Analyst Takes Issue With Estimate of WMD Risk

(Dec. 4) -A bipartisan commission, led by former senators Jim Talent (left) and Bob Graham (at microphone), released a report this week warning that terrorists would probably conduct WMD attacks in the next five years if nations fail to take action (Win McNamee/Getty Images).
(Dec. 4) -A bipartisan commission, led by former senators Jim Talent (left) and Bob Graham (at microphone), released a report this week warning that terrorists would probably conduct WMD attacks in the next five years if nations fail to take action (Win McNamee/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- A longtime expert on nuclear threat reduction is questioning a finding released this week asserting the likelihood that a weapon of mass destruction will be used somewhere around the globe within the next five years (see GSN, Dec. 2).

The projection, offered Tuesday by the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, was that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

“The terrorism report … scared the pants off of most of us in the past couple of days,” Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said at a conference on nuclear deterrence this morning.

Michael Krepon, a co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center who has worked at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, said policy-makers should question expert judgments that prompt such levels of fear.

“We’re not going to hell in a hand basket,” he said, speaking yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “There is reason to believe that we can succeed in preventing acts of nuclear terrorism and further nuclear proliferation. We’ve got to do more in order to have reason for optimism. But we can do this. We know how to do this.”

Krepon said arms control agreements, threat reduction measures and nonproliferation regimes implemented over the past few decades have helped prevent disaster. A taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has held firm since the end of World War II, he noted.

In fact, there has been no major WMD use since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks nor even since the end of the Cold War, despite many dire expert predictions to the contrary, he observed.

“We’re either very lucky or we’re doing preventive measures increasingly well; or, the nuclear event we most fear is either harder to do or less likely to [occur] than we thought; or, all of the above,” Krepon told an audience that included several current and former policy-makers, gathered around a large conference table. “I vote for all of the above.”

Currently a politics scholar at the University of Virginia, Krepon said he is “in the minority” in taking an upbeat view of the level of WMD risk facing the nation and the world. He argued that policy-makers would be wrong to stoke anxieties when there is reason to be hopeful.

“A fear-based strategy of reducing nuclear dangers is not politically sustainable,” Krepon said. “A fear-based strategy can lead to significant errors in judgment and policy.”

He cited the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq, based on inflated suspicions about the nation’s efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, as an instance of a “costly and misguided” policy decision driven by fear.

Meanwhile, a string of experts and study groups has issued ominous projections about anticipated WMD attacks, none of which have come to pass, Krepon said.

As an example, he singled out Graham Allison’s prediction in his 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, that a major nuclear attack would be inevitable in the coming years if the United States did not do more to stop it (see GSN, Sept. 29, 2004).

Allison, a Harvard scholar who served as one of the WMD commission’s nine members, could not be reached for comment by press time today.

The panel report this week sought to address the issue of fear.

"The intent of this report is neither to frighten nor to reassure the American people about the current state of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," the document reads. "It is to underscore that the U.S. government has yet to fully adapt to these circumstances, and to convey the sobering reality that the risks are growing faster than our multilayered defenses. Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."

“I think the purpose of the commission report and the language we used about the margin of safety shrinking was not to scare people [or] to make people feel powerless,” Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the commission, told GSN in a brief phone interview today. “The idea was to give an accurate assessment of what we think the risks are to the United States and the world."

Panelists met yesterday with Vice President-elect Joe Biden, following an earlier commission briefing for President George W. Bush at the White House, Agence France-Presse reported.

To Krepon, the flurry of urgent consultations seemed familiar.

“Since the demise of the Soviet Union, threat estimates have concluded that the likelihood of a WMD attack was more than 50-50, and that estimate is now almost 20 years old,” Krepon told Global Security Newswire after his presentation yesterday. “The United States and other countries have done a great deal in those 20 years to improve our security and to lock down dangerous weapons and materials around the world.”

Under the so-called Nunn-Lugar program, the United States has helped deactivate 7,298 strategic nuclear warheads, destroy 728 ICBMs, and eliminate 631 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 155 bomber aircraft, among other achievements, according to a recent statement by its chief legislative sponsor, Senator Dick Lugar (R-Ind.).

Krepon said President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration should recalibrate threat estimates, even as it expands cooperative efforts to reduce risk.

“If the threat was over 50 percent in 1990 or 1991, then I would argue it’s below 50 percent now, given all of the work that’s been done in the former Soviet Union and in other countries,” he said.

Krepon took pains, though, to note that the risk of a catastrophic event remains. “Can something awful happen tomorrow? Absolutely,” he said.

However, a “healthy appreciation of the threat” should be paired with “a publicly expressed conviction that we have made important successes through these mechanisms that the taxpayers are paying for,” he said.

“If the threat estimate is below 50 percent -- even if it’s significantly below 50 percent -- does that mean we can relax our guard, [or] that we don’t need to spend more money in Cooperative Threat Reduction and tying down dangerous weapons and materials? Obviously not,” Krepon said. “We need to broaden the scope of these Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, accelerate the pace. That’s not at issue. But I do take issue with these unchanged threat estimates year after year, when so many wise steps have been taken.”

"We are actually hopeful," Farkas responded. "We believe that our country has done a lot to work to prevent these things from happening. We’re only highlighting the fact that there are trends that are working against us. And so we need to ramp up our effort to do more.”

December 4, 2008
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WASHINGTON -- A longtime expert on nuclear threat reduction is questioning a finding released this week asserting the likelihood that a weapon of mass destruction will be used somewhere around the globe within the next five years (see GSN, Dec. 2).