Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Experts say US complacent on nuclear terror threat


Experts say US complacent on nuclear terror threat

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress are showing signs of complacency about the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack that could cripple a major city and shatter the economy, nuclear security experts said on Monday.

At a public forum sponsored by the former Sept. 11 commission, the experts said the government must do more to secure bomb-making materials worldwide, prevent proliferation, and promote international cooperation on security.

"We said on the 9/11 commission that there needed to be maximum effort and a sense of urgency. The sense of urgency is more a mood of complacency today," said former commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

"Rather than a brisk pace of activity, we are more seeing a business-as-usual approach," he said.

Panel members including former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat who once chaired the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, worried about the pace of efforts to secure nuclear stockpiles that are often poorly guarded in 40 countries, including former Soviet states.

"From my perspective, the terrorists are racing and we are somewhere between a walk and a crawl," said Nunn, who now leads a nonproliferation group called the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

He called on President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to accelerate U.S.-assisted nuclear security efforts in Russia and to overcome bureaucratic entanglements that have retarded progress in the effort.

Security has been upgraded for only about 26 percent of an estimated 600 tons (tonnes) of weapons-useable nuclear material in Russia that exists outside nuclear weapons.


CIA Director Porter Goss told the Senate in February that enough nuclear material to build a weapon is missing from Russian storage sites.

"Unless we greatly elevate our effort and the speed of our response, we could face disaster," Nunn added.

Monday's forum was sponsored by the 9/11 Public Discussion Project, a nonprofit group founded by the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York.

Many of the commission's recommendations for reforming U.S. intelligence have been embraced by the Bush administration or were formulated into law last year by Congress.

Former commissioners are holding a series of forums this summer to look at how the administration and Congress have implemented those recommendations. They intend to issue a "report card" around the anniversary of the attacks.

Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and allied militant groups hope to buy or steal nuclear material for a weapon that could be used in an attack that would dwarf Sept. 11, intelligence officials have said.

"A terrorist nuclear attack on one of our cities could kill hundreds of thousands of people. It could shatter our economy, erode our civil liberties, give blackmail power to the terrorist group that carried out the attack," Nunn said.

Former Energy Department official Leonard Spector said the United States was likely to see an attack with a so-called dirty bomb that could spew radioactive material across an entire city neighborhood.

The nuclear security experts criticized the Bush administration for moving slowly to establish a new intelligence center on weapons proliferation. They said Congress has also withheld funds to secure highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons.