Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Even at a time when the nation has been shaken again and again by dire warnings from government officials, President Bush’s remarks yesterday about possible nuclear terrorism were certainly an attention grabber.
Talking via speakerphone to a conference of Central and East European nations, Mr. Bush warned for the first time that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network has been seeking access to nuclear materials. “They are seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Given the means, our enemies will be a threat to every nation and eventually, to civilization itself,” Mr. Bush told leaders from 17 countries. Mr. Bush warned these countries that their “freedom is under threat again,” and he appealed to U.S. allies in Europe join in the fight. Coming from a man as plainspoken as Mr. Bush, these are big words, and they must be heeded.
Later in the day, at a press conference with French President Jacques Chirac, Mr. Bush declined to elaborate on his statements, but called bin Laden an “evil man” who is working on acquiring “evil weapons.” Mr. Bush noted that assistance from U.S. allies is crucial now: “A coalition partner must do more than just express sympathy. A coalition partner must perform.” Yesterday, in a welcome move, the German government stepped up and assigned 3,900 troops to the war on terrorism.
There’s no doubt that this will take steady nerves. Since the nightmarish attacks on September 11, we have been visited by a plague of biological warfare, though the actual extent of the attack has so far been very limited in scope. Government officials are being vaccinated against smallpox, and in California the National Guard is patrolling the state’s bridges against possible terrorist attacks.
No one doubts that demented mastermind bin Laden would use nuclear weapons if he had them. We are not talking about a Hiroshima-size nuclear blast, however, but more likely contamination via a “dirty bomb,” nuclear material wrapped around a conventional explosive and delivered by less dramatic means than a missile a boat, for instance, or a plane.
If Mr. Bush was issuing another general warning in order to rally U.S. allies and buck up wavering public support for the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, he could find better ways to do it. It was one thing to warn against potential nuclear aggression from rogue states as a group in the course of the missile defense debate. A nuclear alert with name and address on it is an altogether different matter.
If, on the other hand, a nuclear attack is a realistic scenario, if there is credible evidence to support this warning, Mr. Bush must inform Americans in very specific terms what his administration is planning to do to protect them. By tomorrow night, we should know. The president is set to address the nation about homeland defense. After yesterday’s statements, nuclear terrorism should be his top priority.

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