In the book that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing, "The Turner Diaries," the hero drops a nuclear weapon on the Pentagon, sacrificing his life for the anti-government cause. Had Timothy McVeigh been capable of following Turner's example, hundreds of thousands could have died. Secretary of Defense William Cohen warns that future adversaries and terrorists may resort to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons -- a scenario he finds "quite real."
The first line of defense against nuclear terrorism is to protect nuclear weapons and their components from theft. But experts fear that world-wide safeguards -- especially in Russia and the new independent states (NIS) -- may not be adequate to the task. Russian officials admit that the potential for theft has increased at many nuclear facilities. Kilogram quantities of stolen weapons-usable nuclear materials already have been recovered in Russia and in Europe, demonstrating the urgency of securing vulnerable stockpiles. Russian chemical weapons are also vulnerable to theft.
Experts find the state of Russia's nuclear and chemical-weapons security alarming. But two congressional committees just have voted to slash the already tiny programs -- representing a fraction of a percent of the defense budget -- that directly address the threat of nuclear and chemical terrorism. Programs that address loose nukes, brain drain, porous borders and continued production of plutonium are all under the knife:
Loose Nukes: The Russian military is in crisis. Living conditions are abysmal, food is in short supply and wage arrears are common. Five hundred officers committed suicide in 1996, and more than 20 generals are under investigation for corruption. Former secretary of defense Igor Rodionov warned in February that Russia could lose control over its nuclear forces and that no one could guarantee their reliability. Gen. Yevgeny Maslin, in charge of warhead security, fears that disgruntled workers or terrorists could steal warheads from trains. Vladimir Orlov, an expert on Russian nuclear security, told an American audience this month that nuclear security has not improved in Russia (especially for warheads), but control of information about nuclear smuggling has. He admonished Americans to remove their rose-colored glasses. The Defense Department is providing sensors and other equipment to protect warheads from theft, but the House National Security Committee wants to cut funding by a third.
Brain Drain: Workers at NIS nuclear and chemical-weapons sites are vulnerable to corruption. Once treated as the elite, they are now poverty stricken. Some of these scientists are reportedly supplementing their incomes by providing consulting services to Iran and Pakistan on weapons-related research. Late last year, the director of Chelyabinsk 70 -- one of Russia's most elite nuclear-weapons laboratories -- killed himself, claiming he could no longer bear his inability to pay his own workers.
Russian officials have confided their concern that biological-weapons scientists might sell their expertise to other countries. Innovative programs run by the Departments of Energy and State help employ former weapons-scientists in civilian projects that are often commercially viable. In one of these projects, scientists have developed a technique to un-irradiate milk contaminated by the Chernobyl reactor, so that local children have milk to drink that won't harm their health. In another, Russian scientists are working with Harvard Medical School on a new diphtheria vaccine. But the House National Security Committee isn't worried that underpaid weapons scientists could sell their expertise abroad. They voted to zero out the Department of Energy-led program; the future of the state-led program is uncertain.
Porous Borders: The breakup of the Soviet Union created 15 new countries requiring 15 sets of border guards. The borders of the southern tier -- including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- are particularly permeable, including points of entry into Iran on the Caspian Sea. U.S. Customs and other agencies are training personnel and supplying enforcement agencies with radiation-detection devices the size of pocket pagers, endoscopes (for looking into gas tanks) and other gear. These programs are just beginning, but the Senate Armed Service Committee would like to see their funding cut.
Continued Production of Plutonium: Russia's three remaining plutonium-production reactors produce 1 1/2 tons of plutonium a year. Russia has agreed to stop producing plutonium but needs to find an alternative source of heat and electricity. The administration requested funding to convert the reactors to end plutonium production. But the House National Security Committee wants to cut the program by three-quarters, making it impossible to stop plutonium production in Russia by the year 2000, as agreed by the vice president and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
A vote on these cuts is imminent. These programs are critical to U.S. national security, yet they are politically vulnerable because they contain little "pork." Americans should let their representatives know: Let's spend our money on preventive defense, before the first incident of nuclear or chemical terrorism. If terrorists or rogue nations acquire "loose nukes" from Russia, we are all potential victims. The writer was director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council in the first Clinton administration.