On Saturday the Washington Post had a good story on U.S. government efforts to combat radiological and nuclear threats, focusing on the debate over the nature of the threat, the challenges of detection, and the steps that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) is taking to improve detection capabilities. The debate within the story over the value of investment in detection is interesting:
To skeptics, even some close to the administration, the focus on stopping a nuclear bomb hidden in a container at the border is a costly fixation on a scenario that — while nightmarish — is not supported by intelligence and is overshadowed by other threats.
“This is the equivalent of a comet hitting the planet. Of all the things that are in the world, why are we fixated on this one thing?” Carafano asked. “Scanning containers full of sneakers for a ‘nuke in a box’ is not a really thoughtful thing.”
Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, who led a congressional commission on weapons of mass destruction, said the Dubai port controversy showed how the Bush administration has profited politically from fears of terrorism at ports yet given Americans a false sense of security about conventional attacks, which are more likely.
“They have hyped the threat, and that has been a political advantage,” said Gilmore, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “You can’t rule out the possibility of something like this happening, but there isn’t any evidence that I’m aware of that al-Qaeda or other terrorists have their hands on these weapons.”
But many other analysts looking at the data, such as Harvard University proliferation expert Graham T. Allison, conclude otherwise.
Vayl Oxford, director of the Homeland Security office Bush created a year ago today to put nuclear detection efforts back on track, said critics’ concerns reflect a Cold War assumption that solid intelligence can be obtained against a terror group. The country must also consider its vulnerabilities and the consequences of the worst catastrophes, he said, which in this case tip the scale toward action.
“If you don’t see a direct intelligence report that says there is something there, someone will leap to the conclusion the threat is not there,” Oxford said. “But I don’t think it’s political hype. It’s prudent planning to take action on this count. Sitting in hindsight saying ‘Why didn’t we see it in the intelligence?’ is not the kind of hearing I want to go to.”
I generally agree with the latter perspectives here. No one would argue that nuclear detection investments are a silver-bullet fix for radiological and nuclear threats, but I do think they have an essential role as part of a broader system of prevention, protection, and deterrence, alongside investments in nonproliferation programs, intelligence efforts, and interdiction activities. And I think Gov. Gilmore’s argument about the threat being overhyped provides false comfort; bin Laden’s attempt to secure a fatwa to justify the use of nuclear weapons shows that al-Qaeda has the motive, if not today the means and opportunity, to use nuclear weapons.