Friday, November 04, 2005

On Suitcase Bombs

This is an excellent piece by Richard Miniter on 'suitcase bombs' from OpinionJournal earlier this week. Miniter traces the origins of one of our persistent national nightmares and why they pose a much smaller risk (for now) than most Americans have been led to think. Excerpts:

Every version of the nuclear suitcase bomb scare relies on one or more strands of evidence, two from different Russians and one from a former assistant secretary of defense. The scare started, in its current form, with Russian general Alexander Lebed, who told a U.S. congressional delegation visiting Moscow in 1997--and, later that year, CBS's series "60 Minutes"--that a number of Soviet-era nuclear suitcase bombs were missing.

It was amplified when Stanislav Lunev, the highest-ranking Soviet military intelligence officer ever to defect to the United States, told a congressional panel that same year that Soviet special forces might have smuggled a number of portable nuclear bombs onto the U.S. mainland to be detonated if the Cold War ever got hot. The scare grew when Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, wrote a book called "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." In that slim volume, Mr. Allison worries about stolen warheads, self-made bombs and suitcase nukes. Published in 2004, the work has been widely cited by the press and across the blogosphere.

The problem, according to Miniter, is that the primary source, Lebed, who was eminently quotable also had a reputation for being cavalier with the facts. [Lebed died in an accident in 2002.]

As for the small size of the weapons and the notion that they can be detonated by one person, those claims also been authoritatively dismissed. The only U.S. government official to publicly admit seeing a suitcase-sized nuclear device is Rose Gottemoeller. As a Defense Department official, she visited Russia and Ukraine to monitor compliance with disarmament treaties in the early 1990s. The Soviet-era weapon "actually required three footlockers and a team of several people to detonate," she said. "It was not something you could toss in your shoulder bag and carry on a plane or bus"

Lebed's onetime deputy, Vladimir Denisov, said he headed a special investigation in July 1996--almost a year before Lebed made his charges--and found that no army field units had portable nuclear weapons of any kind. All portable nuclear devices--which are much bigger than a suitcase--were stored at a central facility under heavy guard. Lt. Gen. Igor Valynkin, chief of the Russian Defense Ministry's 12th Main Directorate, which oversees all nuclear weapons, denied that any weapons were missing. "Nuclear suitcases . . . were never produced and are not produced," he said. While he acknowledged that they were technically possible to make, he said the weapon would have "a lifespan of only several months" and would therefore be too costly to maintain.

Miniter dispels persuasively the myth of 'suitcase bombs'. What he also does indirectly is show where the risk really lies. Unlike suicide bombings a nuclear terrorist act would likely require some kind of regime sponsorship due to the relative difficulty in obtaining weapons grade uranium in sufficient quantity. It means that we must be extremely vigilant about rogue regimes like Iran, North Korea and, yes, Saddam's Iraq. And why we should be extremely careful [and proactive] when a 'young' thoroughly anti-American thug like Hugo Chavez develops any card of nuclear capability. We aren't safe from nuclear attack by a dirty bomb or otherwise -- but we should be concentrating our efforts where it counts, e.g., containers arriving at US ports rather than hunting for swarthy men with heavy suitcases.

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