A deeply disturbing picture
of terrorist intent has emerged in recent weeks as blueprints for
building nuclear weapons have been discovered in the wreckage of
abandoned Al Qaeda safe houses. These blueprints and other documents,
while largely available in the public domain, sharpen the need for a
vigorous American policy to deal with unsecured nuclear, chemical and
biological materials. Even if terrorist manufacture of nuclear bombs is
unlikely, substantial dangers remain of terrorists using radioactive
material in low-tech "dirty" bombs.
The main nuclear security problem posed by Al Qaeda today is access to
radioactive materials in Pakistan. However, for a decade we have focused
on the former Soviet Union. Since the end of the cold war, approximately
175 incidents of smuggling or attempted theft of nuclear materials there
have been thwarted. But the threat remains, as the Russian Defense
Ministry reported on Nov. 6, when the last attempt at theft was made.
For Russia, a sensible solution is available - the Nunn-Lugar
"cooperative threat reduction" program to improve the security
of Russia's nuclear materials, technology and expertise. This week, the
House Republican leadership will decide whether to finance the next
phase. The program is only 40 percent complete; finishing it will take
another quarter of a century at the current rate of funding. It is past
time to fully implement and finance this important
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The Nunn-Lugar initiative
can serve as a valuable precedent in addressing security problems in
Pakistan. Neither Pakistan nor India has signed the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nor has
either country engaged in negotiations, under the auspices of the United
Nations Conference on Disarmament, to protect against theft of fissile
materials. This reluctance in India and Pakistan to recognize
international norms, however, should not alter our resolve to improve
the security of nuclear materials in South Asia.
While Islamabad is widely believed to have the material for 25 to 40
medium-yield bombs, most of its nuclear devices are kept in component
parts, not as assembled warheads. The storage procedures, quite
elaborate prior to Sept. 11, were altered again on Oct. 7 when the
American bombing of Afghanistan began. Separately stored uranium and
plutonium cores and their detonation assemblies were moved to six new
secret locations around the country.
The new storage patterns were designed to allow for rapid assembly and
deployment, but attackers will nonetheless find it much more difficult
to confiscate Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Even if Al Qaeda obtained
radioactive materials from a sympathizer at one of Pakistan's plants for
making weapons-grade nuclear materials, as some reports have suggested,
the material would still have to be shaped into a fissionable core with
detonation switches and delivery housings.
Such a complex effort would be difficult to carry out in an Afghan cave.
But we can hardly count on terrorists always being under bombardment in
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Pakistan's nuclear command hierarchy, overhauled in 2000, was also
revamped on Oct. 7 in the wake of a broad military-intelligence
shake-up. Pakistan's president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, created
the strategic planning division and appointed a moderate general, Khalid
Kidwai, to oversee Pakistani nuclear assets.
Self-policing, however, is not enough. Since 1990, American sanctions
have blocked sale or transfer of any technology that might have a
military use - including technologies that would improve nuclear
security. American export license controls - and, where necessary,
Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty compliance
rules preventing United States exports - should be waived to transfer
the technology needed to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenals and
materials from unauthorized use.
The Bush administration should make available American vaults, sensors,
alarms, tamper-proof seals, closed-circuit cameras and labels to
identify, track and secure Islamabad's nuclear materials.
Such precautions would dramatically reduce the probability that even the
most devoted bin Laden supporter inside a Pakistani nuclear enrichment
facility would get very far in trying to deliver stolen uranium or
plutonium to terrorists.
There is a real risk that Pakistan's fanatics might collaborate with Al
Qaeda; the plans, recently discovered in Kabul, for a helium balloon
armed with anthrax have been attributed to a Pakistani nuclear scientist
turned Taliban philanthropist. But the risk is manageable if we can help
the Musharraf government focus on this threat, as Russia has done in the
Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program.
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Unless we follow such a
course, we face the very real possibility of terrorist militias
obtaining not just blueprints but the materials to fashion and detonate
weapons of mass destruction. We also risk sharpening the debate in
Pakistani military and political circles about whether its nuclear
expertise should be shared with other Muslim countries. It is hard to
think of two developments that are less in our interest.