Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Throw the Net Worldwide

| June 12, 2002

Throw the Net Worldwide

by Ashton Carter
June 12, 2002
Reprinted from the Washington Post

There's been much talk in the past few weeks about failures to connect the dots to find a pattern that might have alerted us to the terrorist plot of Sept. 11. Recently I visited a dot in a more fearsome pattern configuring the virtual certainty of mass terror involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons if the international coalition does not extend its efforts from hunting al Qaeda-like cells to locking up the ingredients of mass destruction.

The dot I visited was at Mayak, east of the Ural Mountains in Asian Russia. There, a huge concrete sarcophagus rises from the landscape. Its purpose is to entomb some 20,000 nuclear bombs' worth of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Russia is dismantling the Soviet Union's Cold War surplus warheads. The fissile metal chunks taken out of the bombs will be placed in stainless steel cans and the cans embedded in a concrete "massif," itself enclosed within 16-foot thick walls. Access to and from this fortress will be highly restricted and monitored with the latest in radiation and other sensors.

Fortunately, when the sarcophagus is completed, it will be nearly impossible for a terrorist raid, or even a military assault, to breach Mayak's security. This fortress is being built with U.S. Department of Defense funds, through the foresight of former senator Sam Nunn and Sen. Dick Lugar, who led last week's trip to Mayak. The Defense program, universally known as Nunn-Lugar, is probably the wisest investment in security, dollar for dollar, of any piece of the defense budget.

Unfortunately the cans of fissile material have not yet been lowered into the massif at Mayak, nor will they be for several more years. Only a fraction of Russia's huge store of fissile materials, enough for a staggering 80,000 bombs, has yet been furnished with the latest protections. And if terrorists such as al Qaeda get such materials, there will be no shield of deterrence or negotiation as there was between Washington and Moscow; terrorists will simply use them.

Worse news, and far less well known, is that caches of bomb-making potential literally dot the globe. Research reactors in nations from Serbia to Ghana use bomb-sized quantities of highly enriched uranium as fuel. Pakistan and India brandish nuclear arsenals. Pakistan's political future is at least as shaky as Russia's was in 1992, when the Nunn-Lugar program began. Plutonium remains in North Korea, though under U.S. and international observation. Even non-nuclear allies such as Japan and Belgium have repositories of weapons-capable plutonium as a byproduct of their nuclear power programs.

Nowhere is this material protected to anything like Mayak's standards, and in many cases there are not even armed guards at the repositories. The grim bottom line is that the wherewithal for nuclear terrorism exists in scores of nations and in hundreds of individual buildings. Once these materials get out, they are extremely difficult to locate and retrieve. And once a terrorist fashions a bomb from them, no vaccine or antibiotic offers protection.

After leaving Mayak, I traveled with Nunn and Lugar to the "hot zone" of a once-secret city in Siberia that houses the only known smallpox culture outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Another dot. The ingredients of biological and chemical terrorism are even more widely available than fissile material, since many are widespread and necessary parts of industry and scientific practice.

In short, sleeper cells of the makings for catastrophic terrorism dot the globe. If a bomb goes off in New York, Moscow or Berlin, won't it be clear in hindsight that we should have connected these dots?

What is needed, as Nunn and Lugar have pointed out, is a global coalition against catastrophic terrorism, patterned on the coalition formed after 9/11. It should be spearheaded by the United States and the Russian Federation, a forward-looking move for Bush and Putin, and a refreshing change from once again declaring an end to the Cold War.

Members of the coalition against catastrophic terrorism would include every nation that has something to safeguard or that can make a contribution to safeguarding it, including Europe, Japan, China, India, Pakistan and the many nations that host research reactors using weapons-grade fuel. All nations, however much they might differ over policies on the nuclear arsenals possessed by governments, can recognize a clear shared interest in unifying to keep weapons of mass destruction away from terrorists.

Each member could make a contribution to the coalition's activities commensurate with its capabilities and traditions. As with the coalition against al Qaeda, this one would extend its reach to wherever in the world the means for terrorism using weapons of mass destruction can be found. Nations in the coalition would cooperate to combat such terrorism in all phases -- prevention, detection, protection, interdiction and cleanup.

For nuclear weapons, the coalition would agree to world-class standards for protecting all fissile material everywhere as though it were a bomb. Assistance could be offered to those who need help meeting the standards. Coalition members could also agree to come to one another's aid to find materials lost or seized.

For bioterrorism, the coalition would develop world-class standards for safeguarding such pathogens as the Siberian smallpox cache, develop public health surveillance methods to detect bioterrorism in its early stages and perform cooperative research in vaccines, treatments, forensics and decontamination.

The coalition approach would open a new and more important front in the war on terrorism. It would also extend the principles of the successful Nunn-Lugar program in a new way -- from dots in Russia to dots worldwide, from a Pentagon-funded program to wider international participation, and from a focus on putting the Cold War behind us to focusing on the 21st century's most riveting security problem.

Ashton Carter is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and was assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, where he ran the Nunn-Lugar program.

Reprinted with permission.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton B..“Throw the Net Worldwide.” The Washington Post, June 12, 2002.