Friday, February 08, 2008

The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

In a commentary in today's Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman has a piece examining "The Implausibility of Nuclear Terrorism," in which he writes:

Why are we worried [about the possibility of nuclear terrorism]? Bomb designs can be found on the Internet. Fissile material may be smuggled out of Russia. Iran, a longtime sponsor of terrorist groups, is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. A layperson may figure it's only a matter of time before the unimaginable comes to pass. Harvard's Graham Allison, in his book "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," concludes, "On the current course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable."

The events required to make that happen include a multitude of herculean tasks. First, a terrorist group has to get a bomb or fissile material, perhaps from Russia's inventory of decommissioned warheads. If that were easy, one would have already gone missing.

Besides, those devices are probably no longer a danger, since weapons that are not scrupulously maintained (as those have not been) quickly become what one expert calls "radioactive scrap metal." If terrorists were able to steal a Pakistani bomb, they would still have to defeat the arming codes and other safeguards designed to prevent unauthorized use. As for Iran, no nuclear state has ever given a bomb to an ally -- for reasons even the Iranians can grasp. Stealing some 100 pounds of bomb fuel would require help from rogue individuals inside some government who are prepared to jeopardize their own lives. The terrorists, notes Mueller, would then have to spirit it "hundreds of miles out of the country over unfamiliar terrain, and probably while being pursued by security forces."

Then comes the task of building a bomb. It's not something you can gin up with spare parts and power tools in your garage. It requires millions of dollars, a safe haven and advanced equipment -- plus people with specialized skills, lots of time and a willingness to die for the cause. And if Al Qaeda could make a prototype, another obstacle would emerge: There is no guarantee it would work, and there is no way to test it.

Assuming the jihadists vault over those Himalayas, they would have to deliver the weapon onto American soil. Sure, drug smugglers bring in contraband all the time -- but seeking their help would confront the plotters with possible exposure or extortion. This, like every other step in the entire process, means expanding the circle of people who know what's going on, multiplying the chance someone will blab, back out or screw up.

...If Osama bin Laden embarks on the project, he has only a minuscule chance of seeing it bear fruit. Given the formidable odds, he probably won't bother. None of this means we should stop trying to minimize the risk by securing nuclear stockpiles, monitoring terrorist communications and improving port screening. But it offers good reason to think that in this war, it appears, the worst eventuality is one that will never happen.
All of this is very likely true. Much of Chapman's piece is based on a talk Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University gave at the University of Chicago last month entitled "The Atomic Terrorist: Assessing the Likelihood" that argues "the likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small." Mueller is also the author of the book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. Mueller's basic argument is that the threat of terrorism, especially when compared to other threats, risks, or priorities is exceedingly small and while basic precautions should be taken, much of the response in the War on Terror is overblown.

I agree with much of Mueller's argument, in theory. But, as I and Homer Simpson are fond of saying, in theory, communism works. Even if it is objectively demonstrable that the threat of terrorism, and nuclear terrorism in particular, is exceedingly small, that doesn't mean that the government can react in ways other than the ways it has.

Government, and democratic government in particular, is an inherently reactionary force that prefers not to address problems so long as they remain mere possibilities in the future. However, once an event happens, like 9/11, the government is on notice, so to speak, and cannot allow a similar event to happen again. Thus, overreaction occurs, as the government races to paper over obvious flaws and policy failures and and attempts to identify any similar potential problems in the future. And so we get the absurd prohibition on liquids aboard airplanes.

Now that 9/11 put terrorism on the radar screen in an emphatic manner, the government cannot be seen to be ignoring any future terrorist possibilities, no matter how small. Combine that with an over-arching paternalism that infects government at all levels, and it should come as no surprise that the government is likely to spend time and resources worrying about a threat that very well may have an infinitesimal chance of occurrence. Let's also not forget that those in favor of governmental action to deal with the threat of global warming advocate for the application of the precautionary principle, which argues that in the face of uncertainty about events with the potential to cause massive damage to humans or the environment, protective actions should be taken. A nuclear attack on an US city certainly meets that threshold level.

It very well be true that the threat of terrorism is small, and that the threat of nuclear terrorism even smaller. But that doesn't mean that we should expect the government to take proportionate steps to deal with the threats.

1 comment:

Jeb Koogler said...

Interesting article. It runs in contrast to most other analyses that I've read.