The concern about terrorists’ use of a nuclear weapon is not new. As the 9/11 Commission noted in its final report, in 1998 U.S. officials were “worriedly discussing … reports that Bin Ladin’s associates thought their leader was intent on carrying out a ‘Hiroshima.’” The reality of this danger is chillingly portrayed in the Commission’s observation that “a trained nuclear engineer with an amount of highly enriched uranium or plutonium about the size of a grapefruit or orange and with commercially available material, could fashion a nuclear device that could fit in a van … [and] level Lower Manhattan.”
Nor has the threat abated. In 2004, then-DCI George Tenet warned that al Qaeda was continuing to pursue its strategic goal of a nuclear capability; and when asked in a Presidential debate about the greatest threat to national security, both candidates responded—without hesitation—nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. In a follow-on report, members of the 911 Commission warned in November of this year that the federal government has made insufficient progress in preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Non-proliferation efforts are only the tip of the iceberg of global efforts to mitigate the legacy of the Cold War. Russia and the U.S. continue to maintain thousands of nuclear warheads, ready to launch in mere minutes. Moreover, Russia’s early-warning and nuclear command systems are deteriorating badly. The CIA has reported that equipment controlling Russian nuclear weapons frequently malfunctions, and critical electronic devices and computers sometimes switch to combat mode for no apparent reason. Many of the radars and satellites intended to detect a ballistic missile attack no longer operate. The danger of a Russian launch through miscalculation could suddenly become much more acute if control of Russian nuclear weapons were strained by an internal or international political crisis.
The threat of nuclear proliferation also arises from the danger of additional countries, such as North Korea and Iran, developing indigenous capabilities to produce weapons usable material (HEU or plutonium). At the same time, the U.S. is hampered in its ability to rouse world opinion against such developments in these nations by its own efforts to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons and its apparent intention to maintain its nuclear arsenal in perpetuity.
The U.S. plays a pivotal role – and has special responsibilities – in controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and in leading the way toward the liquidation of the WMD legacy from the Cold War. It is critical to build on the strong foundation of broad knowledge and concern developed through years of work by traditional public policy institutions, including non-governmental organizations. It is also important to ensure that U.S. policymakers continue to be fully educated about these important issues in order to foster an ever-deepening concern. Timely and regular communication from key constituencies about the need for the U.S. to play a proactive role in reducing these threats is necessary to convince policymakers to address the need to protect Americans by taking steps that will reduce these dangers. Reducing nuclear, biological and chemical weapon threats must become a much higher priority if U.S. national security is to be ensured.
NTRC believes that securing the homeland must begin with securing weapons of mass destruction, and the materials and expertise for building them—thus placing them beyond the reach of terrorists. The U.S. can achieve this goal with a modest, and wise, investment of resources. The fact is that the cost of accounting for and securing a weapon is far less than the cost of preventing a weapon from entering the United States. We can either spend $70,000 now to dismantle one nuclear weapon, or we can spend billions of dollars in what are likely to be unsuccessful efforts to keep it from penetrating our borders. The threat reduction debate in this country must be driven not only by the clear and present danger that these weapons pose to U.S. national security, but by one unassailable fact: For less than one-half of one percent of what we spend on national defense, the U.S. can help eliminate 95% of the threat of weapons of mass destruction within about four years.
As evidenced by the findings of the 9/11 Commission and the statements of both presidential candidates last year, stopping the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons must be the nation’s paramount foreign policy and security priority. According to 2005 polling data, the American people share the underlying fears of nuclear weapons. Two-thirds of respondents said no nation should have them, not even the United States; and a majority feared that a nuclear attack by terrorists in the next five years is at least somewhat likely.  However, few Members have seized the issue meaningfully and pressed an aggressive agenda on Capitol Hill. Clearly, the public is poised to become a catalyst in pushing for policies that minimize the threat of weapons mass destruction—once they are educated about what needs to be done.
For meaningful progress to be made in securing weapons of mass destruction—and the materials and know-how to build them—it is important to make this issue directly relevant to more constituencies and to create new stakeholders in Congress. Those who work directly on national security issues understand the importance that reducing WMD threats plays in protecting commerce, trade, and other economic bases. However, for those engaged in regulating and promoting commerce, it is not always obvious that WMD threat reduction should be among their primary concerns. For this issue to garner the attention it merits, it is important to work within the traditional national security communities, and also to engage those communities not traditionally focused on threat reduction issues—such as the business community in general, and the banking, real estate, insurance, and international trade communities more particularly.
To help make the United States and indeed the world a safer place, the Campaign’s overarching vision and goal, NTRC will focus its efforts on achieving the following objectives during the next three years:
- Increase issue saliency among policymakers, elite decision-makers, religious leaders, select constituencies (with particular attention to veterans) within and outside the Washington, DC beltway;
- Make reducing the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons a central issue in the homeland, economic and national security debates;
- Promote new concepts to reduce the threat of WMD; and,
- Collaborate with like-minded groups to increase media attention both within Washington, D.C. and also nationally to issues surrounding threat reduction.
 AP-Ipsos Public Opinion Poll, 2005, accessed at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7340591/