Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The continuing misuses of fear

by William M Arkin

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (September/October 2006)

Conventional wisdom says that the wide availability of fissile materials and nuclear know-how make the likelihood of nuclear use by a terrorist group some time in the future extremely high. From Vice President Dick Cheney to Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, there is near unanimity about this threat of nuclear terrorism. Virtually every government agrees; so do most experts in the arms control community, the scientific establishment, academia, the news media, and even the peace movement.

The disparate political players profess markedly different agendas to deal with this threat and have radically divergent worldviews. In Cheney's world, preventing nuclear terrorism means preemptive war, an unrelenting battle against Al Qaeda, and pressure on Iran, North Korea, and others to dissuade them from sharing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technologies. The Kennedy side of the spectrum likes to stress negotiations, international organizations, and the rule of law in lessening the threat.

The differences, though, are more cosmetic than substantive. In the run up to war in Iraq, opponents of action against Saddam Hussein dickered about the evidence and pleaded that inspections should be given more time or that international support was essential. But because the dispute was ultimately over WMD, hardly any of the war's "opponents" questioned the need to fight if inspections indeed failed or if the international community consented. Some antiwar voices even argued that other WMD enemies and wars - against Al Qaeda, North Korea, or Iran - should be of a higher priority.

When it comes to future threats, there is also widespread agreement on the need for preemption and even on the advisability and necessity of unilateral US action - that is, if intelligence were ever to identify another nuclear renegade with the potential to share its wares. Even former Vermont Governor Howard Dean said during the 2004 Democratic presidential primary that he supported the principle of preemptive war in response to an imminent threat to the United States.

On this fifth anniversary of 9/11, with Iraq out of the WMD business and Al Qaeda on the run and denied state sanctuary, one might think that the concern and panic about nuclear terrorism would have diminished, if not disappeared. To many though, the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks merely confirmed a decades-old presumption that if they could, terrorists would acquire weapons of mass destruction, and they would also use them. This threat is not only amorphous, in that it cannot be measured in warheads or forces and cannot be "deterred" in the traditional sense. It is also based on faith and completely divorced from intent, political realities, and technological possibilities. But because the consequences of failure are so high, it is a threat that never really goes away.

Could terrorists really obtain sufficient materials and put together all of what would be needed to manufacture a nuclear weapon? I'll go out on a limb and say, not after 9/11.

Anxiety about nuclear terrorism predates the events of 9/11. It goes back at least to the early 1970s when European terrorism was rampant and nuclear weapons were stored at more than 1,000 depots worldwide, a high percentage of them in western Europe. Since then, concern about nuclear terrorism has ebbed and flowed with the times and been employed by counterterrorism and security types, by arms control and nonproliferation specialists and activists, and by anti-nuclear power advocates. The joining of proliferation and counterterrorism concerns in the 1990s - with the specter of a WMD terrorist attack - proved a particularly potent and enduring combination.

Today, government officials and analysts, even the communities that one might expect to express deep skepticism in the aftermath of the Iraq experience, enlist nuclear terrorism and tout it as the great fear. The recent Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (the so-called Blix commission) couldn't resist including terror in the title of its final report earlier this year, placing counterterrorism on equal ground with disarmament and nonproliferation. The threat, the commission said, demanded improvements in security and greater control of nuclear materials as well as a return to general arms control and disarmament negotiations.

There is no factual answer as to whether the threat of nuclear terrorism is actually worthy of equal billing. One thing is clear, though, in the post-9/11 environment: A threat that is nightmarish and enduring and can neither be proved nor disproved is a powerful lubricant. The cataclysmic threat of nuclear terrorism, impervious to either deterrence or international law, produces a presumption of extraordinary action, even preemption, in dealing with it. The intensity of the professed danger suggests that there is little that can be done beyond the military sphere; the unpredictability of the enemy leads to the conclusion that the use of force is no longer a final option, but the only option.

When critics of the Iraq War resorted to the image of nuclear terrorism to argue a preferred agenda, or the arms control world uses it today to energize stagnated negotiations or other agendas, they are merely bolstering this pernicious universal message. I am not questioning the intent of the Kennedy camp. Its motive is exactly as it is professed, just like the Cheney camp: a genuine and deep-seated desire to preserve US and international security. For both camps though, the unthinkable has become the unthinking answer.

The devastating consequences associated with the universal and unchallenged assumption of nuclear terrorism are what should be of concern to all. Since 9/11, we have gone to war with Iraq because of nuclear fear; our domestic security apparatus gave single-minded attention to WMD, seducing the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to prepare for the wrong disaster before Katrina; "global strike" programs, counterproliferation efforts, and attempts to "combat weapons of mass destruction" presume preemption and demand a preemption, a resurgence of American nuclear capability and missile defenses.

This March, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Maples, testified before Congress that the threat of terrorist attack with WMD was "more likely" than an attack by any state, including Iran and North Korea. Negroponte reported, "In fact, intelligence reporting indicates that nearly forty terrorist organizations, insurgencies, or cults have used, possessed, or expressed an interest in chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents or weapons. Many are capable of conducting simple, small-scale attacks, such as poisonings, or using improvised chemical devices." Maples added, "Al Qaeda's stated intention to conduct an attack exceeding the destruction of 9/11 raises the possibility that future attacks may involve unconventional weapons".

Neither Negroponte nor Maples offered any detail indicating evidence or even trends toward terrorists acquiring any of these capabilities. Instead, they put forth the "possibility" of a future terrorist WMD attack, thus-promoting the war on terrorism while seeking bureaucratic sanctuary in an enduring state of national insecurity. A few months before the 2004 election and less than a week before the third anniversary of 9/11, Vice President Cheney similarly demonstrated the political utility of this conceit, saying that if the United States made the wrong choice on November 2 "then the danger is that we'll get hit again".

At a later campaign stop, Cheney added, "The biggest threat we face now as a nation is the possibility of terrorists ending up in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever before been used against us - biological agents or a nuclear weapon or a chemical weapon of some kind to be able to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans".

This statement implied that only the Bush administration had the wherewithal to take the extraordinary measures and unilateral action needed to combat the grave threat. Of course, the opposition camp of Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry protested, stressing the senator's military background and seeking to one-up the keepers of the national security flame. But the substance of the Kerry response merely confirmed the centrality of WMD and the nuclear terrorist threat in the security debate, enhancing the dominant position of the administration and robbing the US public of any real alternative. "He wants to scare Americans about a possible nuclear 9/11 while the Bush administration has been on the sidelines while the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran - the world's leading sponsor of terrorism - have increased", a Kerry spokesman said.

Senator Kennedy uttered this same line of argument in a speech at George Washington University a month before. By shifting attention from Osama bin Laden to Iraq, Kennedy said, President Bush had increased the danger of a nuclear 9/11. "The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely", he said. Other WMD experts echoed this view, unconsciously confirming the wisdom and necessity of the administration's fight.

If the very assumption of nuclear terrorism is not going to be reevaluated, if the arms control and scientific communities don't want to rethink their role in the manufacture and perpetuation of nuclear fear, if specialists and WMD experts profess reluctance to get involved in politics, perhaps they will open up to a discussion of the conventional wisdom's limits and implications.

The partisan political argument still says that President Bush and his advisers "lied" about Iraqi WMD in order to drive the United States to war, that even experts were fooled by selective evidence. This argument, however, ignores the Bush administration's strong belief that it needed to sell the necessity for Iraqi regime change to the US public because preemptive attack to eliminate WMD was such a departure. Waiting for proof to take action was the old, pre-9/11 way, the White House argued and believed. That the administration showed no patience and no subtlety in dealing with Baghdad was shortsighted and even criminal, but the decision to attack fundamentally drew from genuine and widely accepted nuclear fear.

In this sense, there is no conspiracy underlying the Bush administration's decision on Iraq. Well before 9/11, seemingly everyone argued that the threat of WMD was getting inexorably worse. The problem of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons was deteriorating; more countries were proliferating weapons and materials; "loose nukes" and other unsecured weapons and technologies were accumulating in the wrong hands. The Right and the Left, alike, believed that the Iraqs, Irans, and North Koreas of the world were ever more frightening and that nothing should be spared to fight them and the spread of WMD.

Indeed throughout the 1990s, WMD proliferation served so many so well. Saddam's pursuit provided the first Bush administration great Cold War-like comfort - a threat to give shape to the emerging "new world order". The massive failure to understand the extent of Iraq's program prior to Operation Desert Storm led to a high point for UN inspection and disarmament work and mobilized the minds of an intelligence community otherwise completely astray in a post-Cold War desert. Disintegration of the Soviet Union kindled a gentleman's nonproliferation salon, where once opposing scientists and governments could find common cause in keeping the nuclear genie out of the wrong hands. The Clinton administration discovered rogue states, anthrax, and terrorism - and in doing so, found its own post-Cold War national security voice. The domestic WMD consequence management business was born, paving the way for the post-9/11 homeland security industry. The ballistic missile defense industry was reinvigorated by claims that fanatical nuclear rogues were immune to the calculus of mutual assured destruction. Proliferation replaced disarmament in the nonprofit world. WMD was always good for a front-page story.

Nuclear warriors, arms controllers, international apparatchiks, and peaceniks all argued that not enough was being done. Government commitment wasn't strong enough; budgets weren't big enough; intelligence wasn't good enough; and action wasn't enough. After 9/11, fear of nuclear terrorism might have gotten an enormous boost, but, in truth, all sides had already accepted and confirmed the presumption of the threat. Even US intelligence filtered incomplete and uncertain information through this prevailing lens and wrongly assessed the state of Iraq's WMD programs. This is the universal nuclear 9/11 truth.

Is there a possibility that there is a different "truth?" In the world I see after thirty years in this business, the United States and Russia have withdrawn thousands of nuclear weapons from service; nations have denuclearized aircraft and naval ships; and they have lessened high operational - readiness levels. In this world, the spread of nuclear weapons - particularly US and Russian nuclear weapons, which were once deployed in scores of countries at many hundreds of sites - has significantly declined. Britain and France have significantly reduced their arsenals; China's arsenal has pretty much stood still. Worldwide stockpiles of nuclear weapons have declined by more than two-thirds since the late-1960's Cold War peak.

In this world, the roster of countries out of the WMD business far exceeds the numbers who have gone nuclear in the past thirty years: Iraq, Libya, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina, not to name the list of northern democracies, from Japan to Sweden. Former Soviet republics agreed to relinquish physical possession of former Soviet weapons. Nuclear-weapon-free zones now exist in Latin America, the South Pacific, Africa, and Southeast Asia. International bodies are experienced and unsentimental in pursuit of the craft of inspections and disarmament. Like it or not, disarmament by force in Iraq has also communicated to potential state proliferators the cost of defying the international community. Post-Iraq, moreover, there is ever-greater vigilance in both monitoring and interdicting the trade in nuclear materials.

All of the evidence indicates that the threat of nuclear, biological, or chemical war has diminished to a lower level than at anytime in most of our lifetimes, yet the specter of a "nuclear handoff" from a nuclear nation to a terrorist group or the supposed ready availability of nuclear materials drives a completely different supposition. This cataclysmic picture has no factual rebuttal, yet that does not mean that nuclear terrorism is a vital, valid, or, even, the most important WMD threat.

Yes, much more has to be done to rid the world of the WMD menace. I'm not completely confident that some nuclear-armed countries - specifically the United States, China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan, or India - won't use them in our lifetime. From the perspective of an Iran or North Korea, the 1990's erosion of absolute sovereignty and the post-9/11 presumption of preemption, together with the abandonment of meaningful disarmament by the permanent five, makes WMD seem both necessary and justified.

In the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, as the Bush administration mobilized public opinion and prepared physically for war, there was an expert debate. Prague, mobile laboratories, aluminum tubes, ranges of missiles - Washington debated capabilities, as well as its own prospective war plans, the best targets, and how many troops were needed. By sheer repetition, Iraqi WMD materialized. The infinite nature of the threat promoted and produced only one answer: war. The only real question was what color it was going to be.

Are we just repeating this pattern when it comes to Iran? There are centrifuges instead of aluminum tubes, Hezbollah instead of Al Qaeda. Again, "intelligence" about intentions and capabilities, UN inspections, and the involvement and consent of the international community, dominate the discussion. WMD experts, all of whom sound eminently reasonable and who eschew the language of extremism, ask whether the intelligence is good enough, what the targets might be, whether US forces are sufficient to do the job. They simultaneously jump on every nuclear twitch, subsist on each nuclear breath. The argument suggests that if there is sufficient intelligence, if the targets are found, if US forces are mustered and a sound war plan developed, and if the international community gets thwarted, then another preemptive war is not only inevitable but necessary.

Iran may be a decade or more away from producing a nuclear weapon, an endeavor and a timetable made all the more difficult if not impossible by the post-9/11 realities and the vigilance and competence of the nonproliferation industry. Theirs is God's work. Treaties, inspections, and regimes of control have worked.

A more accurate picture of the state of WMD five years after 9/11 is that the threat has indeed diminished. A truer intelligence assessment is that the danger has steadily declined despite the continued existence of eight nuclear nations and two serious rogues. To argue in favor of a new perspective on WMD is not cockeyed optimism or naivete'. But to get there will require breaking the near-unanimous stranglehold of the Cheney and Kennedy camps. Theirs is the real nuclear terror.

William M Arkin is an online columnist for the Washington Post and is an NBC News military analyst. He is at work on The Alternative: Terrorism, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the American Future (Steerforth).

September/October 2006 pages 42-45 (vol 62, no 5)

Copyright (c) 2006 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Bill Totten



    Dear Bill,

    Thank you for a very thoughtful article. I have been considering the effects of fear for quite some time (both personally and professionally) and feel qualified to respond as follows:

    Fact One: Fear is necessary. It is a primary emotion, meaning it derives from the limbic system and is designed with the express purpose of promoting our survival, individually and as a species. It is an instantaneous response to a perceived threat Interstingly pleasure takes upwards of 3 seconds for the brain to recognize. The reasons is fairly clear: because pleasure is nice but we don't require it to live. Fear is essential. It tells us a train is barrelling towards us on the tracks and that we need to jump out of the way--NOW!
    The point here is that not all fear is bad or useless and not all threats are empty.

    Fact 2: Fear CAN be misused. As the mystics have said over and over, intention manifests whether we like it or not. We, as a species, leak. When manipulated as a tool to promote an individual's or group's agenda, it is grossly misused and the individual towards whom it is directed has a few options, none of them good.
    1. Because at some level we can recognize the ulterior motives, we do not sincerely perceive a threat and become inured to the adrenal sirens. We go numb under the relentless battery of wave after wave of red alerts that no longer hold any meaning. 2. We become so afraid, so constantly in a state of terror, that we become paralyzed. This is what I think most Americans have done. You can see that particular state of mind demonstrated in the amount of TV we watch, in the amount of food we eat, and in the amount of passive entertainment we require and demand.

    Fear is a powerful and painful motivator, as it well should be. But when misused, it is as dangerous as a random plutonium shower, invisibly infecting everything and perverting it all.

    There's a book out, just came out by J. Acosta that deals with Viral Fear. It's called THE NEXT OSAMA ( It's online right now for free and pays to have a go-look-see. It's fiction (and obviously doesn't preach) but it traces the trajectory four lives take as they are infected with viral fear then tumble out of control and into each other.

    It's a good read.

    In any seems everyone's worried about being worried. And isn't that something to write about?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:21 AM, October 27, 2006  

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