Living in a New Era of Insecurity

The bitter events of last week will never pass from the American memory. But whether they are remembered as an isolated, unrepeated horror, or the first nightmare in a new era of insecurity, may well depend on what we do now. The terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks of September 11th showed there is no limit to the number of innocent lives they are willing to take. Their capacity for killing was limited only by the power of their weapons. As we strengthen airport and airplane security, we must not automatically assume that the next attack against America will be like the one we just experienced.

While we may not yet know with certainty which group sponsored these attacks, we do know that Osama bin Laden declared in 1998 that acquiring weapons of mass destruction is “a religious duty.” This statement should not be taken lightly. We have had a look at the face of terrorist warfare in the 21st century, and it gives us little hope that if these groups gained control of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, they would hesitate to use them.

As America prepares a response to the events of September 11th, we must build a new framework for national security that protects us from the full range of new dangers we face.

Ten years ago a communist empire broke apart, leaving as its legacy 30,000 nuclear warheads, more than 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium; 150 tons of plutonium; 40,000 tons of chemical weapons; 4,500 tons of anthrax; and tens of thousands of scientists who know how to make weapons and missiles, but don’t know how to feed their families.

Russia’s dysfunctional economy and eroded security systems have undercut controls on these weapons, materials, and know-how – and increased the risk that they may flow to hostile forces.

Our nation understands from heart-shattering experience that America is targeted for terrorist attack. But we do not fully grasp how Russia’s loose controls over weapons, materials, and know-how dramatically increase our vulnerability to an attack with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. In 1998, an employee at Russia’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory was arrested for trying to sell documents on nuclear weapons design to agents of Iraq and Afghanistan. Just this year, a former bin Laden associate admitted to a federal grand jury his role in a plot to purchase uranium. These threats of terrorism and the threats of weapons of mass destruction are not separate, but inter- related and reinforcing, and the world’s security now depends in great part on who is faster and smarter – those trying to get weapons, materials, and know-how, or those trying to stop them.

To reduce these threats to our own security, we have – for the last ten years – helped the Russians secure weapons and weapons materials to prevent theft; convert nuclear weapons facilities to civilian purposes; and employ their weapons scientists in peaceful pursuits. But we need to do much more. Russia itself has experienced terrible terrorist attacks in recent years and their outpouring of support in the last few days indicates there may be a real opportunity for enhanced U.S.-Russia cooperation.

Early this year, a distinguished bipartisan task force declared loose weapons, materials and know-how in Russia: “the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States,” and called for a four-fold funding increase to reduce these threats. We need to reflect this sound advice in our budget priorities. Keeping weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands is either a priority or an afterthought. If it is an afterthought, after what?

The tragic events of this week have given us a rare opportunity to lead a world coalition against terrorism. NATO, for the first time in 52 years, has formally declared that the alliance has been attacked, and nineteen democracies are now committed to join America in hitting back. We also have other partners in Europe, Asia, the Middle East,

Latin America, and Africa. We must develop a strategy and seek cooperation with this new international coalition to carry out the Bush Administration’s declaration of war against terrorism. We must:

1. Prevent terrorist groups from getting their hands on nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, weapons materials and know-how.

2. Eliminate terrorist cells wherever they are, including those in the United States.

3. Enlist the support of our coalition partners to destroy the infrastructure and cut off the funding of terrorist groups wherever they are.

4. Make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who knowingly harbor them, as President Bush has said.

5. Take every feasible and reasonable step in our military planning to avoid inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties that will only sow the seeds for the next generation of fanatical, suicidal terrorists.

6. Make it clear by our words and actions that our war is against terrorism – not a war against Islam at home or abroad.

7. Continue to address the underlying conflicts and conditions around the world that breed fanatical hatred and terrorism – probably our most difficult challenge.

8. Promote and enhance the diplomacy, intelligence gathering and cooperation that are our first line of defense.

In implementing this strategy, we must make sure that we don’t undercut the international cooperation we need to protect ourselves against a wide range of dangers. The United States cannot identify and eliminate terrorist groups, destroy their funding and support, apply pressure to rogue regimes, secure dangerous materials, limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and gather intelligence without the support and active cooperation of allies and former adversaries. While we must be prepared to act alone if necessary, if we are going to go after terrorists before they come to our shores, we must have partners abroad.

We must develop a comprehensive defense against the full range of threats, based on relative risk, and supported by strong alliances so that the pain of today will not be known by the children of tomorrow.

Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn is Co-Chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a charitable organization working to reduce the threat from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons

September 16, 2001

In reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks, Senator Nunn describes the potential threat and makes recommendations on the response in this op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI