Graham Allison has been a pioneer in issuing clarion calls about nuclear terrorism. He’s been accused of alarmism, but Cassandras are supposed to err on the side of caution. Especially when it comes to an issue that’s susceptible to being elbowed aside in this Age of the Emergency that we’re living through. Between garden-variety terrorism and the economic crisis, we have enough to freak out about, thank you.
Last year the House and Senate passed the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act “to strengthen efforts in the Department of Homeland Security to develop nuclear forensics capabilities to permit attribution of the source of nuclear material.”
Forensics and attribution are not intended to determine what state has initiated a nuclear attack — that would be apparent — nor necessarily even which terrorist group. That news also wouldn’t be long in coming. The idea is to use these techniques to figure which state should be assigned attribution for supplying the terrorist group with the bomb.
In a recent Newsweek article, How to Keep the Bomb From Terrorists, Allison explains nuclear forensics to the public.
Nuclear experts are now at work assembling a vast database of all known sources. In the case of uranium and plutonium. . . every step in the nuclear-fuel cycle. . . leaves traces that can identify where . . . the material came from.
After a nuclear bomb detonates, nuclear forensic cops would collect debris samples and send them to a laboratory. …. By identifying unique attributes of the fissile material. . . one could trace the path back to its origin. …
“After a nuclear bomb detonates” might better have been phrased “Should a nuclear bomb detonate.” He continues (emphasis added):
As we face the threat of nuclear terrorism with a weapon that could come not only from North Korea but also from Pakistan or, in time, Iran, the challenge is to revitalize the concept of deterrence. The goal would be twofold: first, to deter leaders of nuclear states from selling weapons to terrorists by holding them accountable for any use of their own weapons; second, to give leaders every incentive to tightly secure their nuclear weapons and materials.
Again, the objective isn’t to deter the undeterrable — al Qaeda — but states that have actual populations and land masses to worry about being retaliated against. Also, let’s get this out of the way: Even if Iran did develop the bomb, what are the odds it would offload the thing? It’s neither addicted to the adrenaline surge of brinksmanship like North Korea, nor careening towards the status of a failed state like Pakistan. Besides, what would Hezbollah want with a nuclear bomb? Al Qaeda-like apocalyptic fervor isn’t their modus operandi.
Canadian Michael Levi is the director of the Council on Foreign Relations program on energy security and climate change (and has acted as a consultant to the TV program 24). The element of energy security with which he’s most concerned, judging by his output, is nuclear terrorism.
Levi’s book On Nuclear Terrorism (Harvard University Press, 2007) features an image on the cover of a high-wire walker. The implied tension may be a product of states possessing nuclear weapons, but trying to keep them from terrorists. To this reader, however, the balancing act is the book itself, which demonstrates how hard it is for terrorists to bring exploding a nuclear bomb to fruition, while managing to keep from minimizing the threat of nuclear terrorism.
In truth, due to the technical nature of the book, I set it aside halfway through. But in November 2008, Levi wrote a report on attribution and deterrence for the Council of Foreign Relations titled Deterring State Sponsorship of Nuclear Terrorism. It’s more accessible to the lay person than his book. But, it’s considerably more in-depth than Allison’s Newsweek piece, which was intended for general readership. Levi writes:
[Analysts] have long argued that the central pillar of Cold War strategy — deterrence by threat of punishment — is largely irrelevant to [combating nuclear terrorism because terrorists] lack the clear return addresses of warheads mounted on missiles [and] unlike states, do not present clear targets for retaliation.
The United States attacked by a nuclear bomb — all dressed up with no place to bomb.
Most efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism have instead aimed to eliminate the threat directly. … by stopping terrorists from acquiring the nuclear explosive materials [as well as cooperating] with states to secure their weapons and materials [and prevent terrorists from acquiring them] in the first place.
But, Levi writes, thanks to concerns North Korea might transfer weapons or materials to a terrorist group:
. . . traditional deterrence is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, albeit in a supporting rather than a central role. … the United States has responded by implicitly threatening North Korean leaders with retaliation should terrorists use its stockpile to mount an attack against the United States.
By relegating the new, improved deterrence to a “supporting role,” Levi doesn’t do forensics and attribution justice. In truth, it’s Deterrence 2.0.
North Korea aside, Levi then admonishes the United States to be careful about wielding deterrence in the traditional ways:
Threatening retaliation against countries like Russia and Pakistan in response to terrorist attacks stemming [in this case] from lax security practices is unwise. It undercuts efforts to work cooperatively with those states to improve their nuclear security.
Returning to Allison:
Establishing a general principle of nuclear accountability that will apply to Pakistan, Iran or even Russia and the United States is an undertaking for [a] global alliance. But this will take months of consultations. [Meanwhile, the] time to deter Kim from the extreme act of selling a nuclear weapon to terrorists is now.
As you’ve no doubt guessed thus far, Levi shares Allison’s preoccupation with North Korea (emphasis added):
North Korea is. . . unique among nuclear states in that there is a real prospect that, absent the possibility of retaliation, its leaders might deliberately transfer nuclear materials to a terrorist group.
[The] United States must [state] that the U.S. president may. . . decide, based on compelling but imperfect evidence, to retaliate following a nuclear terrorist attack [while] stopping short of regime change.
As for that “imperfect evidence” and just how advanced the capabilities of attribution are, former Los Alamos chemist Cheryl Rofer has her doubts:
It’s not a matter of one box tells all about the sample; it never is in analytical chemistry. You have to know a bit about what you’re looking for. Many of the tests destroy the sample, and most need some minimum amount. But it really, really helps if you have some idea of what the starting material was. [Physicist Andrew] Foland notes that the molybdenum signature might help to identify an Iranian bomb, but there’s plenty of molybdenum in structural steel. And concentrations of the various components are important, too, and will be scrambled in a nuclear explosion.
To an extent, Levi agrees:
[The attribution capabilities of the United States] are and will always be limited. … anything close to perfection is an unreasonable goal.
How then should the United States compensate for limited attribution capability?
[It] has two basic choices. It can place the burden of proof squarely on itself. . . threatening retaliation if and only if nuclear weapons or materials used in an attack can be unambiguously traced back to North Korea. Alternatively [it can declare a willingness] to retaliate on the basis of very strong evidence [as opposed to] certain attribution. This second option, approached properly, is best. …
Finally, Levi warns that, in the aftermath of an attack, the American public needs to have confidence. . .
. . . that their government had exceptional capabilities to identify the sources of an attack. … Wielded wisely, [this] new twist on deterrence can make important contributions to strengthening nuclear security. But applied incautiously and indiscriminately, it could deeply undermine efforts to that same end.
By which he means entangling us in the wrong war yet again.
The Deproliferator (the column’s title, not the author’s nom de plume) covers nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, with an emphasis on treaties, negotiation, and diplomacy. The author is not employed in the arms control field.
A term coined by sociologist and professor of international relations Amitai Etzioni, “deproliferation,” he writes, “calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made — first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”
Whatever the merits of this approach, it lends itself to reinforcing the distinction between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Fond of his phrase, though, we’re appropriating it to our own ends. For the purposes of this column, deproliferation means, simply, disarmament.