Wednesday, December 29, 2004


False Comfort From The Washington Post.

The WaPo is running a series this week on the threat posed by WMD in the hands of terrorists.

Today's heartwarming tale focuses on the nuclear threat. You can read it here, "free" registration required (puddknockers).

Their conclusion? While possible, it's unlikely that terrorists would be able to acquire, let alone detonate, a nuclear weapon.

Whew, thanks for putting my mind at ease. I mean, it's obviously real hard, like bombing-the-World-Trade-Center-hard.

Oops, bad analogy. Maybe it's as hard as, say, flying a plane into the Pentagon?

Hmmm, that doesn't work. Perhaps it's as hard as releasing nerve gas into a subway system?

Dammit. This isn't going anywhere.

I guess my worry is predicated on two factors: 1) intent, and 2) capability. We know the bad guys have the intent.

The capability would seem to be the sticking point, but as I see it, that's only a matter of time.

For one, they could always buy a weapon. That might be impossible in most nations, even in Russia, but is that so impossible in Pakistan? Or North Korea? Or, eventually, Iran?

If money won't talk, stealing usually works.

Finally, while most everyone scoffs at the prospect, actually *building* a homegrown nuclear weapon can't be entirely ruled out. Skeptics will point to the difficulty experienced in many national nuclear programs and argue against the success of any homegrown effort, but those programs typically face unique challenges. Rogue states typically emphasize producibility and sustainability of WMD. One nuclear weapon is valuable, but ten are better, and a hundred are best, so most national programs spend nearly as much time and money on developing the infrastructure to sustain a nuclear program as they do in building the weapons themselves.

Also, the clandestine nature of these programs requires certain compromises that might be possible to avoid in a truly transnational effort. For instance, Iraq spent much wasted effort building a nuclear program that could be hidden from international inspections, protected from military strikes, and quickly relocated within a specific, isolated geographical area. A transnational terrorist organization may have the ability to "outsource" their weapons-production efforts, as long as operational security and international shipping could be guaranteed.

The bad news is that physics is physics, and the basics of nuclear weaponry have been out there for a very long time. This is one genie who will not go back into the bottle. Even if the hurdles to nuclear terrorism are today nigh insurmountable-- a proposition I don't find particularly compelling in the first place-- that does not mean those hurdles will always remain quite that high in the future. The "democratization" of technology continues apace, and with the right numbers in your bank account, the possibilities for nuclear terror (let alone biological and chemical terror) continue to grow.

Brave new world. . .

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