Worst People and Worst Weapons

| June 27, 2005

Worst People and Worst Weapons

Ashton B. Carter

Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project

Kennedy School of Government

Harvard University

Statement before

The 9/11 Public Discourse Project’sHearings on

"The 9/11 Commission Report: The Unfinished Agenda"

June 27, 2005

Members of the 9/11 Commission, thank you for inviting me to appear before you, and for your service to American and global security as reflected in your initial report. I also salute you for monitoring the implementation of your recommendations.

Your report recommended an overhaul of intelligence management, improvements to the counterterrorism and homeland security structures of the U.S. government, and actions to prevent terrorism with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Grading the Response to 9/11

It is too early to tell whether the management of the intelligence function will be improved or not by the appointment of a Director of National Intelligence (DNI), since it has only been two months that John Negroponte has been in the job. Many have wondered why the 9/11 Commission, which was appointed to deal with terrorism, ended up focusing on intelligence. But for me it was easy to understand. I have sat on many panels trying to improve one aspect or another of intelligence, and these panels have made many fine recommendations. But few recommendations were implemented, not because they were flawed or even resisted by the intelligence community, but because there was no manager in the Intelligence Community who could implement them. As I stated before the Robb-Silberman Commission, which wrestled with WMD intelligence the way you wrestled with counterterrorism intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community is not so much mismanaged as it is unmanaged: nowhere do authority, accountability, and resources come together in sharp managerial focus. The DNI might at last provide that focus. But it’s too early to tell.

It’s been two years, not two months, since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created as the centerpiece of the federal government’s response to the danger of terrorism. Here it is too early to give a final grade either, since DHS has been so slow to take shape. The whole Department is still not much more than the sum of its constituent parts, and what is new at DHS – the intelligence, infrastructure protection, and innovation branches – has not won the confidence of other agencies or the industrial and technology communities.

While it might be too early to give grades to our nation’s action on intelligence reform and homeland security, it is not too early to give a grade to our response to the threat of WMD terrorism because there has been almost none. Here, the student has dropped the course.

Both President Bush and candidate Kerry declared nuclear terrorism to be their highest priority. President Bush stated that keeping the worst weapons out of the hands of the worst people was an American president’s highest priority. But so far all the effort has been on the worst people and far too little on the worst weapons. I fear that America is as asleep at the WMD switch now as it was at the terrorism switch before 9/11.

Grading the Effort to Eradicate Nuclear Terrorism

Mr. Chairman, I would like to explain my assessment by focusing on nuclear terrorism. Nuclear and biological weapons are by far the most important WMD, with chemical and radiological ("dirty bombs") far behind in terms of their destructive potential. What is ironic about the threat of nuclear terrorism is that it is possible to envision its complete eradication. We don’t know how to eradicate terrorism in general, since its wellsprings are in such a variety of aberrant human emotions, motives, groups, and movements. We don’t know how to eradicate bioterrorism, since infectious pathogens and the technology to spread them are ubiquitous and needed everywhere for public health. But we can envision the eradication of nuclear terrorism. Here’s why: Making nuclear weapons requires highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. Neither of these metals occurs in nature. They must be manmade. And, it turns out, it is not easy to make either one of them. So far in human history, it has taken the organization, resources, and durability of a national government to make these materials. For now and the foreseeable future, doing so is beyond the reach of even well organized and financed terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo.

So the recipe for eradicating nuclear terrorism is simple: Make sure that all HEU and plutonium made so far is safeguarded, and stop more from being made where it cannot be safeguarded. I would suggest that the 9/11 Commission can grade our progress in stopping nuclear terrorism since 9/11 by this metric. How are we doing?

The Record of Inaction Against Nuclear Terrorism

Three observations suggest that we are not doing as much as we should be, as fast as we should be, to secure HEU and plutonium:

1. The cluster of U.S. and international programs to safeguard the existing stores of fissile materials worldwide (in the former Soviet Union, in the many countries where HEU is used in research reactors, in unstable locations like Pakistan) that go under the general heading "Nunn-Lugar" is almost unchanged since before 9/11, as study after study has detailed. These programs are managed on a level-of-effort basis, not a results-oriented basis. At the time, the United States was putting together a coalition against global terrorism; and then a coalition against Saddam Hussein; Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar – farsighted as always – suggested that the United States form a parallel global coalition to combat nuclear terrorism, but unfortunately this was not done.

2. No international arrangement has been devised to prevent the expansion of nuclear power for electricity generation – which is necessary on both economic and environmental grounds – from resulting in the proliferation of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capacity. This critical "loophole" in the way the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has been interpreted must be closed. President Bush gave a speech in February 2004 stating his intention to work to close this loophole. But the vigorous diplomatic effort needed to implement this speech is nowhere in sight. I should note that Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has recognized the importance of this issue for countering nuclear terrorism and has appointed a Policy Advisory Group to advise him on how the U.S. government can implement President Bush’s speech. I am privileged to serve as co-chair of that Policy Advisory Group.

3. Above all, the United States has devised no discernable strategy for stopping the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs. These two situations are very different, but they have this in common: each provides the world with new paths to nuclear terrorism. They do this in two ways. First, each of these countries has a history of involvement with terrorism (Iran especially) or sale of dangerous weapons (North Korea especially), and each might become politically unstable or undergo regime collapse or replacement. Second, if either North Korea or Iran goes nuclear, others in their region are likely to follow. The more sources of fissile material and assembled bombs in more places, the more chance of theft, diversion, or sale to terrorists. After 9/11 and the A.Q. Khan network’s discovery, it should be clear that nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are not different problems, they are different parts of the same problem.

Mr. Chairman, it is inaction in these three areas – and above all the third – that suggests to me that the lessons of 9/11 have not been learned when it comes to WMD.

This is not to say that some of the actions to stop nuclear terrorism that have been taken by the U.S. government since 9/11 are not important, especially dismantling Libya’s WMD projects and interrupting the A.Q. Khan network. But others, while useful, are not substitutes for securing fissile materials, for going to the essential source of nuclear terrorism. The concept of a "multilayered defense" against WMD terrorism is sound, but in fact for nuclear terrorism only the first layer, which surrounds the locations where fissile material is made or stored, has any strength. The Proliferation Security Initiative, for example, stands little chance of detecting and interdicting a grapefruit-sized piece of plutonium being exported from North Korea in one of the many aircraft that fly from Pyongyang to the Middle East, or on the back of one of the many refugees who cross the border from North Korea to China. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) established to find nuclear weapons in transit to U.S. targets will be hard pressed to find bombs, since HEU and plutonium are not highly radioactive and look mostly like heavy metal objects to most sensors. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 asks each country possessing fissile materials to safeguard them, but this will have little effect against regimes that sell weapons, or that collapse.

The fundamental fact underlying nuclear terrorism is that neither HEU nor plutonium is easy to make, and thus stopping them at the source is critical. Once made, these materials pose a danger for many turns of the wheel of human history – the half-life of Pu-239 is 24,400 years, and the half-life of HEU is 713 million years! Once a bomb intended for us is made, we can have little confidence in finding it crossing our borders. Once we know it is here, there is no way our government can assure its people that it can protect them from terrible destruction. The threat – just the credible, immediate threat – that a bomb was in the United States and could go off any minute would be the worst failure those charged with national security could visit upon the population it is obligated to protect. Yet inaction will lead us inevitably down that road.

* * *

9/11 should have occasioned a far-reaching overhaul of our counterproliferation policies and capabilities. But while we have overhauled counterterrorism, we have not overhauled counterproliferation. We have a war on terrorism, but we are not yet at war on WMD. Americans, and above all the 9/11 families here at this hearing, regret that their government did not overhaul its counterterrorism capabilities years before the 9/11 attacks, neglecting actions that seemed tragically obvious after the World Trade Center was destroyed. It will be unforgivable if counterproliferation’s overhaul has to wait until after a WMD catastrophe in which an entire city disappears.

Please see the pdf below for the full text of Dr. Carter's testimony:

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton. “Worst People and Worst Weapons.” June 27, 2005.

The Author

Ashton B. Carter