- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004

For all its good work, the September 11 commission is a debate about the past. The prime threat for the future, that a rogue state such as North Korea will sell a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group, is of a magnitude far greater than the threats we have faced heretofore, and the relevant authorities are just now beginning to come to grips with it.

How likely is it that this might happen?

In his “Worldwide Threat 2004” analysis, CIA Director George Tenet says his “deepest concern” is that terrorist organizations remain intent “on obtaining, and using catastrophic weapons.”

Recently a “senior United States official” (thought to be National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice) told the press, “That does not leave much time to find this thing and shut it down.” The “thing” is North Korean’s nuclear weapons facilities.

Within the past month, Chairman William Schneider’s Defense Science Board has delivered a new report to Congress identifying the most “Urgent emerging threats: rogues and terrorists.” Driving home his concern, Mr. Schneider warns that the threat of rogue states supplying nuclear weapons to terrorists “demands that we consider solutions that go beyond improvements on the margin.” The study specifically points to North Korea and al Qaeda in this context.

Also within the past month, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, was in Washington meeting President Bush and other high-ranking officials to express his alarm. North Korea is the highest-level crisis facing his agency because it “has the most advanced capability.”

What is driving this increased sense of urgency? First, perhaps with the fate of Saddam Hussein in mind, Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya has decided to end his Weapons of Mass Destruction programs and reveal the extent of Libyan participation in the illicit WMD trade. His scientists are being debriefed and they are providing eye-opening documents.

Second, Pakistan has given the U.S. at least some of what their renowned scientist, A.Q. Khan, knows. Combining the two new intelligence sources with what we know already provides a treasure-trove of information on international smuggling of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — all of it scary.

Adding the Libyan and Khan materials to our existing information base, this is what we think we know:

c According to a defector report, the North Koreans have been training “Arab terrorists” for the past decade at the Kim Jung-il Political and Military University.

c The North Koreans and Osama bin Laden have an existing arms sales relationship. This was discovered in 2000 when bin Laden financed a shipment of North Korean conventional arms to a Philippine Islamic terrorist group.

c In 1998, Pakistan set off a nuclear test that scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory now suspect may have been a North Korean nuclear weapon or a joint venture between the two countries.

c Recently a Japanese newspaper, citing military sources, reported Iranian military figures were seen at North Korea nuclear facilities. This leads allied intelligence to suspect the Iranians of trying to move their nuclear weapons program to North Korea, beyond the range of Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers.

Those of us who lost relatives and friends on September 11, 2001, miss them every day, but the total loss of life was a little more than 3,000. The terrorist attacks in Bali and Madrid resulted in casualties in the low hundreds. There is only so much even the most imaginative terrorist group can do with fuel-laden airplanes or conventional explosives.

It is estimated something approximating 200,000 people lost their lives through the 1945 nuclear explosion at Hiroshima — 40,000 killed in the initial blast and another 60,000 who died of wounds over the course of the year.

Depending on the size of the blast, placement, time of day, prevailing weather conditions, how fast civil authorities could recover and other factors, a North Korean nuclear weapon set off in Washington or London probably would murder at least 100,000 people in the initial explosion, and tens of thousands would be expected to die from wounds over the following months. Even a so-called “dirty bomb” combining nuclear materials with conventional explosives would be horrendously damaging with great loss of life.

Both CIA Director Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ended their testimony to the September 11 Commission by flatly predicting another major terrorist attack on U.S. citizens at home or abroad. Everyone is doing his best to prevent it, but the Tenet-Rumsfeld conclusion is the near universal opinion of all the specialists in the field.

The “next one” could be a nuclear weapon of North Korean origin placed here by al Qaeda or one of its offshoots. Miss Rice is right: Time is running out.

William C. Triplett II is the author of “Rogue State” (Regnery, 2004).

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