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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But he remains skeptical whether US agencies and other nations will follow through and implement a top-priority nuclear policy. The world "is even further behind the US," he says. "Many of our allies haven't yet come to the place where they think it's a serious problem."Skip to next paragraph
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TO CONVINCE EVERYONE how serious it is, Mowatt-Larssen has come up with a controversial idea – the "Armageddon test." "If an intelligence officer and his team can go out there and collect enough material themselves to make a bomb, then we know we've got a problem, don't we?" he says. "So let's go find out whether that's possible."
He proposes more than just sending a team of operatives to acquire nuclear fuel on the black market: He wants them to smuggle the material back into the US to show that terrorists could do this.
Some experts endorse the idea of closer international ties and more intense black-market investigation. But the suggestion of spiriting nuclear material into a major US city is anathema to many others, who feel it would do little to improve US security and probably harm it by diverting valuable resources from efforts to secure stockpiles.
"What you're doing is hyping the threat and then ensuring that everyone is on the edge of their stool trying to solve something that can't be solved," says Henry Sokoloski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, who also sits on the US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. "We need to focus on things that can be worked on quickly [such as discouraging use of weapons-usable nuclear fuel in research reactors] and at least cap the primary threat."
Others apparently agree. The Armageddon test wasn't among recommendations listed in a recent WMD prevention commission report to Congress.
Mowatt-Larssen now says that sneaking the material into the US, while useful, may not be essential. "I don't think I would necessarily go as far as the fully developed idea of bringing [captured nuclear material] back into this country or not," he says. But then he quickly adds that it would be "a nice way" for everyone to see the full threat.
From his aerie at Harvard, Mowatt-Larssen is developing part of his idea – building a global community of intelligence analysts to work on the black-market problem. In particular, he wants to see the IAEA create its own intelligence arm so it can be a vehicle for international cooperation.
"If you look at the entire problem of nuclear terrorism as a stream – at the source there's the US, Russia, and others trying to secure materials more effectively," he says. But some material will "spill from that source and move down the stream."
The key, he says, is to have a layered defense to deal with what leaks out. That means international teams attacking the black market together and radiation sensors at borders and other last-ditch measures.
"Much has been done and security is generally improving worldwide," especially in Russia, he says. "By any normal calculus, the world is doing pretty well, and we are doing better."
"[But] I'm expecting perfection. I'm expecting never to see the terrorist mushroom cloud."