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Last Updated

13 Dec 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2002.


Taking the Right Measures To End the WMD Threat


Last week's news of the recent arrest of an American felon allegedly scouting for an appropriate site for detonating a "dirty" bomb has reinforced U.S. fears that al Qaeda is plotting another attack. Its fanatics of course draw the line at nothing, however vicious. So the only question worth asking is what is within their means. Do they really have the capability to employ weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)?

A dirty bomb, a conventional explosive device designed to scatter radioactive materials, is not a WMD unless the builders are sophisticated enough to encase it in highly radioactive material. The more likely design, using radioactive wastes from hospitals and other sources, would probably only poison people in the immediate vicinity. But public knowledge that even a small area had been contaminated could create panic, fulfilling the terrorists' objectives.

A true atom bomb would of course be another matter altogether. Even a small nuke would have a tremendous blast effect and would release enough radioactive debris to poison large numbers of people. There have been rumors that Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union lost track of some small nukes, often called "suitcase" bombs but actually closer to the size of a steamer trunk. But the Russians deny this and U.S. intelligence has no serious evidence that any suitcase bombs have fallen into the hands of rogue nations. Even if some were stolen or sold, it is not certain that the present owner would have the technical expertise to detonate them.

If it is any further comfort, the number of states in possession of nuclear weapons has declined in recent years. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus prudently returned the Soviet nukes based on their soil to the Russians. South Africa, Brazil and Argentina abandoned efforts to build bombs.

A new book titled "Deadly Arsenals," published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, lists only eight countries known to have nukes. The U.S. and Russia have just agreed to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals, Russia expects to cut the number of warheads on intercontinental missiles to under 1,000 from a current 5,000 in 10 years. The U.S. touched off this cutback by unilaterally deciding to go down to between 1,700 to 2,200 strategic warheads from a current level of nearly 6,000.

Carnegie credits anti-proliferation treaties for some of these achievements. The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty now has 187 signatories, including five states that possess nuclear weapons, the U.S., Russia, Britain, China and France. Israel, widely suspected of having nukes, and India and Pakistan, which have lately been brandishing their nuclear missiles, are not signatories. Cuba also has not signed.

But if all this sounds at least somewhat reassuring, a closer look is more disquieting. President Bush's three "Axis-of-Evil" states, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, are believed to have clandestine nuclear weapons programs even though all three are NPT signatories. The U.S. is pressuring Russia to stop helping the Iranians with their nuclear program by selling them light water reactors, supposedly for peaceful use. Russia replies that the Clinton administration agreed to do the same thing for North Korea under the 1994 Agreed Framework, an effort to bribe North Korea into complying with NPT inspections. Both the U.S. and Russia know that with the proper facilities, the plutonium generated by such reactors could be converted to weapons-grade materials. North Korea is trying to develop an ICBM that could deliver a warhead to Alaska or perhaps the West Coast of the U.S.

How Russia might respond to the U.S. complaints about the Iranian reactors is not yet known, but the U.S. Agreed Framework deal with North Korea is under Bush administration review, even though it was planned to pour foundations for the two new reactors in August. The president has refused to certify that Pyongyang is abiding by the terms of the NPT. In a May 31 letter, Republican Congressmen Christopher Cox and Benjamin A. Gilman, along with Democrat Edward L. Markey, called on President Bush to suspend any further work on the reactors until it can be determined whether North Korea is cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regime.

But nukes aren't the only WMDs of concern to the Carnegie researchers. Weaponized biological and chemical agents are potential WMDs as well. They are the ones that give U.S. defense planners the most sleepless nights because they are better suited to terrorist use. They are far easier to make, transport and deploy than nukes. Last fall's anthrax letters, mailed to legislators and journalists, killed only five persons and infected another 18. But they demonstrated the potential for disrupting the life of a nation through the use of such weapons. The Axis-of-Evil states are all known to have biological and chemical weapons. The theory that the anthrax used in the U.S. letters might have come from Iraq still has not been disproved, despite efforts of U.S. anti-terrorism authorities to blame them on some unknown American psychotic.

Whatever the involvement of Saddam Hussein in the U.S. attacks, his supplies of weaponized poisons puts him at the top of the U.S. list of candidates for elimination under the new Bush policy of preemptive strikes at state sponsors of terrorism. Such a strike at Saddam, however, has to be carefully planned to try to remove the danger of his launching a chemical or biological weapon aimed at some U.S. ally, most notably Israel.

Egypt, Iran, Syria, Libya and Sudan have biological or chemical programs but only the first two are listed by the Carnegie report as having actual weapons of both types.

Contrary to claims by President Bush's natural critics that he is whipping up terrorism fears for political purposes, it should be clear from this catalog of dangerous games that there is plenty to worry about out there. Arms control treaties have little effect on rogue states. That's why the president turned to a policy of preemption. The trick now is to make it work.