Members of Congress have warned about the dangers of suitcase nuclear weapons. Hollywood has made television shows and movies about them. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency has alerted Americans to a threat — information the White House includes on its website.
But government experts and intelligence officials say such a threat gets vastly more attention than it deserves. These officials said a true suitcase nuke would be highly complex to produce, require significant upkeep and cost a small fortune.
Counterproliferation authorities do not completely rule out the possibility that these portable devices once existed. But they do not think the threat remains.
"The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies," said Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. "No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices."
Majidi and other government officials say the real threat is from a terrorist who does not care about the size of his nuclear detonation and is willing to improvise, using a less deadly and sophisticated device assembled from stolen or black-market nuclear material.
Yet Hollywood has seized on the threat. For example, the Fox thriller 24 devoted its entire last season to Jack Bauer's hunt for suitcase nukes in Los Angeles.
Government officials have played up the threat, too.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., once said at a hearing that he thought the least likely threat was from an intercontinental ballistic missile. "Perhaps the most likely threat is from a suitcase nuclear weapon in a rusty car on a dock in New York City," he said.
In a FEMA guide on terrorist disasters that is posted in part on the White House's website, the agency warns that terrorists' use of a nuclear weapon would "probably be limited to a single smaller 'suitcase' weapon."
"The strength of such a weapon would be in the range of the bombs used during World War II. The nature of the effects would be the same as a weapon delivered by an intercontinental missile, but the area and severity of the effects would be significantly more limited," the paper says.
The genie escapes
During the 1960s, intelligence agencies received reports from defectors that Soviet military intelligence officers were carrying portable nuclear devices in suitcases.
The threat was too scary to stay secret, government officials said, and word leaked out. The genie was never put back in the bottle.
But current and former government officials who have not spoken out publicly on the subject acknowledge that no U.S. officials have seen a Soviet-made suitcase nuke.
The idea of portable nuclear devices was not a new one.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. made the first ones, known as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition. It was a "backpack nuke" that could be used to blow up dams, tunnels or bridges. While one person could lug it on his back, it had to be placed by a two-man team.
These devices never were used and now exist — minus their explosive components — only in a museum.
Following the U.S. lead, the Soviets are believed to have made similar nuclear devices.
Suitcase nukes have been a separate problem. They attracted considerable public attention in 1997, thanks to a 60 Minutes interview and other public statements from retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, once Russia's national security chief.