Cut Nuclear Attack Risk

Compared to El Nino chatter, rollercoaster stockmarkets, and the latest Court TV drama, accidental or malicious nuclear attack has receded as a popular concern.

But Adm. Stansfield Turner, former CIA chief and NATO fleet commander, has done publics everywhere a service. In his recently published book, "Caging the Nuclear Genie," excerpted last week in the Monitor's opinion pages, Turner not only reminds us of a danger about which we have become complacent; he also offers a very specific and sensible plan for shrinking that danger.

Briefly, what Admiral Turner proposes is for the US president, as commander-in-chief, to order that 1,000 nuclear warheads be removed from intercontinental strategic missiles and placed in escrow some distance from the missile launchers. He would then invite Moscow to send observers to each storage site, to verify the warheads' presence. Surprise inspections and warhead counts would be allowed thereafter to assure Russian leaders no shell games could be played.

The US would then expect Moscow to follow its example in kind - just as then-President Gorbachev quickly followed President Bush's removal of tactical nuclear missiles from forward land bases and ships in 1991.

Should Russian leaders not respond to such a new Clinton move to cut the danger of accidental or rogue nuclear attack, warheads could, of course, be replaced. In the interim, Moscow would not have a discernable strategic advantage, since both sides are in an overkill position as it is.

President Clinton's platter is filled at the moment - with China, trade, and political fund-raising investigations. But it would take only a few minutes of Oval Office time to instruct his national security adviser, Samuel Berger, to examine Admiral Turner's plan and prepare an action proposal after consultations with Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and her Russian troubleshooter, Strobe Talbott. Alternatively, Mr. Clinton could delegate the task to Vice President Al Gore, who has regularly conferred with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on the subject of nuclear weapons safeguards.

Anyone familiar with risk estimation should see the advantages. Simply stated: The risk of not doing anything to shrink the number of missiles that can hit targets half a world away far outweighs the risk of a safe experiment aimed at sharply reducing that number. Take those few minutes to get started, Mr. President.

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