A review of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison
On Nuclear Terrorism, by Michael Levi
The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation, by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman


Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States faces a greater risk of nuclear attack than at any time in its history.This assertion will strike some as implausible given the former Soviet Union's enormous arsenal and the wide range of Cold War close calls, from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to 1983's false alarm in the Soviet early warning system-three weeks after the downing of KAL 007. But these incidents (and the others like them) shared a common trait: neither side wanted nuclear war, and neither wanted to do anything that might risk its outbreak. Today, eight years into the War on Terror, America faces an enemy hellbent on making it happen, and indifferent to or contemptuous of the many factors that induced caution in Soviet leaders. All this enemy lacks (so far as we know) is the capability.

A cursory review of the literature shows how numerous are the avenues through which that capability can be acquired. It's not easy, to be sure. But with time, money, and dedication, it can be done. And if we know anything about the subject, we know that America has enemies with plenty of each. In the oft-quoted words of the infamous IRA press release following a failed 1984 bombing attack on Margaret Thatcher's life, "we [terrorists] have only to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always." It is thus no surprise that notable figures from national security grandees to Warren Buffet pronounce nuclear terror "inevitable."

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Thus far, American experts on this topic have devoted most of their attention to purely defensive considerations such as port security, intelligence collection, and non-proliferation programs. Two influential books, in particular, lay out the case for a defensive strategy and show what it might look like: Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe and Michael Levi's On Nuclear Terrorism.

Allison is founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School and a former assistant secretary of defense. His book, written in 2004, may be said to define the parameters of official conventional wisdom on the subject. The two-part tome explains the problem—the many avenues for procuring, building, and delivering a nuclear bomb—and proposes a solution, what Allison calls the "three Nos" and "seven Yeses." Allison's thesis is that nuclear terror is "Inevitable" (Part One) given present policies, but "Preventable" (Part Two) if the world adopts his solutions. Unfortunately, only Part One lives up to its name. 

There are so many paths to the bomb, so many holes that would have to be plugged, and so many contingencies covered, that it's impossible to imagine anything close to a perfect security system. Moderately well-informed people know that the world's most worrisome nuclear security gaps are in Russia; they probably presume that security in the U.S. is impregnable. Allison gleefully shoots down that assumption. For example, more than half the security drills at Los Alamos National Laboratory run by U.S. special forces personnel posing as terrorists resulted in successful "theft" of plutonium; in some cases, the "terrorists" did not encounter a single guard. And Los Alamos is the most important site in the American nuclear program.

For terrorists, getting the goods is the hardest part. Once sufficient uranium 235 or plutonium 239 is on hand, making a bomb is comparatively easy; all it takes is money, time, materials, and know-how-and the know-how, like the materials, can be bought. Getting the bomb (or its constituent parts) into the U.S. and moving it around is easiest of all. No defensive system could detect and stop nuclear trafficking with 100% certainty. For one thing, short of searching every package, truck trailer, railcar, and shipping container, it is impossible to reliably detect fissile material coming into the country. For another, the kinds of searches that might actually work would slow down supply chains to the point of crippling the economy.

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Thus it is hardly surprising that efforts to stop nuclear terror focus on locking down nuclear materials at their source. Despite the impressive mass of evidence he compiles to the contrary, Allison insists that this can be done with absolute certainty. "The United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox," he writes. Indeed not—but, as Michael Levi's more measured treatment of the subject points out, neither is the United States constantly moving gold in and out of Fort Knox (to say nothing of dozens of other facilities) for perfectly necessary and legitimate reasons. Gold, for instance, does not have applications in cutting-edge medical technologies.

In any case, the remedy Allison prescribes is not nearly adequate to the disease he diagnoses. Some proposals are fine as far as they go, but don't go nearly far enough. Some are harmless placebos. Others amount to little more than speculative wishful thinking. It's as if a doctor faced with a terminal cancer patient were to recommend a combination of aspirin, acupuncture, and alchemy.

By far the biggest flaw in Allison's portfolio of proposals is that they rest too much on the willingness of other parties to go along in good faith. He acknowledges that getting the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Chinese, and others to secure their nuclear materials according to an international "gold standard" will be difficult but insists—against all prior experience—that it can be done. He praises, reasonably, the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs (CTR, known popularly as Nunn-Lugar, from the Senate sponsors, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar) that work to secure nuclear materials in Russia, but glosses over the extent to which the Russians, after nearly 20 years and billions of our dollars, still have not come even close to achieving American standards of security. 

Allison's expectations for other nations are even higher, and even more misplaced. He thinks Iran can be bought off with a "grand bargain," China talked into good behavior, and Pakistan made to see the importance of tighter security. He just does not consider that these countries' behavior in the nuclear realm fits what they perceive to be their interests, which do not coincide with our interests. Nor does he want to admit that the United States and its allies lack the will to threaten credibly, much less enforce, any sanctions or harsher measures that might have an impact.

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On these and many other points, The Nuclear Express—by former weapons designers and high government officials Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman—is most instructive. Reed and Stillman document the lifelong atrocious safety record of the Russian nuclear program, on both the weapons and the electric power side. More troubling, they show that "Deng Xiaoping's China apparently decided to actively promote nuclear proliferation within the Third World." The Chinese have "trained scientists, transferred technology, and built infrastructure in furtherance of that policy." So relying on China, as Allison does, to become part of the solution would seem to be a bad idea.

Allison is most off base about North Korea which, since the book was written, has tested at least two nuclear weapons. He would doubtless argue that this outcome is precisely the result of failing to follow his advice. But that advice hinged on a willingness to threaten a use of force that even the Bush Administration could not countenance, and that South Korea, China, and Russia believed to be out of the question.

Michael Levi is more interested in the technical side of prevention, and his On Nuclear Terrorism—in addition to going into far more detail than Allison's book, despite its shorter length—offers some comfort. Successfully staging a nuclear terror attack is quite difficult indeed. Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, flips the IRA quip on its head. Breaking a nuclear plot into its many constituent stages, he shows that a terrorist group must be lucky at every stage whereas, to stop them, the defense has only to be lucky once.

But this turns out to be small comfort. He proposes his own cadre of defensive measures, little different from Allison's, and concludes—unlike Allison—that they neither can nor will ever be 100% effective. Which is to say (though Levi does not say it), a nuclear terrorist attack on American soil is inevitable, or at least that its non-occurrence is a matter of luck.

Reed and Stillman also offer a package of preventive measures but are more realistic about the chances of success. They conclude, "A unified effort might just keep the Nuclear Express on track. Divisive efforts will surely bring about the greatest train wreck in the history of mankind" (emphasis added). The authors are unflinching about the stakes. Mere death and destruction alone might not be the goal of such an attack. Radical Islamists may seek to upend American society and attempt a coup. Or the serial proliferators who have created today's nuclear abundance may wish to see the U.S. financial system destroyed—with no fingerprints of their own on the device that does it.

Speculations like this guarantee that Reed and Stillman will not be taken seriously by the security establishment and nuclear priesthood of which they were, for so long, members in good standing. Following lines of inquiry where they logically lead is considered crass and kooky when those threads lead somewhere particularly unpleasant. 

For daring to follow anyway, and to publish their thoughts, Reed and Stillman are owed a debt of gratitude. They have managed to put together a book that is at once informative, breezy, extremely serious, and just technical enough to make sense of a complicated issue without bewildering the non-specialist reader. Cold War buffs will also be intrigued by some notable new conjectures about the role that espionage played in delivering the secret of the hydrogen bomb to both Russian and Chinese scientists.

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In the end, however, there is something profoundly unsatisfying about all of these books. Facing a near consensus on the certitude of a nuclear attack, America's nuclear experts have apparently not done much thinking about what to do should all our defensive measures fail, what to do in response should an attack come, and what to say about that response in advance. Such thoughts seem to be literally unthinkable.

One pat response is to assert that since we won't know the details and circumstances of an attack until it happens, it makes no sense to start mapping out responses now. But this doesn't bear scrutiny. A range of likely scenarios can be imagined. Thinking through those scenarios in advance makes more sense than beginning on the morning after. Moreover, if there is one thing the experts agree on (Reed and Stillman being honorable exceptions), it is that America ought not to worry too, too much about an Iranian or North Korean bomb because that sturdy old standby, deterrence, will keep their leaders in line. It's as if the cardinals of the nuclear priesthood have forgotten the basic tenets of their faith. For deterrence to work, it must be credible. For it to be credible, the deterred party must really believe that the deterring party will follow through on what it threatens.

But we, at present, threaten nothing—at least nothing intelligible against those most likely to be behind a nuclear terror attack. During the Cold War, the United States stated clearly what it would do if attacked by its main adversary. Scholars and theorists debated at the time, and continue to dispute today, just how credible that threat was. But at least it existed. Today, the United States has no explicit declaratory policy on what it will do in the event of a nuclear attack not launched by Moscow.

Search the volumes of official public statements, and all one finds is this sentence from the 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction: "The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force—including through resort to all of our options—to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."

Is that specific enough to deter anyone?

Ironically, the same priests who insist that deterrence will work against states also insist that it can't work against terrorists. Certainly, no terrorist will be deterred by anything like the above. And perhaps those who doubt whether they can be deterred at all are right.

But Allison, Levi, and Reed and Stillman all make abundantly clear that there will always be one piece of the puzzle that terrorists must acquire, one way or another, from a state. Producing fissile material requires billions of dollars, many years, lots of land, and, in most circumstances, a measure of secrecy. The states that have the capacity perhaps can be deterred, just as the priesthood claims to believe. But of course this is not what they mean; their calculations extend only to a direct attack by such a state against America. In their zeal not to appear alarmist, they wish to close off discussion of a nuclear nexus between states and terrorists with a pat assurance that one party can certainly be deterred while the other certainly cannot. Is certainty in either case so warranted?

We have not begun even to ask ourselves these questions, much less debate them and formulate answers. It is high time we did.