Old weapons, new terror worries
Russian and US experts meet this month to assess terror tactics, from hacking into systems to seizing a weapon.
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Indeed, few systems are safe. The US National Security Agency hired 35 hackers in 1997 to simulate a cyberterrorist attack. They were able to break into defense networks and shut down parts of the power grid and emergency services.Skip to next paragraph
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Such risks prompted the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to hold a first meeting on the issue of vulnerable electronic systems in October 2002.
"We are aware of the problem and addressing it as part of our broader nuclear security," says an IAEA official in Vienna. "It goes hand in hand with the ability of hackers to get into supposedly secure systems."
Russia's early warning and launch system is self-contained, however, and not connected in any way to the Internet or other outside portals, so it is widely deemed here to be secure. Like US nuclear command and control - some elements of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s - Russia relies on an antiquated system.
"It's like having a first generation Mercedes Benz that no modern repair center can fix," says Maxim Shingarkin, a former major in the 12th Main Directorate of Russia's Defense Ministry, which protects the nuclear arsenal.
Even when military cables are laid alongside nonmilitary ones, exposing the system to outside access, terrorists could "take the signal, but could not generate it" without being detected, Maj. Shingarkin says.
A special project begun in the late 1990s took three years to get a modern computer to recognize and integrate information from "this old scrap of metal" that handles nuclear weapons systems, Shingarkin adds.
Even today, perforated punch cards are often used instead of normal computer passwords.
But Russia's underpaid and poorly maintained military poses its own terror risks, says the CDI's Blair. "There's now the question of insider collusion, and if you have people on the inside sharing information about potential vulnerabilities, you quadruple the problem."
Tentative first signs of such collusion are already raising red flags, though making the link hasn't been easy, says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom.
"The connection between the guy in a position to steal, and Al Qaeda, is a pretty difficult step," says Mr. Bunn. "It's not like you can walk in wearing a white turban waving a million dollars around, and expect to get anywhere."
Last year, however, a Russian businessman was found to have offered $750,000 for weapons-grade plutonium, and contacted scientists at a key Russian institute, Bunn says. They deceived him by selling him a canister of mercury.
The days of the "desperate insider" of the 1990s - when guards at nuclear sites left their posts to forage for food, or electricity to alarms and weapons systems was cut because bills had gone unpaid - are now giving way to the "greedy insider," Bunn adds.
And what money can't buy may be more easily acquired by force.
The US military has demonstrated this danger by staging successful mock terror attacks on American nuclear facilities that included setting off an improvised nuclear device within minutes on site. Secret Russian test exercises have also broken through security at nuclear sites.
Several terror-related events have been raising concern. In four incidents in 2001 and 2002, Chechens were caught scoping out two nuclear sites - so secret that even their location was supposed to be unknown - and two mobile missiles.