Co-Founder and Co-Chair, NTI
The Day After an Attack, What Would We Wish We Had Done? Why Aren’t We Doing It Now?
Co-Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
“The Day After an Attack, What Would We Wish We Had Done? Why Aren’t We Doing It Now?”
Testimony Before the 9/11 Public Discourse Project
Congressman Roemer, thank you for the chance to address this panel today.
As you know, the Nuclear Threat Initiative — the organization I co-chair – is dedicated to reducing the threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. We believe we have to heighten awareness if we want to reduce the risk to our citizens and the world. That is why we recently produced the video docudrama Last Best Chance – which portrays a terrorist plot to set off nuclear bombs in the United States and Europe. We believe seeing the danger is the first step to improving security, and that public understanding is essential if these challenges are to get on — and stay on — the front burner for policymakers.
In that spirit, we believe the country owes you and every member of the 9/11 Commission a huge debt of gratitude. You made the nation aware of the threats we face and the key steps we have to take to make ourselves more secure. I believe your greatest contribution is what you and the Commission members are doing after you made your recommendations. You refused to go away. Instead, you are staying on the job until the government does its job. Thank you for your hard work, your vision of a safer America and most of all for your persistence and your determination.
The 9/11 Commission Report said clearly that we have to make a “maximum effort” to prevent a nuclear 9/11, and Commission Chair Thomas Kean and Vice Chair Lee Hamilton have emphasized this in their public remarks.
Commission Chair Thomas Kean has said: “A nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is the single greatest threat that faces our country today.”
Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton has said: “You have to elevate this problem above all other problems of national security, because it represents the greatest threat to the American people.”
I agree. In my view, the threat of terrorism with nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction presents the gravest danger to our nation and the world.
A terrorist nuclear attack on one of our cities could kill hundreds of thousands of people, shatter our economy, erode our civil liberties, give blackmail power to the terrorist group that carried out the attack, and would give disruptive threat power to other groups or individuals who have no nuclear weapons, but who have destructive intent.
So American citizens have every reason to ask, “Are we doing all we can to prevent a nuclear attack?” The answer is “no, we are not.”
In his last year in office, when President Reagan was asked what he believed was the most important need in international relations, he talked of the need to cooperate against a common threat. He said: “What if all of us discovered that we were threatened by a power from outer space — from another planet. Wouldn't we come together to fight that particular threat?”
I submit that when weapons of mass destruction are at the fingertips of individuals and groups who are eager to use them to inflict massive damage to mankind, President Reagan’s question “wouldn’t we come together to fight that threat?” should be front and center for the United States, for Russia, and for the world.
We have, however, taken important steps. Let me name a few.
These are indispensable steps toward greater security. Now that the two Presidents have begun to pay personal attention to this agenda – it is essential that both Presidents also become personally involved in eliminating the bureaucratic disputes that have blocked our progress, that they provide more resources, and that they lead a global effort to address and reduce the nuclear threat. Nothing is more urgent.
Increasingly, we are being warned that an act of nuclear terrorism is inevitable. I am not willing to concede that point. But I do believe that unless we greatly elevate our effort and the speed of our response, we could face disaster. We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response.
Let me offer my own – admittedly highly subjective – evaluation of our progress. By “our,” I mean the United States and Russia. In measuring the adequacy of our response to today’s nuclear threats – on a scale from one to ten, I would give us about a three, with the summit between Presidents Bush and Putin moving us closer to a four.
Let me explain my sense of urgency – and why, despite all of the important steps we have taken, I give us such a low mark – by describing four nuclear-related threats we face today.
Threat 1: Let’s assume for a moment that a terrorist group gains access to nuclear material, builds a weapon and blows up one of the great cities of the world.
The day after – what would we wish we had done to prevent it?
The day after – I believe we would wish we had done all of these things. Why aren’t we doing them now?
Threat 2: Now imagine a terrorist group with insider help acquires radiological materials, and detonates a dirty bomb in New York’s financial district, dispersing radiation across a 60-square block area.
The day after a dirty bomb attack – what would we wish we had done to prevent it and to mitigate the damage if it occurs?
Threat 3: Imagine this scenario, Russian warning systems give a false warning of an American nuclear attack, or the commander of an unidentified submarine launches a nuclear strike against a Russian city, and the Russians mistakenly believe the Americans have done it. Each of these scenarios could result in a mistaken accidental or unauthorized nuclear missile exchange. The day after, what would we wish we had done to prevent it?
The day after – I believe we would wish we had done each of these things. Why aren’t we doing them now?
Threat 4: Let’s imagine a sharp increase in the number of nuclear weapons states, including North Korea and Iran. Unfortunately, this is getting easier to imagine. As Iran and North Korea become nuclear weapons states, other nations begin reexamining their options and following their example. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty becomes an artifact of history.
After this occurs, what would we wish that we had done to prevent it?
The day after we wake up and discover several new nations with their fingers on the nuclear trigger and with dramatically increased opportunity for terrorists to gain nuclear material – I believe we would wish that we had done all of these things. Why aren’t we doing them now?
During the Cold War, we saw what it looks like when world leaders unite, when they listen to each other, when they cooperate against common threats. It is my hope that we will soon employ this model of international teamwork in responding to the threats from North Korea and Iran, in securing nuclear materials around the globe, and in confronting the danger of catastrophic terrorism anywhere in the world.
The United States and its partners must be as focused on fighting the nuclear threat in this century as we were in fighting the communist threat in the last century. Why wait till the day after? We must do it now.
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“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.
The U.S. nuclear budget comprises a variety of programs associated with nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear security, and legacy environmental and health costs.
Nuclear and radiological security aims to ensure nuclear and other radioactive materials are secure from unauthorized access and theft, and that nuclear facilities are secure from sabotage.