a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

"We could virtually eliminate the risk of nuclear terrorism within four years"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd April 2007

Joe Cirincione — author of the new book “Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons,” and vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress — appeared last week on, an online videocast where well known bloggers and other pundits discuss issues of the day. Cirincione was joined by regular participant and able interlocutor Jacqueline Shire (ISIS, ABC News).

Cirincione is a nuclear arms expert who has worked for the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The whole conversation between the two is valuable listening, but this statement by Cirincione really bears emphasizing. The emphases are Cirincione’s:

The key is to secure and eliminate nuclear materials. The reason is simple: as sophisticated or as wealthy as… terrorist groups might be, they can’t make a bomb from scratch. They don’t have the money or the industrial capability to build the factories like Iran is building… to enrich uranium to bomb grade levels or to make plutonium. … But if they could get these materials, particularly highly enriched uranium, they could very quickly with a minimum amount of technical expertise construct a good nuclear device and then it’s even easier to smuggle it into a country and easier still to detonate it. As Sam Nunn says, every step after they get the nuclear material is easier for the terrorists and harder for us to stop. […]

After talking to many experts about this, if we just just tripled the funding, say, spent about $3 billion dollars a year, or what we spend every week in Iraq, we could virtually eliminate the risk of nuclear terrorism within four years, if we coupled that spending with high level presidential attention — a senior… national security advisor to the President, dedicated simply to this mission, to nuclear terrorism — we could virtually solve that problem. And I’m waiting for the candidate for President who’s going to understand that and who’s going to set that as a goal. I think it’s a winning issue.

Me too. At the risk of undermining Cirincione’s final point above, I think John Kerry was right to identify nuclear proliferation and unsecured nuclear materials as the most important national security threat facing the next president. (That is, the one in the Oval Office right now, for those of you scoring at home.) And I will favor any candidate who makes Cirincione’s plan part of his or her platform.

Cirincione and Shire talk about Iran as well; Cirincione’s take on recent revelations of extensive Iranian nuclear activity is that Iran (or elements within Iran) are trying to put “facts on the ground” regardless of the actual technical performance levels of those “facts on the ground.”

Specifically, Cirincione uses the term “Potemkin village” in discussing the massive 1300 centrifuge cascade reported by David Sanger in the New York Times last week — substantially more than had been confirmed before. (Centrifuge cascades are a way of refining highly enriched, nuclear bomb grade uranium). Jeffrey Lewis (“”) seems to agree about soft-pedaling the “1300” number, saying that the real story is what kind of monitoring arrangements the IAEA has in place now; one news story indicates Tehran’s recalcitrance at allowing inspections, while another claims “unannounced inspections” have now been agreed to.

DISCLOSURE: Joe and his wife are friends of ours.
EDIT, 4/24: Lewis link fixed, and other minor edits of that sentence.
UPDATE, 4/24: Barack Obama, Remarks to the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, 4/23/07:

The third way America must lead again is by marshalling a global effort to meet a threat that rises above all others in urgency – securing, destroying, and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction. As leaders from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to Bill Perry to Sam Nunn have all warned, the actions we are taking today on this issue are simply not adequate to the danger. There are still about 50 tons of highly enriched uranium – some of it poorly secured – at civilian nuclear facilities in over forty countries around the world. In the former Soviet Union, there are still about 15,000 to 16,000 nuclear weapons and stockpiles of uranium and plutonium capable of making another 40,000 weapons scattered across 11 time zones. And people have already been caught trying to smuggle nuclear materials to sell them on the black market. We can do something about this. As President, I will lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years – the most effective way to prevent terrorists from acquiring a bomb.

Posted in Post | 2 Comments »

Second North Korean nuclear test soon?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th October 2006

Via, a Bloomberg report by Meeyoung Song suggests a second North Korean nuclear test is on the horizon:

South Korea has detected signs North Korea may be preparing to conduct a second nuclear explosion, after a report said U.S. satellites picked up activity at the site of the country’s first test last week.

The South Korean government is aware of the indications of activity, a government official who declined to be identified said today by phone in Seoul when asked about the report from Washington by ABC News..

Yesterday, the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence issued a brief statement saying that radioactive “debris” confirmed that the underground explosion on October 9 was indeed a nuclear test; the point had been disputed because the relatively small explosion might have been accomplished with conventional explosives. The New York Times’ Thom Shanker and David Sanger report that indications are it was a plutonium weapon:

American intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea’s test explosion last week was powered by plutonium that North Korea harvested from its small nuclear reactor, according to officials who have reviewed the results of atmospheric sampling since the blast.

Together with what’s known about North Korean reactor fuel supplies, the finding suggests that North Korea has no more than 6-10 weapons. The fact that they exploded a plutonium weapon and not a uranium one clarifies who exactly dropped the ball on North Korea. As puts it, “Uranium would mean Clinton messed up, plutonium suggests the error was on Bush’s watch.” Sanger and Shanker:

As president, Mr. Clinton negotiated a deal that froze the production and weaponization of North Korea’s plutonium, but intelligence agencies later determined that North Korea began its secret uranium program under his watch. The plutonium that North Korea exploded was produced, according to intelligence estimates, either during the administration of the first President Bush or after 2003, when the North Koreans threw out international inspectors and began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel the inspectors had kept under seal.

Unlike the Clinton administration in 1994, the current Bush administration chose not to threaten to destroy North Korea’s fuel and nuclear reprocessing facilities if they tried to make weapons.

So now what? Not much. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote last Wednesday (“In Search of a North Korea Policy,” emphases added),

The attractive alternatives are behind us. There should and will be a U.N. resolution condemning the test. The United Nations may respond to calls from the United States and Japan for strong sanctions to isolate North Korea and cut off trade with it. But North Korea is already the most isolated nation in the world, and its government uses this isolation to its advantage. Stronger sanctions on materials that might be of use to the nuclear program are reasonable, but the horse is already out of the barn. Economic sanctions to squeeze North Korea would increase the suffering of its people but would have little effect on the elite. In any event, they would be effective only if China and South Korea fully participated, and they have shown no inclination to do so.

Heckuva job, Bushie.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

"This is interesting," huh?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th July 2006

Yesterday I got to wondering what a big time righty blogger like Glenn Reynolds has to say these days about Iraq’s swirls down the toilet drain. Not much, it appeared. Here’s the first thing I found Wednesday afternoon, halfway down the page, in its entirety:

July 25, 2006

THIS IS INTERESTING: ‘Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003 — up from 36 percent last year, a Harris poll finds. Pollsters deemed the increase both ‘substantial’ and ‘surprising’ in light of persistent press reports to the contrary in recent years.’

Apparently, trust in ‘persistent press reports’ isn’t what it used to be.

So other than a quicky link to someone musing about libertarians and the Iraq war, what you had from Reynolds on his front page about Iraq was… a back-handed rebroadcast of the big WMD lie. To be sure, Reynolds has the perfect right to congratulate Americans holding that mistaken belief, including the tens of thousands of his daily readers he’s continued to encourage in that mistaken belief. That doesn’t make it any less contemptible.

Like Andrew Sullivan, I’m sorry about my role, small though I think mine was, in arguing to support the Iraq war. Of course, that and a dollar or so will buy me a cup of coffee at McDonalds, and I don’t expect to keep everyone reading this from wanting to wring my neck. As I wrote in the February 2003 piece linked by Mr. Reynolds, I thought it was a choice between war now or a bigger war later.*

That in turn was based on the assumption that where there seemed to be so much WMD smoke, there was some fire somewhere, too. And that, in turn, was based on thinking that surely the entire American government (and apparently the German BND besides) couldn’t be turned into a gigantic lying machine about the imminence of Iraqi nuclear and biological WMD.


It’s one of those unanswerable and maybe empty counterfactuals whether things would be any different if Saddam had had WMDs or had been close to it. That would presume Cheney et al had been right, and truthful, and competent, and honorable in a way that might have led them to either convince more allies and send more troops, or find other even better ways of avoiding the quagmire and bloodbath now before us.

But Cheney et al were and are none of those things. Instead, we’re in Evil Spock’s universe now, so to speak, and that’s what we — and to a far greater extent, the Iraqis — are stuck with. Maybe we were in it all along, or maybe it took consecutive triple snake eyes called the 2000 election and 9/11 to knock us into the history we’re stuck with. But here we are, with a small assist from me, sad to say — a small point in the scheme of things, but it looms large for me.

Given their continued influence, maybe it’s more important at this point to look at people like Professor Reynolds and ask where, at long last, their respect for their readers and themselves has gone. There are no WMDs, there were none, and you and I were lied to. That’s bad enough. But therefore there wasn’t ever sufficient evidence for them either, meaning people like me also allowed ourselves to be misled into a war about them. We can at least make sure not to ever be fooled again by snake oil peddlers like Cheney, Rove, or Bush — or even little apprentices like Glenn Reynolds.

* That piece — With regrets: for war on Saddam — mainly addressed counterarguments to the war as I saw them. My WMD concern was more clearly raised in a pros and cons piece a couple of months earlier. But see Operation Desert Snipe for someone whose grasp of the lack of evidence was clearer than mine.

Posted in Post | 3 Comments »

False premises

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th October 2004

In the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq last year, a poll by the University of Maryland’s Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) showed that Americans overwhelmingly advanced two reasons they believed the war had been waged: Iraqi WMDs and Iraq’s possible links with Al Qaeda.*

It’s worth repeating before the election: both of these reasons were dead wrong. First, WMD — my own primary reason. From the Key Findings of the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD (the Duelfer report):

Iraq Survey Group (ISG) discovered further evidence of the maturity and significance of the pre-1991 Iraqi Nuclear Program but found that Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed after that date.

• Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.

• Although Saddam clearly assigned a high value to the nuclear progress and talent that had been developed up to the 1991 war, the program ended and the intellectual capital decayed in the succeeding years. […]

While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991. There are no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter, a policy ISG attributes to Baghdad’s desire to see sanctions lifted, or rendered ineffectual, or its fear of force against it should WMD be discovered.

In practical terms, with the destruction of the Al Hakam facility, Iraq abandoned its ambition to obtain advanced BW weapons quickly. ISG found no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.

(first emphasis in original)

Thus, neither WMD (including chemical or biological ones, which I considered sufficient) nor WMD programs (a fallback I insisted on) were present to any significant degree. The Duelfer report found plenty of intent to reconstitute WMD programs, but little-to-no ability to do so. True, containment was being undermined, but apparently not in ways serious enough to give Saddam what he wanted.

On to the purported Iraq/Al Qaeda links. If the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion — “no credible evidence” — seemed too partisan and biased for you, no less an authority than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has permanently discredited the idea. According to a Defense Department press release,

Rumsfeld said he has not seen any strong evidence that direct ties existed, he stressed that he does not work in the intelligence field and that then-CIA Director George Tenet had presented solid evidence of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.**

As Rumsfeld observes, Iraqi officials were clearly not “Little Sisters of the Poor.” But mere contacts do not rise to the level of a casus belli when we should have been keeping our powder dry for stopping more serious threats — like North Korea, A.Q. Khan, or — remember them? — Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

It wasn’t just Bush
I was no better at reading the tea leaves. I was swayed from a conservative to a liberal evaluation of the available evidence — not in the partisan meanings of those words, but in their fundamental meanings: how to evaluate risk.

Sure, I wasn’t alone in my belief that there were WMD and/or WMD programs in Iraq. I thought the German BND intelligence agency, for example, was a reliable second opinion about Iraqi nuclear weapons development. But the BND, too, was probably just another victim of Chalabi “curveballs.” And there was never any clinching, definitive evidence — after all, how could there be? Others noticed; see most notably “RonK”‘s summary “Operation Desert Snipe.”

I let my fears influence me towards a “better safe than sorry” view of Iraqi WMD. I still feel a recurring, low-level variety of those fears here in D.C. — I think you’re either crazy or lying if you claim you don’t think about the next 9/11-squared around here. (It was noticeable to me how it went away while I was in Germany, and returned by about the time I was wending my way through customs at Dulles Airport.)

But I did myself no favor on that score by supporting getting into the war as much as I did. Given the smug dunces in charge who apparently aren’t even aware there’s a problem, with huge weapons caches missing, with terror groups gaining recruits and experience, with the U.S. military tied down in a war that could have waited, and with even more serious threats gathering elsewhere, I’m worse off than I was before.

* 60% said WMD were the main justification for the war, and 19% said Al Qaeda links were; the two reasons also combined for 66% of respondents’ next most important choices. The poll was taken May 14-18 among 1265 respondents, the margin of error was +/- 3% for questions posed to the entire sample.
** Rumsfeld subsequently tried to backpedal, saying that “linkages” were observed, but the notion that these were operational allies instead of “let’s do lunch sometime” contacts was clearly never one that Rumsfeld or his administration colleagues shared.

Posted in Post | 5 Comments »

A reassessment

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd October 2004

Full disclosure for most readers dropping by the front page these days: despite initially opposing it, I decided to support the Iraq war in the months and weeks before it began. In February of 2003, I finally laid out my arguments in a lengthy piece titled “With Regrets: For War on Saddam.” I stuck with that position for quite a while.

But my fundamental concern — WMD and WMD development in Iraq — was a mirage, and I have to say that had I known then what I know now, I would not have supported this war. So a reassessment is long overdue, and I’m going to try to do that over the next few days: how wrong was I? Why was I wrong?

I’ll try to have one or two posts that try to answer these questions soon. For most, this might be about as interesting as watching paint dry; for others it will be disappointing, and for still others it will be too little, too late. But I ought to do this, and I will.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Bad joke

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th March 2004

Others have mentioned this already, Southknoxbubba and Josh Marshall among them. David Corn of The Nation was there, and writes about this Bush “joke” at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner:

But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, ‘Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.’

The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn’t the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘No weapons over there.’ More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: ‘Maybe under here.’ Laughter again.

Not the kind of thing a president should joke about: a missing reason — the missing main reason — to start a war. This was breathtakingly arrogant and feckless.

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »

George Will, humanitarian

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd October 2003

Well, no.

My friend Brett Marston detects a whiff of hypocrisy in comparing George Will’s recent CNN interview to a March 16 article of his for “This Week”, “Iraq War May Save Lives“. Marston characterizes Will’s March 16 piece as “pushing the humanitarian angle, hard.”

I guess I disagree. Will was comparing the effects of two policies with differing levels of violence: containment and outright war. He wasn’t taking what I’d call the “classical pro-war humanitarian” position (think Bosnia, Kosovo, or Rwanda) of saying that the act of saving lives or toppling Saddam was in and of itself a valid foreign policy goal. Following Walter Mead’s lead, Will took the position that war might actually save lives compared to containment; this was not implied to be the reason to go to war, however.

I’m sensitive to this distinction because it’s similar to ones I made: the security risk I thought Saddam posed was primary; arguments about Iraqi casualties were secondary, but deserved to be weighed in the balance as at least not in themselves arguing against the war, since lives would be lost no matter which choice was made.

Thinking about the Iraq war
I’m uncomfortably close to the rest of Will’s position, too: what’s been uncovered WMD-wise so far is disappointing at best.

My support for the Iraq war was based on the premises that there were weapons — or weapons programs — to be discovered, that those weapons or programs would put Saddam in violation of Security Council Resolutions with teeth, and that the political support for the alternative — containment — was unraveling because of the very deaths Will was pointing out.

I think the war will have been technically justified by even scanty evidence of weapons development. But given the economic costs and (tragically unnecessary) political costs abroad and at home, it still may not have been wise if that’s all the evidence shows.

I think Bush has at times expressed well what he was trying to do, most notably in the 2003 State of the Union speech:

“Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”

I.e., Bush was not saying the threat was imminent, let alone that it needed to be. But Bush also allowed Cheney and others to way oversell the imminence of the threat. I don’t know that most Americans would have insisted on an imminent threat after 9/11. I know I didn’t. Maybe I should have. But I didn’t.

The war was not to fight an imminent threat, but a terrible one. I felt it could and should have been characterized not as a pre-emptive war, but as a punitive one punishing Saddam’s Security Council Resolution violations. Those resolutions, if violated, had to be enforced, imminent threat or no. The cost of wrongly letting Saddam be seemed much higher than the cost of wrongly attacking him.

But wrongly attacking is wrongly attacking, and unfortunately for my position, there is little evidence of violations yet. Perhaps there never were violations after all. So the gamble I supported — despite the lack of direct evidence, and merely on the say-so of my President, his allies, and other country’s intelligence services — has apparently not paid off the way I thought it would, and there’s a high price tag in dollars and lives I share responsibility for, in my own small measure. I’ll support paying that price, and support caring for the veterans and their families who bear the brunt of that price. Like Will, I’ll take some measure of satisfaction in the demise of a truly evil regime, and hope that what follows next in Iraq will be better.

With that, since I’ve apparently been wrong about much of this, I will resume shutting up about it.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

If this took two days…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th August 2003

Via the Guardian, I learn that Allies Agree on N. Korea Weapons Program:

After two days of talks, the United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed that North Korea must end its nuclear weapons program, the State Department said Thursday.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Twelve words

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd July 2003

Q: Who said this, and when?

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent.

A: President Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union address, approximately 400 words — about 2 or 3 minutes, I’d say — after the sixteen words wrongly* claimed to be a lie. As Charles Krauthammer reminds us, the twelve words above show that it’s also wrong to claim that Bush was asserting there was an imminent threat of Iraqi nuclear weapons.

Before those twelve words, Bush said this:

Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.

After the twelve words, Bush said this:

…Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.

Bush was arguing — rightly or wrongly — that the rationale for war was not an imminent threat, but a terrible threat. That threat was plausible. Coupled with the unraveling of containment and the arguable — but not by Blix or the Security Council — Iraqi violations of Security Council resolutions, Bush asserted it was a sufficient threat. The case for war laid out above may not have been persuasive to you, but it was clear and undeceptive.

The current “UraniumGate” is not really a scandal. We could have revisited the question of what constitutes the necessary and sufficient grounds for war, and that is always a question worth revisiting. But the “sixteen words” question is being recast by some bloggers and journalists as “you wuz lied to.” You wuzn’t. Even if it turns out the British were wrong, at the time the British government learned what it learned, on different evidence than what the CIA distrusted.

Based on what I know, I can not sign on to what I see as the “2+2=5” notion, however widely accepted, that the famous “sixteen words” were a lie. Nor do I agree that the grounds for the Iraq war — particularly including the matter of WMD, nuclear or otherwise — were misrepresented or insufficient.

* As I wrote last week, the sixteen words becomes a knowing lie if and only if the Bush administration knew beyond a reasonable doubt that the British finding was based on the same evidence Americans had discounted, or on other evidence the Americans had discounted. To my knowledge, this has not been established.

Blair’s supposed July 17 stumble — “not beyond the bounds” — was an attempt to establish plausibility of the (alleged) true, undisclosable finding, not the finding itself. It’s true that the British reluctance to divulge their source is convenient, if they are lying. It’s also true that it is honorable if they are not.

Another popular retort is that the Bush administration has admitted it was wrong to include the sixteen words in the SOTU speech. That does not equate to admitting those words were wrong; it equates to admitting they did not meet the (brand new) standard that only statements confirmable by American agencies should be in State of the Union addresses.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Sixteen words

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th July 2003

You probably know Bush’s controversial 2003 State of the Union speech sentence by heart by now:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

This sentence was clear on its face and in its implications at the time: the British believed something, the United States could not verify it (or Bush would have said “We have learned…”).

To the extent the American public feels deceived by these particular sixteen words, let alone duped by them into supporting the war against Iraq, we can only blame ourselves for listening or reasoning poorly.

The only way the statement would have been deceptive is if the United States had known that the British conclusions were based on the same evidence the United States found unpersuasive.* So far, this does not appear to be the case; rather, the British insist their conclusions were based on evidence not available to the United States. The Washington Post reported last week (“CIA Asked Britain to Drop Iraq Claim“):

The CIA tried unsuccessfully in early September 2002 to persuade the British government to drop from an official intelligence paper a reference to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa … The British government rejected the U.S. suggestion, saying it had separate intelligence unavailable to the United States. […]

The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, has stood behind its September conclusion that Iraq “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” for a possible nuclear weapons program despite the release of a report by a British parliamentary commission this week that challenged the allegation and, in effect, Bush’s decision to include it in his address.

British officials have insisted that the Bush administration has never been provided with the intelligence that was the basis for the charge included in London’s September intelligence dossier. [links added]

It remains true that the Bush administration was relying on if not a weak reed, then one of patently unknown strength, however clearly that was stated (or, if you insist, “hidden in plain sight”) in the State of the Union address. Given that the other major clues to Iraqi nuclear WMD development were aluminum tubes later shown to be inconclusive, we’re left with a weak public case for imminent Iraqi nuclear WMD. That deserves to be investigated in the United States with the same thoroughness the House of Commons committee displayed.

* …And/or on additional evidence the United States knew to be unpersuasive.

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »