- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Obama administration is warning that the danger of a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is increasing, but U.S. officials say the claim is not based on new intelligence and questioned whether the threat is being overstated.

President Obama said in a speech before the 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit, which concluded Tuesday, that “the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up.”

The two-day meeting concluded with an agreement by participants to take steps to prevent non-state actors like al Qaeda from obtaining nuclear weapons, either through theft of existing weapons or through making their own with pilfered nuclear material.

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The joint statement called nuclear terrorism one of the most challenging threats to international security and called for tougher security to prevent terrorists, criminals and others from acquiring nuclear goods.

But Henry Sokolski, a member of the congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, said that there is no specific intelligence on ongoing terrorist procurement of nuclear material.

“We were given briefings and when we tried to find specific intelligence on the threat of any known terrorist efforts to get a bomb, the answer was we did not have any.”

Mr. Obama told reporters that there was a range of views on the danger but that all the conferees “agreed on the urgency and seriousness of the threat.”

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Mr. Sokolski said the idea that “we know that this is eminent has got to be somehow informed conjecture and apprehension, [but] it is not driven by any specific intelligence per se.”

“We have reasons to believe this and to be worried, but we don’t have specific intelligence about terrorist efforts to get the bomb,” he said. “So we have to do general efforts to guard against his possibility, like securing the material everywhere.”

A senior U.S. intelligence official also dismissed the administration’s assertion that the threat of nuclear terrorism is growing.

“The threat has been there,” the official said. “But there is no new intelligence.”

The official said the administration appears to be inflating the danger in ways similar to what critics of the Bush administration charged with regard to Iraq: hyping intelligence to support its policies.

The official said one likely motivation for the administration’s new emphasis on preventing nuclear terrorism is to further the president’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. While the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be useful in retaliating against a sovereign state, it would be less so against a terrorist group. But if the latter is the world’s major nuclear threat, the official explained, then the U.S. giving up its weapons seems less risky.

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