Thursday, December 23, 2004

Clear and Present Danger

During the campaign of 2004, the right-wing punditry was fond of making the bold claim, often without any supporting evidence, that John Kerry and his fellow Democrats simply didn't understand the post-9/11 world. Democrats, it was told, failed to comprehend the significance of the paradigm shift that those tragic events foretold. Of course their candidate, George Bush, fully grasped the new realities and the terrorist threat. How else could you explain the decision to divert vast sums of money, time, resources, intelligence assets, and military capacity from the hunt for al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in order to attack a second Muslim country in a matter of two years - one that, unlike almost all of its neighbors, had no connection to al-Qaeda, was relatively secular, and had no extremist movement exporting jihadists to regional conflicts and terrorist camps worldwide.

Only someone as well-versed in the intricacies of counterinsurgency warfare as George Bush could understand that inflaming the Muslim world, alienating our allies, draining our resources, bogging down our military, destabilizing the Middle East, and bringing the condemnation of the world's population upon us, lending credence to the perceived reality of Bin Laden's propaganda, and increasing the recruitment capacity and popularity of Islamist groups like al-Qaeda's myriad offshoots, would be the best way to protect America. Kerry, you see, never really understood this.

I guess I am like Kerry, because I still don't get it. All snark aside, there is a compelling case to be made that it is the Bush administration that has failed to really understand the lessons of 9/11, and I'm not just talking about the invasion of Iraq. Although the Cold War ended over a decade ago, you couldn't tell if you looked at the current administration's anachronistic strategies for dealing with possible nuclear attacks and other issues of non-proliferation.

There are two important lessons to be derived from the Cold War and 9/11 that relate to the possibility and likelihood of a nuclear attack on America. First, state actors, even seemingly irrational ones like the USSR, are unlikely to launch nuclear attacks because of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). In the case of emerging nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea, there isn't even a "mutuality" component to the deterrent because we would take limited, although devastating, damage from the attack and those nations would be annihilated - completely.

Second, as 9/11 informs us, our biggest vulnerability post-Cold War is from non-state actors who are not concerned with their own destruction and occupy no national locus that can be retaliated against - and are thus un-deterrable. They would be far more willing to carry out a nuclear attack because of their extremist ideology and the lack of concern for the repercussions (in fact, if you calculate the emphasis on martyrdom in the religious and cultural milieu in which they operate, you could argue that they might welcome if not desire the repercussions).

Given these historical lessons, it is astounding to see the Bush administration continuing to dedicate sizable portions of our budget to the creation of a missile defense shield that
continues to fail in test after test - even though the tests themselves are often delayed for optimal weather conditions, and other factors, as if such an option would present itself in case of an attack.

I am not opposed to dedicating money to the research and development of some form of missile defense structure. If given the simple option of having one in place or not, I would choose to possess one. I also concede that the lessons of the Cold War are not a guarantee that all states will always act accordingly in every scenario in the present and future. Still, we are dealing with limited resources, and therefore we must prioritize our spending decisions.

By way of background, the
missile defense program has cost $80 billion since 1985, and the projections going forward are for an outlay of more than $50 billion over the next five years. Despite the substantial allocation of budgetary resources, it is unclear if the system will work in the near future, or ever, or if potential attackers could develop counter-measures to render it useless in the event that it ever operates as advertised.

With the costs of missile defense in mind, approximately $10 billion a year for the next five years, consider the fact the same Bush administration, the grown-ups who really understand the post-9/11 world, have dedicated
the relatively small sum of $1 billion a year to the Nunn-Lugar programs, named after the 1991 legislation drafted by former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and current Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

The programs are intended to prevent the former Soviet Union’s most dangerous weapons and most experienced weapons scientists from falling into the wrong hands.
Not only is the budget of the Nunn-Lugar regime dwarfed by the missile defense budget, but the sage advisors in the Bush administration have proposed cutting it further in the 2005 budget.

President George W. Bush Feb. 11 offered a strong endorsement of U.S. programs to safeguard or destroy the arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and materials formerly possessed by the Soviet Union. However, in his fiscal year 2005 budget request to Congress, released just a week earlier, Bush did not substantially increase funding for these programs and actually proposed cuts to the Department of Defense component as well as suggested spending shifts in programs in the Departments of Energy and State.
Kerry, obviously betraying his naivete as to the realities of the post-9/11 world, proposed increasing the funding of these programs, including and especially in relation to securing the pernicious nuclear material scattered around the former Soviet republics.

The American people may have underestimated the importance of this relatively esoteric reference by Kerry (probably a fault of his in retrospect), and may not currently understand the magnitude of the problem as the Bush administration initiates budget cuts somewhat under the radar of the corporate media which is busy tirelessly covering the pre-trial, trial, and post-trial permutations of the Scott and Laci Peterson saga.

A story in the December issue of The Atlantic by Terrence Henry (hard copy only), however, provides an unnerving appraisal of the situation, and I'm not sure it will spread the holiday cheer to its readers. Henry provides a map of the fifty-one sites in the former Soviet Union which together house 660 tons of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium. To put that in other terms, that supply of radioactive material is enough to make as many as 70,000 nuclear bombs - although the real risk is from an improvised device using some of this fissile material in a dirty bomb apparatus.

The current state of affairs is nothing short of an extreme national security risk. Henry recounts the realities of porous facilities, inadequate security, a ready market for the material - including the expressed interest of terrorists, and high-level corruption including insiders with a propensity for arms dealing. Most facilities have no theft detection devices or security cameras, and some fissile material is stored in cans with simple wax seals and guarded by little more than padlocks - if that.

While the Nunn-Lugar programs have made some progress in assisting the various facilities and nations in securing and/or destroying these materials, not enough has been accomplished, and reducing the budget at this time is reckless beyond comprehension. Most of the already weaponized material has received only a minimal security adjustment, not amounting to a "comprehensive upgrade" nor even a "rapid upgrade," as defined under those acts. The "rapid upgrade" option only involves conducting a "one-time inventory, bricking over windows, installing radiation detectors at main doors, and placing fissile material in rudimentary steel cages." In fact, "some 350 tons of nuclear material...rests in facilities that have yet to receive any [security] upgrade at all." The trend under Bush's stewardship is not encouraging: "less weapons-usable material was secured in the former Soviet republics in the two years after 9/11 than in the two years before...At the current rate it will take at least thirteen more years for all the former Soviet republics' nuclear materials to be comprehensively secured."

Consider for a moment that the Bush administration is plowing tens of billions of dollars into an unproven and impractical missile defense system with no track record for success to combat nation states unlikely to initiate an ICBM attack, while readily available weapons-grade nuclear material lies largely unguarded in impoverished former Soviet republics - and will continue to do so for the next thirteen years, assuming funding is not cut any further.

Worse still, there have been numerous warning signs and incidents that should have put members of the Bush administration on notice as to the dangers. Since 1991, according to confirmed reports, stolen weapons-usable materials have been seized eighteen times in Russia and other countries including France and Germany - most of the material came from the sites listed in the article. Henry examines a series of episodes involving such materials in order to give perspective to the size of the problem.

The facilities are easily penetrated, even the ones that have received some level of Nunn-Lugar funding.
December 2002: Daniel Sneider, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News published a story revealing that with the help of a retired Russian military officer, he had walked through a hole in a concrete wall and gained access to the main base at Sergeyev Posad, a naval complex that had already received security upgrades and spent about an hour undisturbed.
There is a ready market for such looted material.
October 2003: A Russian businessman agreed to buy several pounds of weapons grade plutonium for $750,000 from two residents of Sarov - a nuclear city closed off to all but residents...The businessman had been planning to sell the plutonium to a foreign client.

February 2004: Ukrainian authorities arrested a suspect trying to smuggle radioactive material across the Ukrainian-Hungarian border...documents found with the material indicate that it included uranium. The suspect may be a former Soviet military intelligence officer.
Corruption and possible looting is occurring at high levels of command.
August 2003: Alexander Tyulyakov, the deputy director of Russia's fleet of nuclear powered ice- breakers was arrested in possession of more than two pounds of natural uranium powder. Tyulyakov had been attempting to sell the material for about $55,000.
Worse still, there is the potential for an unholy alliance to be formed between Russian organized crime, anti-proliferation police, and intelligence officers.
December 2001: Seven people were arrested trying to sell more than two pounds of low enriched uranium for $30,000 in a cafe in the town of Balashika, outside Moscow. Although the case did not involve weapons-grade uranium, the composition of the selling group was worrisome: it included a Russian intelligence officer, former members of the nuclear trafficking division of Russia's police, and members of an organized crime group. The uranium had been stolen from the enrichment and fabrication plant Elektrosal, which has suffered a number of thefts, including thefts of highly enriched uranium, and is not scheduled to have upgrades completed until 2009.
In this volatile, unprotected, unregulated, and corrupt setting, Islamic terrorists have begun to show an interest in the spoils of the nuclear Soviet era:
According to Russian newspaper report, the Chechen terrorists who took control of a Moscow theater in October of 2002 had originally considered also seizing the Kurchatov Institute - a site with enough highly enriched uranium to produce dozens of nuclear weapons. When terrorists seized the school in Beslan in September, Russian authorities hurriedly dispatched troops to all the country's nuclear facilities. Russian officials claim they have thwarted four attempts by terrorists to infiltrate nuclear warhead storage facilities. [emphasis added]
The failure of the Bush administration's post-9/11 foreign policy is its inability to grasp the nature of the threat. It is not from state actors who can be deterred by military force and economic penalties - or defended against with an elaborate missile defense shield. Rather, it is from non-state actors who cannot be influenced in such a manner. Missile defense is a Cold War relic diverting funds away from post-9/11 exigencies.

Furthermore, the belief that terrorists would be successful in acquiring such materials from a state such as Iraq, Iran, or North Korea overlooks the realities that such a route is an unnecessarily convoluted and difficult one for aspiring jihadists to take. Rather than trying to get one of those regimes to risk their survival by passing on nuclear material to a terrorist group, and convincing them to part with weaponry and material that they have spent decades and untold billions to acquire themselves, the more attractive option exists in the former Soviet republics - where nuclear material can be had on the cheap, clandestinely, and with no strings attached.

Given this reality, can someone explain to me again why it is that John Kerry and the Democrats don't understand the stakes in the struggle against the Islamist terrorist threat, and don't grasp the changes in the world post-9/11?

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