- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

U.S. officials feared in October that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network had obtained a small nuclear weapon and considered the reports credible enough to alert government agencies of the danger, according to news reports.
An agent code-named "Dragonfire" alerted U.S intelligence officials that al Qaeda terrorists had gotten the 10-kiloton device from Russian arsenals and planned to smuggle it into New York City, Time magazine reports in its latest edition.
Counterterrorism investigators went on their highest state of alert but found nothing and later concluded the information was false, according to the magazine.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. officials have worried about the lack of security around the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. A major concern is that terrorist organizations might gain nuclear weapons.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby said that al Qaeda being in possession of Russian bombs is "always a possibility."
"We don't know how many Russian bombs are missing. Hopefully, none are," the Alabama Republican and member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee said yesterday. He added that the United States recognizes it has to be prepared for that possibility.
"The administration is very much on the alert. This is a real threat," he said on ABC's "This Week," adding that the government is prepared to protect against so-called "dirty" bombs low-tech weapons that would kill by radiation.
There should be a "level of concern" about a nuclear threat from terrorists, said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
"But I've seen no hard evidence any of these terrorist organizations have acquired these weapons," he said yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition."
On CBS' "Face the Nation," Mr. McCain said, "Look, our great fear since the collapse of the Soviet Union was that there was very large amounts of [nuclear] material and technology and scientists around that might be purchased in the old Soviet Union."
Mr. McCain said, "It seems perfectly logical that [acquiring old Soviet weapons technology] would be one of the avenues that a dedicated group of terrorists would pursue."
The intelligence report last October that al Qaeda had acquired a Russian nuclear weapon and was planning to detonate it in New York City alarmed U.S. officials, since such a bomb could inflict huge casualties.
Although small by the standards of nuclear weapons (some U.S. warheads have more than 100 times the explosive power), a 10-kiloton bomb detonated in lower Manhattan could kill 100,000 civilians, subject 700,000 more to poisonous radiation and flatten every building within a half-mile of the blast, Time reported.
New terrorist attacks against the United States are a matter of time, one counterterrorism official told Time.
"It's going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to die," the anonymous U.S. official said. "I don't think there's a damn thing we're going to be able to do about it."
According to the magazine, federal officials have assigned 100 civilian government officials to 24-hour rotations in underground bunkers. This "shadow government" would take charge if Washington is the target of the next major terrorist attack.
In response to the reports of al Qaeda having a Russian nuclear bomb, counterterrorism officials went on the highest state of alert. "It was brutal," the magazine quoted a U.S. official as saying.
The October alert was highly classified. Neither New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani nor senior FBI officials were told of the suspected nuclear threat, according to the magazine.
The Washington Post reported in editions yesterday that the government has deployed hundreds of sophisticated nuclear sensors since November to U.S. borders, overseas facilities and sites around Washington.
In hopes of thwarting any bid at nuclear terrorism, the Energy Department is also developing a new generation of devices to detect nuclear radiation, administration officials told the Associated Press yesterday.
Although the emphasis on radiation detection has grown in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, several administration officials said on the condition of anonymity that they knew of no recent indications that al Qaeda had made any new progress toward obtaining nuclear materials.
Sen. Larry E. Craig said radiation sensors were used at such recent mass gatherings as the Salt Lake City Olympic Games and the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
"We clearly are in heightened alert, and we should be," the Idaho Republican said on CNN's "Late Edition." "At the same time, the American people have to get on with their lives. But I want to make sure that they are as safe as we can possibly make them."


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