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Fear and the Nuclear Terror Threat

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
January 9, 2008
USA Today


Politicians love to scare the wits out of people, and nothing suits that purpose better than talking about nuclear terrorism. From President Bush warning in 2002 that the “smoking gun” might be a mushroom cloud, to John Kerry in 2004 conjuring “shadowy figures” with a “finger on a nuclear button” and Mitt Romney invoking the specter of “radical, nuclear jihad” last spring, the pattern is impossible to miss. Indeed the three-part political strategy is simple. Describe the havoc an attack would wreak. Suggest that without big changes to American strategy, a successful strike is pretty much inevitable. And now that you have people’s attention, deliver the closer: You have a foolproof plan for eliminating the threat.

With every week seeming to bring another nuclear bombshell, the candidates have plenty of fodder. The assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in late December has refocused attention on that fragile nuclear-armed nation. In November, a uranium smuggling operation was busted in Slovakia; barely a week later, a new intelligence report revealed that Iran had shuttered part of its nuclear program, but Tehran continued to push forward with its dangerous efforts to produce nuclear fuel. No wonder people are worried.

Here’s the reality. The nuclear threat is real and deserves our utmost attention. An atomic bomb detonated in the heart of a major American city could kill hundreds of thousands. But it would be tougher for terrorists to pull off a nuclear attack than many people assume. (A dirty bomb would be easier to make and deliver, but its impact would be far less severe.) Many intelligence professionals know that, but our political culture doesn’t do moderation. The first step to getting smart about defense, then, is to bust some popular myths about nuclear terrorism.

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