose. The purpose of it is to just scare the pants off of Americans in particular. And all of these things essentially change the geopolitical equation and its why these socially small and otherwise powerless groups are such a concern to all Americans these days.

Host: Anthony Wier, what do you think about the technology that's required to transform the nuclear material into an actual nuclear bomb? How different is that for a terrorist group that might have state sponsorship as opposed to a terrorist group that would be acting on its own?

Wier: Well, it was obviously kind of catapult if you basically had a state doing the work for you or telling you how to do it, it would certainly catapult the terrorist group's chances of getting it done. But I think Jon's exactly right that it's not necessarily technology that's outside of the capability of a terrorist group. I think that especially if you're looking, as John said, at the kind of simplest yields. If you take off the table all the things that a military might worry about -- making sure it goes off exactly when you wanted, making sure it gives you a yield exactly how you want it. If you take those off the table and if you just say you want a nuclear yield, if you're using uranium, it's not much more complicated than basically slamming the appropriately-sized amounts of material together really fast.

Wolfsthal: I think Tom also makes a very good point that builds off of both these comments is that, we know that groups are out there, states are out there, that would love to get their hands on a nuclear weapon. But, it is a weapon of terror, at least in this context. And what they really want is for the evening news broadcast to begin with a nuclear attack so that people start fleeing from their homes, you have traffic jams and that's why we worry a lot more, I think, about the dirty bomb, because we know that those materials are much more accessible than the types of materials that you need for a full-up atomic weapon.

Host: Well, what kind of materials do you need for a dirty bomb?

Wolfsthal: Well, anything that is radioactive, or intensely radioactive. I mean, all things are radioactive and people forget that the table that we're sitting in front of actually gives off small amounts of radiation. But, you need things that are used in either industrial applications, medical applications, whether it's iodine, or different types of products. And they can be taken and literally used the way you would use nails and bolts and shrapnel. You take a conventional explosive and you combine it with this dirty material and then you explode it and you contaminate a large area. There's a lot of fear over these weapons, I think we should be concerned, but I think part of the problem is we haven't done a good enough job in terms of public education. Today in America and I think around the world if somebody hears the word "nuclear attack" they run. Well, the reality is, with a dirty bomb, if you can't hear the explosion, odds are it's not going to affect you. People don't realize that they get more radiation from chest x-rays or traveling across country than they're likely to get if they're within a mile of a dirty bomb. And so, I think we have to do a lot more education, while recognizing that this is a real threat and one we need to respond to.

Host: Well, Tom Donnelly, what's being done to make it harder for people to get their hands on the kind of medical waste or other things that might be used in a dirty bomb?

Donnelly: I actually couldn't describe the full variety of efforts that have begun. I think even people who are not sort of naturally in the national security apparatus are now more aware of the military or terroristic application of things that we didn't pay quite so much attention to not so long ago. But, treating this as an entirely prophylactic matter of securing every bit of highly radioactive material that's out there not only in our society, but in the industrial world and even in semi-industrial parts of the world is really an impossible task and is not going to solve what at the end of the day is essentially a political problem. These guys are making war on us, not trying to create an industrial accident. They have a political purpose and that we can respond to, as well as taking the appropriate prophylactic and other steps we need to take to protect ourselves against the effects of this should it ever come to pass.

Host: Anthony Wier, there was a conference recently at which Mohammed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Association talked about taking greater efforts, prophylactic efforts to protect nuclear materials, radiological materials. How much progress can be made on that?

Wier: Well, I think there's certainly a lot of progress that can be made in certain areas. The remedies you take on industrial sources that Jon talked about that might be used in a radiological attack, I mean, these are things like x-ray equipment for the oil field uses or medical uses. I think you can probably take some measures on increasing the security and kind of accounting that everyone has to do as they report back, either when they buy something, where it goes -- all these sorts of things. There are a number of sources that I know the United States is working with, and the Department of Energy especially has kind of made a great initiative and a laudable initiative to work with the Russians at looking at some specialized sources that the Soviet Union had developed that were kind of particularly troubling given the kind of radio activity of the material and the amount of material that was in it. And they're working to kind of go across the former Soviet Union and find these sources and reign them in or secure them.

Host: Jon Wolfsthal, let's move to some of the other weapons of mass destruction that have been discussed. Let's move to chemical weapons. There's a lot of evidence that al-Qaida was looking at chemical weapons and trying to develop them, gassing dogs and videotaping it. How much progress have terrorists made to date on trying to put together chemical weapons?

Wolfsthal: Well, I mean we know the terrorists have gone as far as to use chemical weapons. I mean, in the Sarin gas attack in the mid-nineties in Japan. There have been other instances where both countries and terrorist groups have been able to use this technology and that's essentially because chemical weapons are really not that different from other sorts of chemicals that we use every day. You could put together all sorts of terrible noxious things, from what you find underneath your own sink in your home probably. The question is, are there capabilities that are so dangerous, that are so significant that they really propose a strategic threat to our security if not troops in the field. Or are we protected from these things here at home? And I think the short answer is in the field, we're fairly well equipped, we're fairly well protected and even in Iraq, if they were to use chemical weapons, we're pretty sure that we're still going to achieve victory over Saddam Hussein. Back at home, that's where I think we have a lot more work to do. While a couple of cities, like Washington and New York have detectors in the subways and we're learning more about how to deal with these materials, if there were an attack in the Midwest, in, you know, God forbid, the Mall of America, I don't think we have very good capabilities there at all. And already, you're hearing the governors say: "Look, this is a major problem for us. We need greater resources from the federal government. We need greater training. We need greater resources. And there's still a lot to be done before we get to a secure area.

Host: Tom Donnelly, Jon Wolfsthal mentions the Sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway that the cult tried to pull off there. And they had tried other efforts at chemical weapons before that. And when they finally did it, they killed a number of people but it wasn't nearly as many people as were killed when a crazy person in the Seoul, Korea subway set off a gasoline bomb. How do these weapons compare with conventional means that terrorists already have at their disposal?

Donnelly: Well, look, by the same token the transforming effect on Japanese society, to have as Jon said, the terror effect, that extends far beyond the number of casualties or anything that could be reasonably described as a military effect, this is something that has [entered the] lexicon, that has shaped the way we think about things. That is especially true for the Japanese. Again, that was a society that was perhaps even sort of on the road to pacifism and has undergone a reversal of course, a real change, in part because of an attack that, you might say, didn't kill as many people as other attacks have done, but again had a striking effect on the Japanese imagination.

Host: Anthony Wier?

Wier: Yes. By that same token, you can look at the attacks, the anthrax attacks in the United States and the kind of impressive effect it had on the national psyche, relative to the number of people who were killed by it, I mean, especially in light of the nine-eleven casualty rates just previous.

Donnelly: If I could interject just one anecdote. I was on another show one time a couple of months ago when a Federal Express truck had a package that exploded on a highway, I believe it was outside Indianapolis, and I was on there to talk about Iraq or some other foreign policy issue, and the newsroom went into complete nine-eleven panic mode. Again, it turned out to be nothing and you'd say, well, I don't think the rescue workers would be walking around the crash site if there were a chemical or a biological weapon involved here. But, again, the psychological impact that these things have on the populous is far beyond the actual disruptive effects.

Host: Anthony Wier, you mentioned the anthrax attacks. There's a lot of question or debate over whether that would be something that an individual could have prepared or whether it was a professional state sponsor -- one way or another militarized anthrax. How, in both the chemical and biological realm, how much threat is there from what terrorists could create themselves and how much from stocks of chemicals and biological agents that may be already existing out there?

Wier: I think it goes both ways. I think we talked about the examples with the Sarin gas. This was something where there wasn't any state sponsorship and the terrorist organization basically pulled it off themselves. And so, you can obviously see, I think the technological levels, as Jon talked about are lower, certainly lower in the nuclear threshold. It's much more conceivable that terrorists can do it in their own right. On the other hand of course, it's also conceivable that you could have state sponsors who much more readily say than they would if in the nuclear field, would be willing to part with at least some of their stockpiles that they might have developed on their own, kind of almost as a special project, as a "Let's see what can happen here." Obviously, it's a risky maneuver, because if it gets traced back to them then they're going to have to pay for that. But, I think you can very easily envision both scenarios and so both sides have to be greatly concerned.

Host: Jon Wolfsthal, we have less than a minute, but let's talk about that possibility, of the state sponsor thinking they can hand off biological agents that terrorists could use and thinking it wouldn't be tracked.

Wolfsthal: There's been a lot of discussion over this obviously, especially lately, the concern about North Korea, Iraq's capabilities. I generally tend to be a little more skeptical on this. I think there's every reason to believe that if a country gets this stuff, they're going to want to hold on to it. I mean, they're special because they have weapons of mass destruction and handing them off to a group that they can't control that conceivably, you know, we flipped the switch on their fate, I think could happen, but is not all that credible. And I think in the case of North Korea, while we do have to be worried about it -- they have sold weapons before, I think it's a better thing to deal with them, before they even get those weapons than to try to deal with the consequences afterwards.

Host: Well I'm afraid that's going to have to be the last word for today, we're out of time. I'd like to thank my guests: Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute and joining us by telephone from Boston, Anthony Wier of Harvard University. Before we go, I'd like to invite our audience to send us your questions or comments. You can e-mail them to ontheline@ibb.gov

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