The threats America faces.

Author:Newhouse, John
 
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Before September 11, the threats from weapons of mass destruction and terrorism were treated for the most part as ugly abstractions and not likely to materialize, even though they had done so in the recent past. Now we recognize the threats as being all too real but difficult to assess in terms of their imminence and gravity. There ate too many unknowns and uncertainties. What does seem clear is that the major source of the threat has changed. State-sponsored terrorism has steadily declined in recent years. (1) However, the incidence of acts by nonstate terrorists has risen.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations elected to stress a highly implausible threat to the territorial United States from unfriendly regimes, notably North Korea and Iran. Early in 2001, the State Department conveyed the official line in a guidance memorandum to embassies: "The principal threat today is...the use of long-range missiles by rogue states for purposes of terror, coercion, and aggression.

This dubious proposition-an article of faith within parts of the defense establishment-obscured existing and far more credible threats from truly frightful weapons, some of which are within the reach of terrorists. They include Russia's shaky control of its nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material; the vulnerability of U.S. coastal cities and military forces stationed abroad to medium-range missile systems, ballistic and cruise; the vulnerabilities of all cities to chemical and biological weapons, along with so-called suitcase weapons and other low-tech delivery expedients. Vehicles that contain potentially destructive amounts of stored energy are a major source of concern, as is one of their most attractive potential targets, a nuclear spent-fuel storage facility.

The example set by youthful Palestinian belt bombers can and very possibly will be emulated by terrorists elsewhere, including the United States. Preventing human bombs is "an incredibly difficult business," says Christopher Langron, an authority on terrorism at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "It's cheap," he says. "It has the most accurate guidance system available to mankind. It is easily concealed." (3)

The companies that generate, transmit, and distribute electricity are thought by many to be a more serious potential target. The computers that control the nation's electric power system have apparently been probed from the Middle East, and terrorists may have even inspected the physical equipment. (4)

Many experts argue that information warfare directed against air traffic control, the banking system, and communication satellites constitutes a broad and more persistent threat than those associated with weapons of mass destruction (wMD). Some would add environmental issues and narco-trafficking to the list, and ask whether advocates of deploying weapons in space have begun to contemplate the potentially troublesome ripple effect of movement in this direction.

The Bush administration states, wrongly, that the threat from ballistic missile systems is spreading. In fact, there are fewer such systems in the world than 15 years ago, and fewer nations are trying to develop them. Most of the countries that deploy ballistic missile systems have friendly relations with the United States and possess short-range systems that could only threaten neighboring states. (5)

Even the latest National Intelligence Estimate notes in its summary that the United States "is more likely to be attacked with materials from nonmissile delivery means-most likely from terrorists-than by missiles." The nonmissile alternatives, the report says, "are less costly, easier to acquire and more reliable and accurate. They can also be used without attribution." (6)

Obviously, there is no wholly reliable or seamless protection against the use of WMD by terrorists. Probably more important than any of the active defenses, which are as varied as the weapons they are designed to neutralize, is the overarching need for prior restraint, which is also known as passive defense and is based on agreements between nations. Some of these agreements set limits on destructive weapon systems. Others turn on preventive diplomacy, still others on exchanges of surveillance data and military transparency. Some of the agreements are bilateral, others the product of diplomacy conducted under the auspices of, yes, multilateral institutions.

Traditional measures can be used to manage the conflict that began last September. Prior restraint, imbued with an especially heavy infusion of creative but patient diplomacy, can become the decisive weapon for waging what could be called the "hidden hand war." We may not know who exactly the adversary is, where exactly he is located, or the extent of his capacity to create havoc. And this conflict may not reach a conclusion. The enemy, if neutralized, may go to ground and reappear one distant day.

Smart weapons and military superiority may dictate the course of a given battle but will not affect the outcome of a campaign against a worldwide web of amoeba-like terrorist cells. The performance of government and the military in this conflict will be no better than the intelligence to which they have access, much of which can only be gained through the give-and-take of diplomacy. Rarely in its past has the United States been obliged to rely so heavily on the cooperation of other states.

Weapons of mass destruction diverge greatly in the destructive power they can unleash. Nuclear weapons aside, few such weapons would be likely to take as many lives as were lost on September 11. An attack, say, with biological and/or chemical weapons could, in theory, take that many or more but would probably fall far short of that number. The destructive effects of even a primitive nuclear weapon would, by contrast, vastly exceed any other horror that could be imagined. Moreover, there is no more serious threat from WMD than the several uncertainties that nuclear weapons have created. And the most acute of these is the possibility of a weapon being launched by accident or inadvertence-by Russia or the United States.

Russian Weapons

The implicit threat to the United States from Russia's nuclear edifice is more acute than it was during the Cold War. Control of Russia's fissile material is far from adequate, let alone reliable. Russia's early warning network is deteriorating. We know that the General Staff still controls the launch codes. But there are reports from authoritative sources about the declining competence of missile-control crews, their lack of training, and the increasing stress imposed by the thousands of nuclear weapons deployed on hair-trigger alert. Senior officers in Russian nuclear forces talk of spending half their time dealing with the stress and strain on their people.

The State Department's 2001 guidance memorandum, which cited rogue states as the principal menace, was preceded by the report of a bipartisan task force led by former Senate majority leader Howard Baker and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler that took a different view, and concluded: "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home." The report warned of delays in payments to guards at nuclear facilities; breakdowns in command structures, including units that control weapons or guard weapons-usable material; and inadequate budgets for protection of stockpiles and laboratories. (7) It cited "impressive results so far" in current nonproliferation programs but concluded that if funding were not increased, there would be an "unacceptable risk of failure" that could lead to "cata strophic consequences." (8)

Helping Russia to arrest the decline in the safety and security of its nuclear weapons and materials has not been but should become a carefully coordinated three-step approach. Step one would be to assign custody of all weapons-grade fissile material to the Ministry of Atomic Energy, eventually disposing of it. Step two would be to assign custodial responsibility for storage of nuclear weapons to the Ministry of Defense. Step three would amount to removing both Russian and American nuclear missile systems from a quick-launch posture by de-alerting them and moving the warheads to storage (step two) en route to dismantling and disposal (step one). (9)

There are known to be 1,000 tons or so of highly enriched uranium and 150 tons of plutonium scattered around Russia, much of it in badly secured storage sites. (10) There may be even more such material, and not all of the storage sites have been identified. In any case, it is enough material, according to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for between 60,000 and 80,000 nuclear weapons; or, as he observed, enough to constitute "a proliferation nightmate." (11)

Discouraging the theft or illicit sale of Russian materials will require more support for the appropriate steps. The most important of these are the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction programs named for their founders, Sen. Richard Lugar and former senator Sam Nunn. These programs aim to consolidate and ensure the security of the Russian materials. The Baker-Cutler report recommended a three-fold increase in funding to $3 billion annually for these programs.

But the effect of additional spending may be at least partially nullified by the agreement on limiting deployed warheads that Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin signed in Moscow at the end of May. The text was both meager and indulgent. Russia got what it (and the U.S. Senate) wanted--a binding agreement in treaty form. The Bush administration got what it wanted--a deal that won't inhibit any part of the Pentagon's strategic planning. Not a single missile launcher or...

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