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.
The administration recently signed an agreement with Russia that would cut U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems to 1,550 warheads and 800 delivery vehicles. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals both topped 10,000 warheads.
Mr. Obama said during a news conference that the summit was part of a larger effort to “pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said he was disappointed that the summit did not do more to focus on Iran.
The nonbinding communique issued during the summit “largely restates current policy, and makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Kyl said in a statement.
The new focus on nuclear terrorism emerged recently in the Nuclear Posture Review report made public last week that identified nuclear terrorism as “today’s most immediate and extreme danger.”
By contrast, the latest CIA report to Congress on arms proliferation suggested that the threat from nuclear terrorism had diminished. It stated that several terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, “probably remain interested” in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear arms “but not necessarily in all four of those capabilities.”
Additionally, the report, made public last month, said terrorists “aim to use these agents against Western targets, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The military’s blueprint for future conflicts, “Joint Operating Environment 2010,” stated that terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons or other mass-destruction arms is a “possibility” and said a major worry is that extremists could seize power in Pakistan and gain access to its nuclear arsenal.
The Joint Forces Command report warned that devastating biological weapons attacks by nations or terrorist groups could produce “terror on the scale of a nuclear attack.”
John Brennan, the White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser, told reporters Monday that the threat of nuclear terrorism “is real, it is serious, it is growing, and it constitutes one of the greatest threats to our national security and, indeed, to global security.”
A National Security Council spokesman declined to provide further information on Mr. Brennan’s or the president’s statement that the nuclear terrorist threat is growing.
Mr. Brennan said al Qaeda has sought a nuclear weapon for the past 15 years and that its efforts continue today.
Al Qaeda is seeking “highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium” for a weapon that would give the Islamist group “the ability not only to threaten our security and world order in an unprecedented manner, but also to kill and injure many thousands of innocent men, women and children, which is al Qaeda’s sole agenda,” Mr. Brennan said.
Al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons in the past have included reports that the group tried to purchase a stolen weapon in the former Soviet Union, and that it has worked with Pakistani nuclear scientists.
Former CIA Director George J. Tenet disclosed in his recent memoir that a Pakistani nongovernmental organization, Umma Tameer-e-Nau, was used as cover for a covert program to send Pakistani nuclear scientists to work with al Qaeda’s nuclear weapons team when it was granted safe haven in Afghanistan before 2001.
However, Brian Jenkins, author of the book “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?” and a Rand Corp. adviser, said that al Qaeda in the past has been duped by supposed nuclear suppliers who initiated scams that suggest a “naivete and lack of technical capability on the part of the organization,” he said.
“We have evidence of terrorist ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons or nuclear material but we have no evidence of terrorist capabilities to do either,” he said.
In late 2001, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some materials were discovered in al Qaeda bases such as crude diagrams of the basic components of a nuclear bomb.
Mr. Jenkins, however, said that U.S. technical specialists concluded from the designs that al Qaeda did not have the ability to produce a nuclear weapon.
In 2002, members of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Saudi Arabia attempted to purchase Russian nuclear devices through al Qaeda’s leadership in Iran, though the transactions did not move forward.
In his 2007 memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” Mr. Tenet wrote that “from the end of 2002 to the spring of 2003, we received a stream of reliable reporting that the senior al-Qaeda leadership in Saudi Arabia was negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices.”
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and author of a book on nuclear terrorism, said he agrees with the president that the threat is growing, based on North Korea’s nuclear proliferation to Syria and instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
“What’s new is a willingness to put the spotlight on this issue and say, ‘This is the face of nuclear danger today,’” he said.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Eli Lake can be reached at email@example.com.
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