One man's quest to keep nukes away from Al Qaeda
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA counterterrorism expert, lays out his ideas on how to prevent the spread of nuclear materials on the black market – including the controversial 'Armageddon test.'
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Mowatt-Larssen is careful as he speaks, as befits a career CIA officer. He admits at one point not wanting to reveal classified information. But he's also passionate about his subject, eager to detail the threat the US faces and suggest ways to deal with it.Skip to next paragraph
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After years spent gleaning Al Qaeda's intent and capabilities from captured computer hard drives, documents from Afghanistan, and other sources, he now believes Al Qaeda will stop at nothing to get the bomb or the materials to make one. Others agree.
"Al-Qaeda operatives have made repeated attempts to buy nuclear material for a nuclear bomb" and recruit experts, according to "Securing the Bomb, 2008," a report by Matthew Bunn, who, like Mowatt-Larssen, is a scholar at Harvard's Belfer Center. Bin Laden has called acquiring a nuclear bomb and other WMD a "religious duty" and has even gotten a fatwa to sanction it, Mowatt-Larssen says.
Acquiring a complete nuclear weapon from an unstable Pakistan or rogue nation like North Korea remains a possibility. But far more threatening, experts say, is terrorists stealing nuclear bomb material, or buying it on the black market.
For a terrorist, acquiring highly- enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium is the critical issue: It takes less than 20 pounds of plutonium or 40 pounds of highly-enriched uranium to build a weapon. For that reason, the US and its allies are racing to put vulnerable nuclear fuel around the world under tighter security. Since 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, has identified more than 1,300 cases of nuclear smuggling.
Still, just 18 of those overall incidents involved "special nuclear materials" that could be made into bombs – and that amounted to less than 11 pounds of weapons-grade uranium and 1 pound of plutonium. But to Mowatt-Larssen this still represents an unacceptable potential catastrophe.
"As long as we keep finding nuclear materials on the black market, we're failing," he says. "With most things, you can afford to be only partly successful. But with this, it's got to be a 100 percent success rate."
Mowatt-Larssen began to think about the problem deeply after 2005, when he transferred from the CIA to the US Department of Energy. There he organized a 600-person DOE office of intelligence and counterintelligence. At the same time, he coordinated government-wide efforts to prevent a nuclear terror attack.
Last fall, exhausted by years of being one of the main people looking through the keyhole, Mowatt-Larssen decided it was time to think about the issue in a more academic environment. In December, former Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman praised Mowatt-Larssen's leadership at DOE, saying it had "opened new relationships with foreign partners." But Mowatt-Larssen is far from satisfied. He laments the lack of cooperation by intelligence agencies around the world. Without such coordination, he says, it all devolves into a game of spy-versus-spy.
"We have a collective obligation to go out there and identify what's there and bring it back to some form of control, so that terrorists can't get their hands on it," he says. "If there's no material, there there's no possibility of a bomb ever going off."
Like many, Mowatt-Larssen was heartened by President Obama's recent speech in Prague pledging to redouble efforts to clamp down on the international black market for nuclear bombmaking materials. Obama's DOE has requested $2.1 billion for nuclear nonproliferation efforts, a 44 percent increase.