The Nuclear Threat to Our Cities

The likelihood of a doomsday war has declined since the Soviet Union fell, but the chances of a nuclear attack on a major city have risen dramatically. How can we ward off catastrophe?
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How great is the terror threat now as compared to pre-9/11?

Graham Allison:  Well I think 9/11 was a like a bolt of lightning that luminated the landscape and that allowed us to see more vividly trend lines that were happening before but that we were most Americans were oblivious of.  Before 9/11, people imagined that Americans lived in a security bubble in which bad things happen over there, we watch them on TV but not really here.  9/11 brought home the reality that now we live in a world in which nineteen men with very little money basically living off their theft and their other activity in the U.S. were able to kill twice as many Americans as the Japanese killed in an attack at Pearl Harbor.  So we live in a different world.  The way I explain it to my students is there’s been a paradigm shift and most people’s mental map hasn’t caught up with it.  In the old days, we thought only states could organize violence and kill at the level of thousands or tens of thousands in a single blow.  Now we know post 9/11, we should have know before and those of us who studied it were talking about it well in advance of this, but now we know that a small group of dedicated people if they are able to assemble the means to kill can kill at the level of states.  So, we saw mega-terrorism on 9/11, we saw subsequent mega-terrorists attacks in other countries for example, the London subway bombing or Madrid or Bali and I would say now that’s part of the world that we live with now.  So, today the risk of a single nuclear bomb exploding in an American city or in a city anywhere in the world is greater than it was during the Cold War.  During the Cold War, we worried about Armageddon that would be a nuclear war in which all nuclear weapons would be used and maybe everyone would have been killed.  Mercifully that’s the likelihood of that has declined dramatically with the end of the Cold War but ironically, the likelihood of a single nuclear bomb made by somebody like the U. S. or the Soviet Union during the Cold War or Pakistan or North Korea getting into the hands of somebody like Osama Bin Laden and exploding in one of our cities has increased, and I’d say the likelihood of that over the past decade since we’ve seen it since 9/11 is mixed.  There’s some positives and there’s some negatives.  Al-Qaeda has obviously been significantly degraded, but the al-Qaeda movement for the affiliates remain quite substantial and the 9/11 having happened it’s now the fact it’s been demonstrated it’s possible to kill at the level of thousands, so I would say the dangers are greater today than they were a decade ago.

Question: In the worst-case scenario, how soon could terrorists obtain and deploy a nuclear weapon?

Graham Allison:  Most people don’t realize it but one month to the day after 9/11, the U.S. believed there was a live nuclear bomb in New York City about to be exploded.  So here a source reported to the U.S. and George Tenant, who was director of the CIA, reported to President Bush that Al-Qaeda had a small nuclear bomb and had it in New York City and might be about to explode it and after a period of kind of catching breathe, there was an interrogatory in which the President wanted to know well did Al- did the former Soviet arsenal have bombs of the description that Al- that Dragon Fire had given the answer, “Yes.”  Were all these weapons adequately accounted for, answer, “No.”  Could Al-Qaeda acquired one of these weapons and have it in New York and be able to explode it and we not know anything about it?  Answer, “Yes.”  So there was no basis, the conclusion of this was no basis in science or technology or logic for denying Dragon Fire’s report that there was now a live bomb in New York and on that basis, the President ordered the Vice-President leave Washington because it was thought that geese, there might be a bomb in Washington as well.  The NESS **** Teams were these nuclear experts went to New York to look for sign of radioactivity.  It turns out and you can read about it if you’re interested that it was a false alarm but what it was was a sharp reminder that the only thing that stands between 9/11, three thousand a nuclear 9/11 which could kill three hundred thousand people or more is the terrorists getting a nuclear bomb or getting the material from which they could make an elementary nuclear bomb.  So the only difference there, it’s not intention, not organized capabilities since the 9/11 attack was well into the zone of demonstrated organizational competence, it’s just their getting their hands on a bomb.  Now let’s pray and let’s hope and let’s work to make sure they don’t get their hands on a bomb but, that’s the issue.

Question: How can mass-scale terrorism be most effectively prevented?

Graham Allison:  While it’s not possible to prevent all future terrorist attacks that will for sure a hundred percent be future terrorist attacks that kill Americans here at home - that you can write it down, put it in the bank - there were before 9/11, actually you have to remember in Oklahoma City, just a decade ago a homegrown American terrorist killed a hundred and sixty-two children and women and men at the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City, so we can’t stop all nuclear, all terrorist attacks.  Fortunately, in the case of the only terrorist attack that could kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single blow that is a nuclear terrorist attack we can successfully prevent it.  And it comes from the happy syllogism from physics.  No fissile material, no mushroom cloud, no nuclear terrorism, so all we have to do, all is a lot, but all we have to do is lock up all nuclear weapons and all nuclear material as good as the Gold in Fort Knox to prevent terrorists not being able to get nuclear weapons.  Terrorists can’t make fissile material, only states can do that. Terrorists can’t make a nuclear bomb, that’s what states do, but if terrorists were to get a nuclear bomb out of the Pakistani arsenal or out of the former Soviet arsenal or out of the, North Korea, then with the organizational capability that they’ve demonstrated on 9/11 and the intent which they’ve asserted over and over, they could envelop an American city in a mushroom cloud.

Recorded on February 17, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen