Days after President-elect Barack Obama said that getting his national security team in place was a top priority, a new report from the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School urged immediate action on closing the gaps in nuclear security programs.
"The next U.S. president will take office still facing a very real danger that terrorists might get and use a nuclear bomb. ... Preventing such an attack must be a top international security priority -- for the next U.S. president and for leaders around the world," the report, titled "Securing the Bomb 2008," noted.
"The next U.S. president, working with other world leaders, should forge a global campaign to lock down every nuclear weapon and every significant stock of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide -- as rapidly as that can possibly be done -- and to take other key steps to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism," the report stated as it cautioned the incoming administration not to allow the issue "to slide to the back burner."
"This effort must be at the center of U.S. national security policy and diplomacy," the report continued.
Aside from physically securing stockpiles of material, the report, written by Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard's Belfer Center and a former Clinton Energy Department official, urged the United States to lead an international effort to quickly prohibit any reports of loose or stolen material as well as intensify efforts to penetrate the nuclear black market and criminal smuggling networks.
The president should name one official to oversee the development of the enhanced nuclear counterterrorism agenda, it stated. Currently, the departments of State, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security and the FBI are involved in countering nuclear threats.
"The president who takes office in January 2009 should appoint a senior White House official who has the president's ear -- probably a deputy national security adviser, though the specific title would depend on the person and the structure of the NSC," according to the report.
The report acknowledged that progress had been made in recent years but said more needed to be done.
"The probability of a terrorist nuclear attack today is substantially lower than it would be if these programs had never been in place," it stated.
One successful program mentioned is the joint U.S.-Russian Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, launched by President Bush and Russian President Putin in 2006. Seventy-five nations have joined the initiative.
Although there has been some recent tension in U.S.-Russian relations, the report noted that the two countries are working well together on the nuclear security issue. It also noted that Pakistan, which has been unstable recently, had also made some progress. "Today, security upgrades in Russia are nearing completion, and there is significant progress in Pakistan."
As for other nuclear powers, the report highlighted uncertainty in other countries around the globe that had sizable stockpiles of nuclear material. "The promising nuclear security dialogue with China does not yet appear to have led to major improvements in nuclear security there, and India has so far rejected offers of nuclear security cooperation. Upgrades in Belarus were delayed for years by poor political relations (though they are now nearly completed), and South Africa has not yet accepted nuclear security cooperation."
The report recommended that nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran "be capped or rolled back, and the global effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons should be significantly strengthened."
Real World Threats
The report cited an alarming incident last year when armed men broke into the Pelindaba nuclear research facility, which houses a high-quality stockpile of highly enriched uranium, in South Africa. Intruders breached a 10,000-volt electric security fence, shot a guard in the chest and spent nearly 45 minutes in the facility's emergency control center before escaping, according to the report. Although three suspects were arrested in the breach of the facility they were later released with no charges brought.
The report also cited a 2006 interdiction of a Russian national stopped in Georgia who was carrying 100 grams of radioactive cesium, which he sought to sell for $1 million.
According to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials, the greatest threat of radiological attack comes from al Qaeda or another like-minded terrorist group. In testimony in February before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said, "Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are attempting to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons and materials. We assess al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ these weapons and materials."
Osama bin Laden has said that obtaining a weapon of mass destruction is a "religious duty." In 1993, according to the FBI, he sought to purchase uranium from a source in Sudan. In 2003, Saudi cleric Nasir bin Hamad al Fahd issued a fatwa titled "A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels."
Intelligence and Diplomacy
The Harvard report noted that the incoming administration needed to bolster counterterrorism and intelligence efforts to develop an international focus on preventing a nuclear plot by disrupting terrorist groups and their fundraising while addressing anti-American sentiment.
These efforts alone could be more effective than high-tech detection technologies, the report stated. "In particular, the United States should work with governments and nongovernment institutions in the Islamic world to build a consensus that slaughter on a nuclear scale is profoundly wrong under Islamic laws and traditions."
In the past year or so, U.S. intelligence had noticed a backlash against al Qaeda terrorists because their violent attacks have resulted in many innocent Muslims being killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as North Africa.
"The next U.S. president has an historic opportunity ... to reduce the danger of nuclear terrorism to a fraction of its current level during his first term in office," according to the report.