New York Times
May 8, 2007
By David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker
WASHINGTON, May 7 — Every week, a group of experts from agencies around the government — including the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the F.B.I. and the Energy Department — meet to assess Washington’s progress toward solving a grim problem: if a terrorist set off a nuclear bomb in an American city, could the United States determine who detonated it and who provided the nuclear material?
So far, the answer is maybe.
That uncertainty lies at the center of a vigorous, but carefully cloaked, debate within the Bush administration. It focuses on how to refashion the American approach to nuclear deterrence in an attempt to counter the threat posed by terrorists who could obtain bomb-grade uranium or plutonium to make and deliver a weapon.
A previously undisclosed meeting last year of President Bush’s most senior national security advisers was the highest level discussion about how to rewrite the cold war rules. The existing approach to deterrence dates from the time when the nuclear attacks Washington worried about would be launched by missiles and bombers, which can be tracked back to a source by radar, and not carried in backpacks or hidden in cargo containers.
Among the subjects of the meeting last year was whether to issue a warning to all countries around the world that if a nuclear weapon was detonated on American soil and was traced back to any nation’s stockpiles, through nuclear forensics, the United States would hold that country “fully responsible” for the consequences of the explosion. The term “fully responsible” was left deliberately vague so that it would be unclear whether the United States would respond with a retaliatory nuclear attack, or, far more likely, a nonnuclear retaliation, whether military or diplomatic.
But that meeting of Mr. Bush’s principal national security and military advisers in May 2006 broke up with the question unresolved, according to participants. The discussion remained hung up on such complexities as whether it would be wise to threaten Iran even as diplomacy still offered at least some hope of halting Tehran’s nuclear program, and whether it was credible to issue a warning that would be heard to include countries that America considers partners and allies, like Russia or Pakistan, which are nuclear powers with far from perfect nuclear safeguards.
Then, on Oct. 9, North Korea detonated a nuclear test.
Mr. Bush responded that morning with an explicit warning to President Kim Jong-il that “transfer of nuclear weapons or material” to other countries or terrorist groups “would be considered a grave threat to the United States,” and that the North would be held “fully accountable.”
A senior American official involved in the decision, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing private national security deliberations, said, “Given the fact that they were trying to cross red lines, that they were launching missiles and that they conducted the nuclear test, we finally decided it was time.”
Mr. Bush was able to issue a credible warning, other senior officials said, in part because the International Atomic Energy Agency has a library of nuclear samples from North Korea, obtained before the agency’s inspectors were thrown out of the country, that would likely make it possible to trace an explosion back to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The North Koreans are fully aware, government experts believe, that the United States has access to that database of nuclear DNA.
But when it comes to other countries, many of that library’s shelves are empty. And in interviews over the past several weeks, senior American nuclear experts have said that the huge gap is one reason that the Bush administration is so far unable to make a convincing threat to terrorists or their suppliers that they will be found out.
“I believe the most likely source of the material would be from the Russian nuclear arsenal, but you shouldn’t confuse ‘likely’ with ‘certainty’ by any means,” said Scott D. Sagan, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, who has studied the problem known in Washington and the national nuclear laboratories as “nuclear attribution.”
Mr. Sagan noted that nuclear material in a terrorist attack might also come from Pakistan, home of the network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
The Bush administration is also finding a skeptical audience when it warns of emerging nuclear threats, since its assessments of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capacity in advance of the 2003 invasion proved wildly off the mark. On Sunday, defending his new book during an interview on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, made the case that any past errors should not blind the public to the threat of nuclear attack posed by Al Qaeda today.
“What I believe is that Al Qaeda is seeking this capability,” Mr. Tenet said.
Pakistani officials have been visiting Washington recently offering assurances that their nuclear supplies and weapons are locked down with sophisticated new technology. During a presentation at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit organization here that studies nuclear proliferation, Lt. Col. Zafar Ali, who works in the arms control section of the Pakistani Strategic Plans Division, said that while Al Qaeda and other groups may want a nuclear weapon, “there are doubts that these organizations have the capability to fabricate a nuclear device.”
He bristled at the continuing questions about Pakistan’s nuclear security, arguing that “there is no reported case of security failure subsequent to A. Q. Khan’s case” in 2004, and suggested that American concerns would be better directed at Russia.
But few experts in the Bush administration are reassured, saying that their fear is not only leakage from Pakistan, but a takeover of the government of the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. It is a subject they will never discuss on the record, but one that is the constant topic of study and assessment.
The issue of shaping a new policy even presents difficulties when dealing with a country like Iran, which, like North Korea, was once described by President Bush as a member of an “axis of evil.” Tehran does not yet possess nuclear weapons, and inspectors believe that it has produced only small amounts of nuclear fuel, not enough to make a bomb, and none of it bomb grade.
In the cabinet-level discussion last May, Mr. Bush’s top advisers concluded that issuing a warning to Iran might signal that the United States was preparing for the day when Iran becomes a nuclear-armed state, an impression that one former senior administration official said “is not the message we want to send.” As a result, Iran did not receive a warning similar to the one issued to North Korea, whose test made clear that it is edging into the nuclear club.
Mr. Sagan said he supported that approach, saying that if Mr. Bush issues a declaration specifically aimed at Iran, it may be heard among the most radical leaders in Tehran as a tacit acknowledgment that the United States has accepted the possibility that Iran is going to go nuclear.
“We need to distinguish between the leakage problem, where it would be inadvertent, and the provider problem, where it would be an intentional act,” said Robert S. Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Regime Change: U.S. Strategy Through the Prism of 9/11.”
“To the provider we should say, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ and this more explicit declaratory policy can get us traction because these regimes value their own survival above all else,” Mr. Litwak said. “For the leakage problem, we don’t want to be trapped into a question of how we retaliate against Russia or Pakistan. But through calculated ambiguity, we can create incentives for the Russians and the Pakistanis to do even more in the area of safeguarding their weapons and capabilities.”
The weekly meeting of the interagency group dealing with nuclear attribution is just one part of a governmentwide effort to prepare for what might happen after a small nuclear device was detonated in an American city, just as Washington once gamed out a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
But it is a subject Mr. Bush and his aides have rarely referred to in public. In private, officials say, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to plan for more than a dozen scenarios — including one in which a bomb goes off, and terrorist groups then claim to have planted others in cities around the country.
While most of that planning takes place behind locked doors, officials responsible for it appeared at a workshop last month sponsored by the Preventive Defense Project, a research collaboration sponsored by Harvard and Stanford Universities.
The daylong discussion revealed major gaps in the planning. But it also demonstrated that while the first instinct of government officials after an explosion would be to figure out retaliation, “that would probably give way to an effort to seek the cooperation of a Pakistan or Russia to figure out where the stuff came from, what else was lost, and to hunt down the remaining bombs rather than punish the government that lost them,” said one of the conference’s organizers, Ashton B. Carter of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.