Friday, April 01, 2005

March 31, 2005

Tick, tick, tick, tick

My pal Tony emailed me a story yesterday with the subject line, “We are smarter than I thought.” It was a story that detailed the results of a recent AP poll on public attitudes towards nuclear weapons. The key finding:

Two-thirds of Americans said no nation should have nuclear weapons, including the U.S., and that those nations that do not currently have them should not be allowed to get them.

It was an unusually sane result for a nation split evenly, Blue and Red. I am not surprised that liberal Blues would vote that way, but what explains the softening among the Reds?

Maybe it was this.

Another question asked those polled how likely they thought it was that there would be a nuclear attack someplace in the world within the next five years. Fifty two percent rated that likelihood as ‘high” and 53% said they believed a nuclear attack by a terrorist group was “somewhat likely,” as well.

I have said for some months that terrorists would eventually strike a US with some kind of nuclear device. It's only a matter of when. It is inconceivable to me that those tenacious little wing nut Islamic terrorists have not already acquired either the parts to build a crude nuke or an entire bomb. It’s just too easy to get the stuff. Anyone with hard cash, gold or large quantities of heroin can just shop until they drop the flotsam of the former Soviet empire.

In fact the Russians have admitted they cannot account for around 100 of their old “suitcase” nukes. And guess who might have some of those missing nukes. Even before 9/11 Israeli and Russian intelligence were reporting that Bin Laden might have acquired some of the suitcase nukes through Muslim friends in Chechnya. The only question in their minds was how many he got his hands on.

"Master terrorist Osama Bin Laden has acquired portable nuclear devices, a U.S.-based expert on non-conventional terror believes. The only real question now is whether Bin Laden has "a few," as Russian intelligence seems to think, or "over 20," a figure cited by intelligence services of moderate Arab regimes. "There is no longer much doubt that Bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear ‘suitcase bombs," says Yossef Bodansky, head of the Congressional Task Force on Non-Conventional Terrorism in Washington. In a recent book, Bodansky reports that Bin Laden’s associates acquired the devices through Chechnya, paying the Chechens $30 million in cash and two tons of Afghan heroin, worth about $70 million in Afghanistan and about 10 times that on the street in Western cities." (Jerusalem Report: October 25th, 1999 )

So, if he’s got them why hasn’t he used them? There are theories on that too. Like all nuclear weapons the user requirers two "keys" or codes to activate it. One of the two codes would have been sent with the device to the field commander. The other would have remained in Moscow until the use of the weapon was authorized at the highest levels. While Bin Laden may have one of the codes, he would not have been able to obtain the second. So, if he has these bombs it is likely al Queada’s technical people are still trying to devise a reliable way to detonate the things. Since a suicide bomber would not be concerned with getting clear of the blast, a timer would be unnecessary.

But, if Bin Laden has gotten his hands on a nuke it would be far too valuable to risk on a crude suicide attack. There are too many chances someone lugging around an item that large would be caught. What is far more likely is they will yank the o
ld Soviet timer/detonator entirely and replace it with an inexpensive GPS device connected to a new detonator. Then it would just be a matter of loading the coordinates of the target city into the GPS device – say Long Beach Harbor – and hiding the suitcase nuke in a cargo container heading for California. When the freighter reaches the GPS coordinates, kaboom.

Eighty percent of America’s import/export trade is comes through US Ports. Imagine what such an attack would accomplish. Besides killing roughly 2 million Southern Californians, it would virtually shut down world trade while countries tried to figure out how to prevent another such attack. It would stop deliveries of oil, natural gas and liquid natural gas. It would paralyze the West and have catastrophic economic consequences that would linger for years, maybe decades. The Great Depression would no longer be our measure of social misery.

Not a very rosy outlook, huh? A reader asked me the other day if sometimes I don’t feel like Cassandra. Yes, sometimes I do. But we all tend to want to gloss over catastrophic potentialities. The worse the potential outcome, the less we want to think about it and, since planning for such things forces us to think about them, we don’t plan. Look no further than Indonesia for proof of this behavior. Coastal Indonesians had to lose 200,000 of their own people before they got around to even beginning work on a long-avoided tsunami warning system.

So, I prefer to imagine catastrophes. I am, you might say, a virtual connoisseur of catastrophe. So I will continue to imagine the likelihood of a nuclear attack on a US city and continue to think of how we might, even now, prevent one.

First, I have an inkling we may have already dallied too long. It may already be too late. If that’s so, and a nuke may already be heading our way in a load of soybeans or rice, then the logical thing to do is to inspect every single cargo container heading this way. The Bush administration has said that inspecting every container would be too expensive and too disruptive to world commerce. To which I ask how expensive would it be to have to replace, oh say, the entire waterfronts and much of the cities of New York or San Francisco?

Or we can just continuing acting like the pre-tsunami Indonesians. There is at least one advantage to that approach. There will be a whole lot fewer people to argue with about it afterwards.

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