washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Bush Administration
Correction to This Article
An Oct. 26 article on the Bush administration's efforts to halt nuclear proliferation incorrectly said that Greg Thielmann was the director of strategic proliferation and military affairs in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research until 2003. Thielmann left the position in 2002.
THE BUSH RECORD : Nuclear Threats

Unprecedented Peril Forces Tough Calls

President Faces a Multi-Front Battle Against Threats Known, Unknown

By Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A01

In the tumultuous first year after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush confronted a deluge of classified threat reports about the spread of nuclear weapons technology to unfriendly hands.

An atomic black market, operating on three continents, was funneling bomb-making equipment to Libya -- and to customers unknown. Iran had made unexpected strides toward a weapon along a route concealed for more than a decade. North Korea, judged in June 2002 to be years away from domestic uranium enrichment, was discovered a month later to be on the brink of it. The National Intelligence Council assessed that there was "undetected smuggling" of "weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials" known to have been stolen in Russia on four occasions between 1992 and 1999. And two senior figures from Pakistan's nuclear establishment, who met with Osama bin Laden a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were failing polygraph tests about the purpose of their trip.


Iran's facility in Natanz, seen in a satellite image, was the site where much centrifuge equipment was headed. A Pakistani was the supplier. (Reuters)

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Global Nuclear Initiatives: President Bush has offered a variety of alternative approaches to the traditional tools used to stop nuclear proliferation.
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No president before Bush faced such a diversity of nuclear dangers. Some threats came from hostile nations. Others were stateless: a business underworld that supplied the makings of a nuclear weapon, and a jihadist underworld that sought to buy one. The profusion of threats laid competing demands for Bush's attention in a climate of uncertainty and rapid change.

Like the "war on terrorism," which it often intersected, Bush's efforts against nuclear proliferation followed many paths.

Bush has struggled -- thus far without success -- to roll back significant nuclear advances in North Korea and Iran.

In the summer of 2002, both countries made or disclosed leaps toward self-sufficiency in manufacturing the principal ingredient of a nuclear weapon. Bush demanded that Pyongyang and Tehran reverse course, but his national security team could not agree on policies to induce or compel those governments to submit. The stalemate left three secret overtures from Tehran unanswered and a presidential directive on Iran unsigned after 31 months of drafting attempts.

A similar impasse over North Korea -- before and after the Pyongyang government removed enough plutonium from U.N. supervision to build five or six bombs -- left Bush's team with a policy that one frustrated participant called "no carrot, no stick and no talk." Administration officials acknowledge that North Korea and Iran have accelerated their nuclear progress but say the damage dates from decisions made by President Bill Clinton.

At the same time, further from public view, Bush worked to penetrate and close the first private marketplace of the atomic age: Abdul Qadeer Khan's Pakistan-based distribution network. Bush's partnership with British Prime Minister Tony Blair followed a trail of underground transactions to Libya and persuaded that country to abandon an ongoing nuclear weapons program, a signal success. After resisting British advice to intervene sooner, however, Bush discovered that the decision to "wait and watch" allowed the nuclear black market to fill significant purchase orders from North Korea. The investigation has since been stymied in Pakistan.

Bush also resolved to deny what he called "the world's most destructive weapons" to terrorists -- the proliferation front to which he has devoted the principal resources of his presidency. That resolve, and the strategy he devised to achieve it, brought him to war in Iraq against a source of weapons he did not find.

No other set of subjects divided Bush more sharply from his intelligence establishment. Although the CIA judged, wrongly, that Iraq had resumed efforts to build a nuclear device, U.S. intelligence agencies described other unfriendly states as far more advanced. Assessments throughout Bush's presidency, moreover, said the least likely route to a terrorist nuclear weapon was deliberate transfer by a state.

This examination of the record by The Washington Post explores the priorities Bush set, the beliefs he formed, the choices he made and the ones he left unmade when faced with deadlock among his advisers. It draws on interviews with U.S. participants in leading events and their counterparts from U.N. agencies and governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Some of those interviewed shared portions of their notes and confidential records.

Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton was the only Bush administration official who agreed to speak on the record for this article. The administration made available two other political appointees for interviews on the condition that they not be identified. Officials who spoke without permission, many of them senior career analysts and policymakers, said their standing with the White House would be at risk if they were quoted by name.

Bolton described Libya's nuclear disarmament and the exposure of Khan's black market as highlights of the Bush record, and said North Korea and Iran might be further along if not for the administration's tough stand.

"The question is not, 'Is the status of the pursuit of nuclear weapons more advanced?' " he said. "The question is, 'What would have happened and how much worse would it have been if we hadn't pursued a more aggressive policy?' "

'A Right to Disagree'

Soon after Bush took office, three dozen analysts from around the government gathered for a full-day conference in Chantilly to sift top-secret, compartmented intelligence. If al Qaeda obtained a nuclear weapon, they asked, where would it come from?

Defining that threat, and its source, would top the list of urgent assignments for U.S. intelligence after Sept. 11.

"We thought the highest probability of their getting anything would be to buy a weapon full up" from corrupt or ideologically allied insiders in the chain of custody in a nuclear weapons state, said Richard A. Clarke, who organized the intelligence summit as Bush's national coordinator for counterterrorism. "We assumed the place most likely to supply that would be the former Soviet Union. They had more weapons, and there were more people involved in guarding them, compared to a fairly limited number of weapons in Pakistan that were fairly well accounted for."

Russia's risk factors were widespread corruption, a Chechen insurgency linked to radical Islamists elsewhere, and what Graham Allison, an assistant secretary of defense under Clinton, has called the "Willie Sutton Principle." In a recent book, "Nuclear Terrorism," Allison wrote, "When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton answered: 'Because that's where the money is.' " The logic of deterrence offered two strong reasons, U.S. intelligence judged, to doubt any government would deliberately transfer such a weapon. For one, al Qaeda might turn the bomb against its source. For another, the isotopic signature of a nuclear device can be traced to its country of manufacture, exposing that nation to catastrophic retaliation.

Al Qaeda's behavior suggested it had done much the same market survey. In 1998, in one of several similar cases, Israeli intelligence reported that bin Laden paid more than 2 million pounds to a middleman in Kazakhstan who promised to deliver a stolen warhead -- though there is no evidence that delivery took place.

A National Intelligence Estimate on nontraditional threats, completed long after Bush had committed himself to war in Iraq, reprised earlier judgments. Black-market sales from "the former Soviet Union, Pakistan -- those were the highest risks," said Richard A. Falkenrath, a former White House official who co-wrote Bush's classified May 2002 strategy "Combating Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction."


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