Report Outlines al-Qaeda's Continued Pursuit of WMD

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We are happy to serve you a daily summary of the day's top nuclear policy stories each morning, with excerpts from the stories in bullet form.

Stories we're following today:

Report Says al-Qaeda Still Aims to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction Against U.S. [link]

  • The report, by a former senior CIA official who led the agency's hunt for weapons of mass destruction, portrays al-Qaeda's leaders as determined and patient, willing to wait for years to acquire the kind of weapons that could inflict widespread casualties.
  • The former official, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, draws on his knowledge of classified case files to argue that al-Qaeda has been far more sophisticated in its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction than is commonly believed, pursuing parallel paths to acquiring weapons and forging alliances with groups that can offer resources and expertise.
  • Evidence from al-Qaeda documents and interrogations suggests that terrorists leaders had settled on anthrax as the weapon of choice and believed that the tools for a major biological attack were within their grasp, the former CIA official said. Al-Qaeda remained interested in nuclear weapons as well but understood that the odds of success were much longer.
  • For a chronological view of al-Qaeda's quest for WMD, see Mowatt-Larssen's piece in Foreign Policy or view the full report, "Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?"

Sundance Review: Countdown to Zero - Variety [link]

  • A kind of suicide hotline for a rogue-nuke world, "Countdown to Zero" boasts a cast of international superstars -- Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair -- and a convincing argument that the human race is on borrowed time: Given the number of nuclear weapons in existence, the ease with which they can be made, the eagerness of terrorists to possess them and a worldwide cluelessness about nuclear security, it's only a matter of time before something terribly ugly happens. A politically urgent picture, it will also literally scare the breath out of what will certainly be a worldwide audience.
  • As put quite bluntly by Valerie Plame Wilson -- the lone female and certainly most photogenic of "Countdown's" talking heads -- Al Qaeda wants the bomb, and has been actively seeking to make one. 
  • Or one of the world's existing 23,000 nukes might go off. Or some lunatic might get the bomb -- a possibility made quite real via footage of the non-nuclear attacks in Madrid, Bali, London, Riyadh, Buenos Aires, Oklahoma City and, of course, New York. Imagine, the film suggests, if the terrorists had gone nuclear.
  • It certainly registers as a visceral way of scaring sense into people: Being a Participant Media production, the interactive aspects of "Countdown" are emphasized and audiences provided with ways to enter the debate -- information they will likely ingest, as soon as they can catch their breath.

A Failure to Imagine the Worst - Graham Allison in Foreign Policy [link]

  • Summarized in a single sentence, the question now is: Are we at risk of an equivalent failure to imagine a nuclear 9/11?
  • Faced with the possibility of an American Hiroshima, many Americans are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism. Either it hasn't happened, so it's not going to happen; or, if it is going to happen, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Both propositions are wrong. The countdown to a nuclear 9/11 can be stopped, but only by realistic recognition of the threat, a clear agenda for action, and relentless determination to pursue it.

Three Steps to Reducing Nuclear Terrorism - Michal Zenko and Michael Levi in The Christian Science Monitor [link]

  • The latest [Nuclear Posture Review], slated to be finished in March, appears to indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal and the threat of nuclear terrorism are interconnected issues. That means that how the US handles its nuclear weapons will have to change.
  • Years after the revelations of Al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain a bomb, there remain foreign leaders unwilling to remove unneeded fissile material, bureaucratic hurdles to implementing or sustaining threat reduction programs, and complacency about the threat. Diplomatic initiatives to reduce the likelihood of loose nukes could be more accepted if conducted parallel to a strategy that reduces the use of US nuclear materials.

Resetting U.S.-Russian Leadership on Nuclear Arms Reductions and Non-Proliferation - Brookings Institution [link]

  • During their first meeting in London on April 1, 2009, Presidents Obama and Medvedev discussed ways to build a more positive relationship. They attached particular importance to nuclear arms reductions and non-proliferation.
  • The focus on nuclear weapons is understandable. Detonation of a nuclear device in an American or Russian city would be a catastrophic event, to say nothing of the consequences of large-scale use of nuclear weapons in an inter-state conflict. The risk increases with the spread of nuclear weapons and the threat that they could fall into the hands of a terrorist group that might not be deterrable.
  • This paper examines possible measures the United States and Russia could take in 2010 in three areas: next steps in nuclear arms reductions, strengthening the non-proliferation regime and promotion of proliferation-resistant nuclear energy.
  • The paper offers specific suggestions that the U.S. and Russian governments might pursue in each of these three areas with the objectives of promoting nuclear arms control and non-proliferation and, by developing U.S.-Russian leadership on these questions, a stronger and more cooperative U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship.

A View from the Dark Side 

Stopping START - Frank Gaffney in the Washington Times [link]

  • As things stand now, however, [the START follow-on treaty] seems unlikely to be approved by the Senate - let alone translate into an end to nuclear proliferation and the dangers associated with it.
  • There is no small irony that the prospects for the START follow-on treaty were made worse recently by four men who arguably have done more than any others to lend credence to the notion that a nuclear-free planet would be desirable and realizable.
  • In their latest declaration in the Journal, on Jan. 19, though, the Gang of Four made clear that they have a different view on modernization: "As we work to reduce nuclear weaponry and to realize the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, we recognize the necessity to maintain the safety, security and reliability of our own weapons."
  • This happens also to be the stated view of 41 U.S. senators who warned Mr. Obama in writing last month not to bring forward his START follow-on treaty without such a comprehensive - and funded - modernization program. Presumably, that view is shared by Massachusetts' just-elected senator, Scott Brown, as well. Without the votes of at least eight of these legislators, the new accord with Russia will be dead on arrival. Will Mr. Obama risk that outcome, and worse?