MARY ELLEN MARK, who photographed Congressman Curt Weldon with his mock-up nuclear briefcase (page 105), has seen some fairly eye-opening things in her time: Indian circuses, Bombay brothels, orphanages and runaway children. So it's hard to tell where a nondescript briefcase would fit into her list. "The briefcase didn't look special at all: It wasn't even elegant. It looked simply average, just like the guys on the September 11 planes looked average." Mark's current projects include a traveling exhibition titled Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey, which features some of her work from the past thirty-five years.
by Peter Richmond
Art Director Paul Martinez
Until Russia can account for all its loose nukes, Curt Weldon will hold on to this briefcase –a lifelike model of a Cold War nightmare.
Curt Weldon has been holding this briefcase open for years now, urging us to look at it, to marvel at its simplicity, to admire the ingenuity of its design. And still, no one wants to see Curt's briefcase for what it is. Not just because half a century of nuclear peace has cocooned us in complacency but also because Curt has collected so many toys in his fifteen years on the House Armed Services Committee that his briefcase gets lost in the shuffle.
Curt has a plastic model of an MV-22 Osprey. He has a gold-plated firefighter's ax. And he has a gyroscopic guidance system from a Soviet-made SS-19 ICBM that used to be aimed at our shores. It looks like a tennis ball made of lead.
So when Curt brings the briefcase out of the closet in his office on the Hill, visitors can't help but see it as a prop from a vintage Bond film, a suitcase nuke fashioned by Q in the weapons lab for 007. The first time I saw the briefcase, it looked like a toy. But the last time Curt opened it for me, this past October-a month after the impossible had become possible and a new breed of demon had shown its face to the world- I saw Curt's briefcase for what it is, for what it had been all along: a tactical nuclear device and the face of the immediate future.
Al Qaeda's bomb might not look as cool as Curt's. It might be a crude facsimile sitting in a cardboard trunk in a freight container on the Port Newark docks, nestled amid crates of imported olive oil and bundles of lumber from Cyprus. Or maybe it's too primitive, too clumsy to move, hidden instead in a warren of caves beneath Kandahar. Maybe it's a dirty bomb, nothing but a chunk of uranium and a few sticks of TNT designed simply to contaminate the air over Washington, D.C., with radiation. Then again, maybe Al Qaeda went all out, concealing a one-kiloton mall killer in an aluminum Samsonite Xylem trolley bag purchased from the eLuxury catalog with a stolen MasterCard.
One guess is as good as another. They're all based on the coldly conceivable. Over the past ten years, anyone looking to obtain a nuclear device has had so many options-so many "bad pathways," in the words of a former CIA senior analyst-that the question we have to ask in a post-9/11 world isn't whether we should believe a terrorist who says he has one. It's whether we can afford not to.
And the answer, from the marbled corridors of Congress to the think tanks in downtown D.C., from Langley's labs to Harvard's halls, is emphatic: We cannot. The time has come to shuck our cloak of denial and look at Curt's briefcase for what it is, even if we don't like what we see. This won't be easy. Getting serious about the new threat means returning to an era of atomic dreams so real their fires singed the sheets, a time when we danced daily with the notion that the next sudden wail of an air-raid siren could be the last. But we have no choice. We must prepare ourselves. So that on the morning when we wake to read the words TERRORISTS UNLEASH NUCLEAR EXPLOSION splashed across the breakfast table, we’ll be ready for the aftermath. Lest all hell break loose. Quite literally.
FEAR FACTOR A terrorist’s bomb wouldn’t have to look so sleek to get our attention.
Their intent is clear. The United States indicted Osama bin Laden in 1998 for attempting to buy a bomb. "We don't consider it a crime if we try to have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons," he told Newsweek that year. "We have the right to defend ourselves and to liberate our holy land." In his only lengthy interview before the Taliban’s defeat, bin Laden told Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir that he had a nuclear device. And that he would use it.
They may have acquired fissile material. According to testimony in the 1998 East African embassy-bombing trial, Al Qaeda emissaries had bought enriched uranium-in a metal cylinder with South African markings-as early as
1993- The loose-uranium market is full of scams, says David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, an organization devoted to assessing threats from terrorists and rogue states. But as he himself points out, that gives Al Qaeda eight years to learn from its mistakes and cultivate reliable sources. It was 1993 when terrorists linked to Al Qaeda first tried to topple the World Trade Center. Eight years later, they succeeded.
Matthew Bunn of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government estimates that 600 tons of loose weapons-grade material is sprawled across the former Soviet Union. One day, the mighty Soviets had several hundred tactical nuclear devices. The next, those bombs belonged to countries named Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Since then, weapons-grade uranium has popped up everywhere, with dismaying frequency. In parked cars in Prague. Buried in a forest near a power station in Vilnius, Lithuania. Enriched uranium and plutonium thefts have numbered in the hundreds since 1993, according to the Atomic Energy Commission. Most involved small quantities, but not all. In 1994, five pounds of enriched uranium was seized in Russia, smuggled from a research center just outside Moscow. Three years ago, Russian authorities foiled a gang plotting to steal forty pounds of material from a weapons plant in the Ural Mountains.
To make a primitive device, a terrorist would need at least fifty pounds of highly enriched uranium. As of November, law-enforcement officials across Europe had seized twenty-six pounds in the past eight years. But using drug-war logic, we can presume those seizures represent a small portion of the total market -perhaps 10 percent. A terrorist organization could also obtain a dozen or more loose warheads-as Al Qaeda was reported to have done in Central Asia a few years back, using cash and opium for payment. Those warheads could then be converted into usable chunks of fuel. And, according to former CIA senior analyst Peter Pry, getting the fissile material is the hard part in the quest to obtain a nuclear device. "Once you have a supercritical mass of uranium," says Pry, "a monkey with a sledgehammer could set it off."
If Pry's assessment sounds alarmist, it might be because, as a specialist in Russian nuclear-threat assessment and author of War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink, he has spent twenty years studying various scenarios, including a most Strangelovian possibility, the one that has been bandied about since the Kennedy administration, the loose cannon in the whole loose-nukes debate: the Russian nuclear suitcase.
Back in the days when the Cold War's two combatants were racing to design the coolest battlefield nuke, we had a bomb-the Davy Crockett-that could be fired from a cannon on a jeep. We had an atomic howitzer shell. We had a backpack device that weighed less than 150 pounds. The Soviets were just as creative: They had battlefield nukes disguised as boulders and golf bags and suitcases.
We destroyed ours. They stored theirs -in remote, fenced-in cities with fences that long ago stopped being secure.
After twenty-seven trips to Russia and countless conversations with men in the know -Alexander Lebed, Boris Yeltsin's former national-security adviser; Marshal Igor Sergeyev, former defense minister of Russia; and Stanislav Lunev, the highest-ranking military spy ever to defect from Russia- Curt Weldon is determined to continue his one-man crusade against complacency. Convinced that the Clinton administration turned a blind eye toward Russia's illegal-arms proliferation under Yeltsin, Weldon wants any and all nuclear materials accounted for, as quickly as possible. His business cards are printed in Russian. He loves the country. But he gets impatient with its bureaucracy when so much is at stake, when so much of Russia's battlefield arsenal is nuclear. He will not stop trotting out his mock-up briefcase, not until someone accounts for the eighty real ones Lebed swears are lost.
"Is there a distinct possibility some of these tactical nukes could have been acquired by a guy like bin Laden? Definitely," Weldon says. "The Russian system of controlling nuclear materials has been to hand-count them. With the amount of technology that has flowed out of Russia, is it possible that one or two tactical nukes could have been transferred? The distinct possibility is yes."
They have the plans. Hell, the plans have been public record for thirty years.
You start with a pellet of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Using a lantern battery to ignite a cap that sets off a conventional explosive charge, you send the pellet down a length of steel pipe, where it hits a mitt of HEU and, with any luck, you get a nuclear reaction: a mall killer that would gut a ten-square-block section of town and kill tens of thousands. If the device was an almost complete failure, it would still set off a wave of fear that would reach far beyond the few square miles of dirty air.
The scientific expertise is easy to obtain. Anyone with a graduate degree in nuclear engineering could mill a lump of uranium to fit into a homemade nuclear weapon. Ideally, of course, you'd want someone with experience at building one -someone like Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood or Chaudry Abdul Majeed or Mirza Yusuf Baig. All three have been questioned by U.S. intelligence officials about their suspected contacts with Al Qaeda. All three are directors of an Afghan relief agency. Mahmood is a plutonium expert and former director of nuclear power plants for Pakistan's atomic energy agency, which developed Pakistan's nuclear bomb. Majeed once directed Pakistan's nuclear-weapons design bureau. Both have traveled frequently to Kandahar. Mahmood met with Osama bin Laden as recently as August 2001, ostensibly to discuss funding for a polytechnic university. Baig is a Pakistani nuclear scientist. Before September 11, up to a dozen Pakistani scientists had been approached by the Taliban, according to one report, and although there's no evidence that any of them transferred materials, there's no way of knowing how much technical expertise might have changed hands. "This is how it happened when the Germans were helping the Iraqis," says Albright. And it has always been thus in the nuclear feeding chain, ever since we developed the bomb and helped our allies build their own. France helped Israel. China helped Pakistan. Russia helped India and Iran.
When Russia came apart at the seams, several thousand scientists found themselves without jobs and places to live. In the blink of a geopolitical eye, they went from being state heroes to being homeless people. Everyone has a price, and a homeless man with no love for the United States might come cheap. In October a Russian Security Council official told Russian journalists that Taliban emissaries had approached a Russian nuclear-facility worker about relocating to Afghanistan. The United States also knows about two reports of suspected terrorists who were caught staking out Russian nuclear facilities.
And finally, they may even have a place to build it. Turning a bowling ball of enriched uranium into a piece of fissile material requires machining. "You don't need a lot of space. You need some electricity, some scientists and engineers and furnaces," Albright says. "Those caves in Afghanistan are fortified, built during the 1980s to the standards of NATO. It's not like working in the National Laboratory-a lot of the work you do on nuclear weapons is pretty sophisticated- but until those sites are investigated by troops, we remain concerned."
In fact, those caves were built to spec by bin Laden himself, back in his twenties, with expertise from his family's construction company.
They have money, of course, but more to the point, they manage their money well. Al Qaeda is a corporation, flush with capital raised from its own investments and from a never-ending flow of funds worldwide. Imagine Osama bin Laden as a venture capitalist who for ten years has been shoveling seed money to Kazakhstan, to Germany, to Pakistan, for the development of a simple bomb. Would our intelligence have learned of his plan? Not necessarily. Not when you consider how seldom Al Qaeda tips its hand and how poorly we've anticipated its other moves -from the truck bombs in East Africa to the launch that hit the USS Cole to the two coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the one on the Pentagon. Not when you think about how poorly we've anticipated developments even in countries we are supposed to be monitoring closely. At a February 1998 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, neither the deputy director of the CIA nor officials from the Defense Intelligence Agency found it necessary to mention India or Pakistan as a potential threat. Within months, both countries went nuclear. That same year, members of the intelligence community estimated that it would take ten years for Iran to launch a missile. A few months later, with Russia's help, Iran launched a missile.
"Now we're talking about terrorists, and they're not susceptible to imagery; there's no writing we can examine," Pry says. "If our batting record is so bad in the areas where our intelligence is best, I think it would be foolish to err on the side of optimism. We should be worried. The trends are extremely ominous."
Why haven't they used it? Perhaps they have a predetermined strategy wherein the last punch of this war will be the biggest bang of all. Perhaps their device is untested and they didn't want the first salvo in this war to be a fizzle. But the fact that they haven’t used a nuclear weapon yet doesn't mean we can ignore the threat. "Our illusion of invulnerability has been stunning," says Graham Allison, former assistant secretary of defense and dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "We know bin Laden has been motivated for a long time. Logic leads you to a troubling conclusion."
Allison ardently believes we must prepare. That doesn't mean spending $150 billion on subterranean tunnels beneath Manhattan, as the Rand Corporation suggested during the Cold War. It doesn't mean public-service commercials in which Bert the Turtle tells us to duck and cover. It means searching for answers, forcing every nation with fissile uranium to account for it. It means keeping closer track of the weapons caches in North Korea and Iraq. It means monitoring scientists in all nuclear nations. It means homeland vigilance. As we funnel half a billion dollars into a smallpox vaccine and millions more into rounding up Arab Americans with outstanding traffic violations, we ought to take the loose nukes threat more seriously.
We're not facing global annihilation, Allison explains; we're facing the prospect of one city skyline lost in a mushroom cloud, a middle-American community choked in a fog of deadly radiation. Were in a war with an enemy whose crowning act, should it come, will kill a lot of people. But the more we're prepared for it, the fewer the casualties and the less the panic.
We are a youthful nation-a mere 225 years old-and like most adolescents, we are blissfully unaware of the hazards of history. Before September, we had been attacked only once on our shores -a military target in Hawaii. Now our endless-summer complacency looks foolish. "Finding ways to make this threat credible to people is a big challenge," Allison says. "If I were you, I'd hurry up with your article."
Peter Richmond is GQ's special correspondent. His Rae Carruth murder-trial story, "Flesh and Blood," in the May 2001 issue, was selected for Best American Crime Writing of 2001.