Commentary

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism Seven Years After 9/11

in Program

By Brian Finlay – In its final report to the American people, the Commission responsible for investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11th found that, “The greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will materialize if the world’s most dangerous terrorists acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons.” It further noted that al Qaeda had been working diligently for a decade to acquire weapons of mass destruction and that the United States would most certainly be a prime target once they succeeded in their quest. Therefore, the Commission called upon the US Government to exert maximum effort to prevent this possibility by strengthening counter-proliferation efforts, expanding the Proliferation Security Initiative, and supporting the cooperative nonproliferation programs.

Since the Commission report was issued, there has been no evidence to suggest that terrorist interest in nuclear weapons has abated. Yet, reporting one year after the release of the original 9/11 Commission findings and recommendations, Chairman Kean and Vice-Chairman Hamilton found positive, but ultimately insufficient, progress in the country’s efforts to prevent terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction. In their assessment, they assigned an overall grade of “D” to the US Government, criticizing the pace at which the cooperative nonproliferation programs were securing and eliminating bomb-grade materials, condemning Congress for failing to lift legislative restrictions on presidential action, and blaming government agencies for failing to prioritize this as the central threat to US security.

Where Are We Today?

Our nation’s efforts to prevent terrorist acquisition and use of a nuclear weapon may be characterized as a four-link chain-wherein the failure of just one link could have catastrophic consequences on US and global security. The links are:

  1. Prevention – which comprises efforts to secure weapons, bomb-grade materials, dangerous technologies, and know-how at their source;
  2. Detection/Interdiction – which includes an array of bilateral and multilateral approaches for identifying and halting the movement of materials should prevention fail;
  3. Integration – which requires a comprehensive, unified plan leveraging all agencies of the US Government and committed governments around the globe in a coordinated counterterrorism and nonproliferation strategy; and,
  4. Sustainment – which includes policies that foster long-term, global buy-in and strategies that aim to build and transition salient counter-terror and nonproliferation efforts to local control.

Today-seven years after 9/11 and three years after release of the initial report card by Kean and Hamilton-the efforts of the US Government continue to earn an improved, but still inadequate, overall grade of “C”-a worrying score given the nature of the enduring threat to the country. Although the President and Congress have added additional layers of defense, the size and scope of the threat continues to dwarf the policy response.

Where Should We Be Tomorrow?

In the run-up to the November election, a great deal of attention has been put on the need to define the next president’s national security agenda. While it is correct to view the incoming administration as a key opportunity for rebuilding and restoring the country’s foreign relations, the gravity of the WMD threat to the country and world means that it cannot wait. There is also much unfinished business left for the current President as well.

Strengthening Prevention

1. While the reluctance of foreign government partners has been an ongoing challenge to full implementation of the US proliferation prevention agenda, the United States has erected its own legal and bureaucratic obstacles to this goal. The President and the Congress must collaborate to eliminate these obstacles by addressing staffing shortfalls within the implementing agencies, by streamlining contracting and other implementing processes, by better pairing agency budgets with program priorities, by removing unnecessary legislative and funding restrictions, and by developing a foundation for an ongoing process under which to set priorities and ensure coherence between US agencies and their foreign partners.

2. The President should also redouble his efforts to encourage the country’s foreign partners to live up to the commitments they made under the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, and all other national, bilateral, and multilateral nonproliferation obligations.

Ensuring Detection

3. The US Government has been especially active in developing innovative new approaches to detect and interdict weapons and materials in transit, but greater government action by itself is insufficient. In an era of globalization where governments’ ability to prevent proliferation and control technology flows is dramatically diminished, the building of partnerships with the private sector will become an increasingly critical component of our national security strategy. The US Government should thus seek innovative strategies to partner with industry to prevent nefarious acquisition, identify illicit proliferation networks, and curb the outflow of technologies to states and individuals intent on obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction.

4. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) was a key concern for the 9/11 Commission. The Bush administration should be commended for its emphasis on this element of the wider counter-nuclear terrorism strategy. The President should continue working to resolve outstanding legal disputes surrounding PSI, develop dedicated funding for the measure, and continue to press for its geographical expansion to other nations.

Expediting Integration

5. As in 2005, it remains critical for the US Government to develop an integrated strategy for addressing the enduring threat of nuclear terrorism. The Congress and external experts have called upon successive presidents to develop such a plan, but no administration to date has conducted a comprehensive reevaluation that assesses the changing threat, determines priorities, allocates budgets, and delegates the necessary authorities. Given the urgency of the threat, such a plan should go beyond the traditional counter-proliferation and counterterrorism agencies, leveraging any and all available instruments of the US Government (including the intelligence and global development communities), our allies, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations.

Promoting Sustainability

6. Since the end of the Cold War, US Government investments in proliferation prevention have been substantial. The gravity of the threat suggests that those investments should grow, provided that they are directed in the most efficacious manner. Ultimately, however, America’s leading role abroad in many of these activities must transition to local control, both from a management and a financial perspective. This assumes that America’s activities are designed to meet the dual objectives of terrorism prevention in the near term and sustained commitment to prevention in the long term. So far, this has not been universally true. All US Government activities taking place abroad must be sensitive to addressing common threat perceptions. Managing expectations and developing buy-in are critical to assuring both program stability and long-term sustainability. The US Government should also make full use of existing science and other human engagement programs to leverage America’s unparalleled science and technology capacity, global development assistance, and other potential inducements as a means of building deeper and sustained cooperation for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how.

The urgency of this top national security directive leaves no room for partisan bickering or the chance to score easy political points. While the urge to use security as a partisan weapon may tempt those from both parties, they should remember that the failure to fully address this threat will be borne by all who are in office.

A full scorecard on US Policies to Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Terror can be found online at the Partnership for a Secure America website.

Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation


Brian Finlay co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design innovative new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and expertise.

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