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Nuclear CSI: Unambiguous Attribution
Could states be held as accountable for the nuclear weapons they create (and the material from which such weapons could be made) as they are for the nuclear warheads their governments choose to deploy? The U.S. government considered this question during the Cold War–and answered it, though the answer offers cold comfort. Recall the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The United States discovered the Soviet Union attempting to sneak nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba. President John F. ­Kennedy confronted his Soviet counterpart, Nikita ­Khrushchev, and demanded that the missiles be withdrawn. As the crisis unfolded, American strategists worried that ­Khrushchev might transfer control of the nuclear arsenal in Cuba to a young, hot-headed revolutionary named Fidel Castro.

After conducting careful deliberations, Kennedy issued an unambiguous warning to Khrushchev and the Soviet Union: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Khrushchev well understood what Kennedy was talking about: the certain prospect of a full-scale nuclear war.

In the years after the crisis, nuclear strategists considered the array of scenarios in which one or a small number of Soviet nuclear weapons might explode on American soil. In one such scenario, a single missile is launched against an American city in an attack the Soviet leader claims is “accidental” or “unauthorized.” For example, a Soviet leader calls the American president on the hotline to inform him that a Soviet missile commander has gone insane and, without authorization, launched a single missile with a nuclear warhead against an American city. How should the president respond?

Grisly though the logic was, the canonical answer was a strategy of “an eye for an eye.” Herman Kahn, author of the controversial 1960 work On Thermonuclear War, described this approach as “graduated, or controlled deterrence … of provocative actions by a counteraction which is expected to be so effective that the net effect of the ‘aggressor’s’ action is to cause him to lose in position.” The U.S. plan was to retaliate by delivering a nuclear warhead capable of destroying a counterpart Russian city. Pentagon planners developed lists of such unfortunately twinned cities in support of that policy.

Who knows whether an American president would have responded to the accidental destruction of Minneapolis by destroying Minsk. But Soviet leaders’ belief that a president might do so undoubtedly reinforced their determination that no accidental launches occur.

Modern Deterrence
As one moves beyond Cold War logic to the crueler, more complex logic of nuclear terrorism, the question is whether personal accountability for terrorist use of a nuclear weapon manufactured by a given state can deter the state’s leader from selling weapons to terrorists. What’s more, the question of accountability applies equally well in cases where proliferation is not willful. If leaders believe that they will be held accountable for their nuclear weapons even if those weapons are stolen, will they be better motivated to prevent theft?

The answer depends on two further questions. First, can we attribute the weapon to its source? Second, how will accountability be defined politically, and how can it be enforced?

As I wrote in Technology Review in the summer of 2005 (see “Nuclear Accountability,” July 2005 and at, “The technological prerequisite for rethinking the unthinkable is nuclear forensics: the ability to identify a bomb’s source from radioactive debris left after it explodes.” A credible capacity to identify nuclear material definitively and quickly is essential. If the leader of a government–say, Kim Jong Il of North Korea–knew that the United States would be able to identify his “fingerprints” on a nuclear weapon he sold to terrorists, it should be a useful deterrent. Similarly, nuclear custodians, scientists, and others whose main motivation for helping terrorists is financial, not ideological, would probably be more hesitant to do so if they could be found out.

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Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Tagged: Communications, nulcear, terrorism, detection

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