On October 11, 2001, one month after the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush faced a terrifying prospect. At that morning’s daily presidential intelligence briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president of reports from a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire that al-Qaeda terrorists possessed a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragonfire, the weapon was in New York City.
The government dispatched a nuclear-emergency support team. Under a cloak of secrecy that excluded even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, these experts searched for the bomb. On a normal workday, half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of Times Square. A noon detonation in midtown Manhattan would kill them all. The wounded would overwhelm hospitals and emergency services. Firemen would fight a ring of uncontrolled blazes for days afterward.
In the hours that followed, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security advisor, analyzed what strategists call the “problem from hell.” During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each knew that an attack against the other would elicit a retaliatory strike of commensurate or greater measure; but al-Qaeda had no such fear of reprisal.
Concerned that al-Qaeda could have smuggled a nuclear weapon into Washington as well, the president ordered Vice President Dick Cheney to leave the capital for an “undisclosed location,” where he would remain for weeks. Several hundred federal employees from more than a dozen government agencies joined the vice president at this secret site–the core of an alternative government.
Six months earlier, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center had picked up chatter in al-Qaeda channels about an “American Hiroshima.” The CIA knew that Osama bin Laden’s fascination with nuclear weapons went back at least to 1993, when he attempted to buy highly enriched uranium of South African origin. Al-Qaeda operatives were alleged to have negotiated with Chechen separatists in Russia to buy a nuclear warhead, which the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed to have acquired from Russian arsenals. The CIA’s special task force on al-Qaeda had noted the terrorist group’s emphasis on thorough planning, intensive training, and repetition of successful tactics. The task force highlighted al-Qaeda’s preference for symbolic targets and spectacular attacks.
As CIA analysts examined Dragonfire’s report and compared it with other bits of information, they noted that the September attack on the World Trade Center had set the bar higher for future terrorist acts. Psychologically, a nuclear attack would stagger the world’s imagination. New York was, in the jargon of national-security experts, “target rich.”
As it turned out, of course, Dragonfire’s report was a false alarm. But what the case teaches us is this: the U.S. government was unable to dismiss the possibility of such an attack on any scientific or logical grounds.
Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe
Given current policies and practices, a nuclear terrorist attack that devastates one of the great cities of the world is inevitable. In my judgment, if governments do no more and no less than they are doing today, the odds of such an event within a decade are more than 50 percent.
This estimate is, in effect, my best guess, since there is no methodology for predicting an unpredictable catastrophe. But my judgment is informed by having analyzed issues of nuclear danger for more than three decades, during which I served as a special advisor to U.S. secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger in the Reagan administration and as assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in the Clinton administration.
Others have offered more conservative but still dire assessments. My Harvard colleague Matthew Bunn has created a model that estimates the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack over a 10-year period to be 29 percent–identical to the average estimate from a poll of security experts commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005.