Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 3, 2010

Countdown to Zero

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on December 3, 2010

Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
-John F. Kennedy (JFK)
In an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 1961

I just wanted to bring to readers’ attention a recent “Forum” held at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government concerning the documentary “Countdown to Zero.”  A video of the entire event can be found here: http://www.iop.harvard.edu/Multimedia-Center/All-Videos/Future-of-Nuclear-Weapons-Countdown-to-Zero

“Countdown to Zero” is a movie that supports the efforts to eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons.  It categorizes nuclear threats into three categories: terrorism, accidents, and miscalculation.  I personally found it engaging and interesting, but would certainly recommend that you come to you own conclusions.

This event in particular is interesting because they do not merely recap what is mentioned in the film.  Instead the participants (moderated by Belfer Center Director Graham Allison and including Matthew Bunn, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, and Valerie Plame), all of whom have some screen time in the documentary, provide their personal opinions about not only the topics raised in the movie but those regarding current nuclear-related subjects such as New START, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, etc.

If you follow nuclear terrorism and proliferation topics closely, you will recongize the instances where the panel members identify points of disagreement.  While it may be surprising to nuclear terrorism skeptics, even “true believers” disagree in their personal analysis about specific topics under the larger rubric of nuclear issues.

Also, and this might be just personal opinion, but my favorite part of these Forums (which are held regularly at the Kennedy School) is that no matter the topic or speaker, the invited guest must take questions from the audience.  And these are never staged–you reach the microphones first, you get to ask whatever question you wish.

So for nuclear terrorism skeptics in the audience, get ye self to a related Harvard Kennedy School Forum and get to a microphone early.  You will have your concerns addressed, even if you do not like the answer.

For those interested in learning more about the Zero effort, obtaining a copy of the movie, or contributing to the cause can visit: http://www.takepart.com/countdowntozero

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 3, 2010 @ 8:57 am

Thanks Arnold for this post, its references and your increasing role in this blog.

Having devoted a not insignificant portion of my life to nuclear surety and safeguard issues, both at the teeth end and the tail end, this topic could not be more timely or important.

If it is true that President William Jefferson Clinton lost his access to the nuclear warfighting codes for a significant length of time, as reliably reported, then this was NOT a serious man and should never have been President.

This is not a nuclear priesthood issue but as JFK was to realize in October 1962, a life or death issue for the planet.

Personally I believe that no one in elective office, the military, the civilian chain of command or many other categories should try and learn all they can about October 1962 and that Cuban crisis. Even the movies entitled if memory serves “Eleven Days in October” helps inform. And of course JFK was both a brave and wise man whose loss was huge for the US and history. Most President’s refuse to “think the unthinkable” thus leaving that world to the Oliver Wendell Holmes [wounded civil war hero and Associate Justice on SCOTUS] dictum “Beware Well Meaning Men Without Understanding”!

That is our current political leadership in the US. These men and women mostly have NO GRAVITAS! Nor does the citizenry.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 4, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

Thanks Arnold for the link to the Belfer Center and Panel on Road to Zero. Quite interesting. Liked the question asked by a public attendee at the very end.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 5, 2010 @ 5:30 am

Also given the controversy over her career at CIA was interested to see Valerie Plame Wilson describe herself not as an intelligence operative for which outing is a clearcut crime, but an operations officer! Not sure if the distinction is important or not but she as well as the rest of the panel failed to ever use the correct analytic term of “nuclear surety and safeguards” in their descriptions and often talked of “command and control” which is in fact a very very different facet of the world of WMD.

Again refer the readers of the blog to Professor Paul Bracken of Yale U. book “Command and Control” printed about 1983. No open source book on “nuclear surety and safeguards” issues has ever been written IMO that discusses this highly complex and difficult subject. Wishing all Presidents and all want-to-be Presidents would read Professor Bracken’s writings. Clear that some of the panel had not done so, but they I guess Harvard is no longer the font of all knowledge except for certain kinds of startups as revealed by “Social Network” starting to runaway with this years film awards.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 6, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

Not that anyone at Harvard requires my defense, but I would wager a large sum that at least both Professors Allison and Bunn are very familiar with Bracken’s work. In fact, Bracken contributed a chapter to a book Allison edited, “Hawks, Doves, & Owls. An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War.”

There are also a remarkably small number of scholars who have focused on these issues, so it is a small community in which almost all of the senior members know of each others work.

The phrase “nuclear surety and safeguards” was likely avoided to provide clarity to the audience. DOD defines nuclear surety as “the materiel, personnel, and procedures that contribute to the safety, security, reliability, and control of nuclear weapons, thus assuring no nuclear accidents, incidents, unauthorized use, or degradation in performance.” I would suggest “command and control” gets pretty close to this definition without requiring explanation to the audience (who is more likely to generally understand the idea of command and control).

In addition, the term “safeguards” means different things to different groups when talking about nuclear matters. The military has safeguards which have nothing to do with the IAEA concept of safeguards. So using it in front of a non-technical audience could lead to some confusion.

At Harvard, I find that talks given to any non-specific/technical audience are generally insightful without resorting to analytic terms that might be precise but provide little to the larger picture and can cause confusion to the uninitiated. In Washington, DC talks given to similar audiences are full of acronyms, technical minutiae, and buzzwords that provide the speaker a veneer of expertise but rarely add anything of value for those listening.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 6, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

I should add that my last paragraph was meant as less of an endorsement of Harvard than an indictment of think tank talks in DC. What I described at Harvard is most likely the same at many fine educational institutions outside of the Beltway…I just lack personal experience with them.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 6, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

Thanks for the comments Arnold and DOD definitions are useful and clearly related. Just that normally Command and Control is used to launch systems and authorization, while surety and safeguards even included proliferation issues. But hey I will await someone’s detailed examination of these differences. And of course the fact that neither Russia or US has renounced MAD is always of interest to me.

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