Dust off those reports on nuclear threats

In my somewhat chaotic filing system, I have a collection of documents labeled WMD for "weapons of mass destruction." They are mostly reports by official and scholarly panels on the looming threats of chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare. It is remarkable how little attention these reports have received until lately.

To pick a few off the pile, there is the 1998 report of the Harvard-Stanford Preventive Defense Project against Catastrophic Terrorism led by former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter. It calls for mobilization in anticipation of an emergency resulting from an act of terrorism.

There is a booklet compiled by the McCormick Tribune Foundation last year titled "Catastrophic Terrorism: Uncertain Response." Then, a 1998 report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warning that some college students have designed workable models of atomic bombs.

On the more official side, the January report of an Energy Department task force chaired by former Sen. Howard Baker and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, stressing the need to control "loose nukes," especially in Russia. A 1998 report of the US Commission on National Security, headed by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, calls for more attention to terrorist dangers.

All these and more are being dusted off now that Osama bin Laden has claimed to have nuclear weapons, and especially now that he may be feeling increasingly besieged. There is new attention to the testimony of an Al Qaeda member last winter in federal court in New York about meetings aimed at acquiring nuclear fuel on the black market, probably from a former Soviet state. Now, in The Economist magazine, Harvard's Graham Allison, former assistant secretary of Defense, reports on terrorist groups trying to break into Russian nuclear storage sites and the possibility that up to 40 KGB suitcase nuclear bombs are not accounted for.

Last year, says Mr. Allison, the CIA intercepted a message in which a member of the Al Qaeda group boasted of plans for an American Hiroshima. Now, perhaps, the Bush administration will consider restoring some of the funds cut from the Nunn-Lugar Program, which in 10 years has paid for defusing 5,000 nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.

Maybe we needed Osama bin Laden to prod the United States government to take the nuclear threat seriously.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.

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