The National Journal, July 8, 2000, Vol. 32, No. 28,

Bootleg A-bombs

So, if you're a rogue state or a terrorist, why spend all that money on an ICBM when you could smuggle a suitcase nuclear bomb into the United States?

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

The debate about defending America against nuclear attack now focuses on shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles. But there's more than one way to skin a city. In 1996, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington ran a war game called Wild Atom that simulated an atomic attack on the United States. The game ended with a bomb heading toward Baltimore, with no defensive system set to intercept it. What was this unstoppable superweapon? Not a missile, but a slow boat.

The game's nuclear terrorists had simply loaded their bomb onto a freighter, disguised it as commercial cargo, and set it to go off in Baltimore harbor before customs inspectors could come on board. It's a neat scenario. But if a terrorist wanted to get the bomb onto American soil before setting it off, he would then have to get it by the U.S. Customs Service. And, as decades of the "war on drugs" have proved, customs is not an impenetrable wall. Witnesses speaking on nuclear terrorism before the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee have said only half-jokingly that "probably the safest way would be to bring in [a bomb] in a crate that contains cocaine," recounted panel Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

So while the architects of a national missile defense hunt for warheads in the vast emptiness of space, the counterterrorist community must comb through the huge amount of commercial traffic that enters this country every day: 550 ships and boats, 2,500 aircraft, and 45,000 shipping containers. Hiding a bomb there would be a lethal needle in a huge haystack.

For the good guys, then, stopping a smuggled bomb is about as hard as stopping a rocket. But for the bad guys, smuggling is far simpler than building a missile. Most terrorist groups and rogue states smuggle things all the time (Iraq routinely evades the U.N. embargo, for example), whereas building a missile is literally rocket science. And while U.S. satellites can see who has launched a missile attack at the moment of blastoff, a smuggled bomb, although not untraceable, requires extensive detective work to track its telltale radioactive leavings back to their manufacturer, a process that could delay or even prevent retaliation.

So a smuggled bomb is an attractive alternative for a terrorist. "It's right there in the national intelligence estimate on the ballistic missile threat," said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "[It] says that, in fact, it's more likely that [an enemy] would deliver a weapon of mass destruction by nonmissile means." But why then is North Korea, with a massive and skilled special-operations force, bothering to invest in rockets? Besides the prestige factor of being a nuclear power with ICBMs, the answer is that smuggling nuclear bombs poses real problems of its own. Covert delivery may not be much less difficult than launching a missile, just differently difficult. Missile defense pits technology against technology, while smuggling bombs pits spy against spy and terrorist against cop. It's all about the human dimension.

That's not to say that technology cannot help find a smuggled bomb, only that the gadgets have limits. Hundreds of the world's premier nuclear weapons experts at the Energy Department's national laboratories can react to a threat within six hours as part of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST. This and other Energy teams have long-range radiation detectors mounted in airplanes and helicopters, but long range means "neighborhoods, rather than states," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "If somebody called up and said ... 'I've planted a nuclear weapon somewhere in Manhattan,' OK, I think there's a fair chance they would find it. If somebody called up and said 'I've planted a nuclear weapon somewhere in North America' "-Pike just laughed.

Nuclear bombs are hard to find because they are simply not very radioactive. Even without lead shielding, nuclear bombs are less radioactive than many everyday radiation sources used in industry and medicine. Even ordinary variation in background radiation-say, from the granite blocks in the U.S. Capitol-can confuse readings. In one exercise, 20 NEST members took eight hours to search a single office building. Research proceeds on better radioactivity detectors, but experts agree that, for now, a "Great Wall" that could detect and stop bombs coming across the border is unfeasible. The Customs Service does have 3,400 pager-size sensors, but they are useless beyond a few yards.

Indeed, it was intuition, not technology, that stopped the last major terrorist attempt on U.S, soil, in December, when Customs Inspector Dianna M. Dean noticed a strangely nervous man driving on the ferry from Canada to Washington state. He turned out to have (non-nuclear) bomb parts in his car. "That wasn't based on any prior intelligence," said customs spokesman Patrick Jones. "It was just ... inspectors doing their job, very well." Still, with far more cargo containers entering the country than customs can ever open, and miles of open frontier between customs posts, a little "prior intelligence" is a real help. But that requires coordination between two government functions long separated by tradition and concern over civil liberties: foreign intelligence collection, led by the CIA, and domestic law enforcement, led by the FBI. It took a terrorist crisis to bring the two sides together. "The World Trade Center bombing was probably the watershed, where the CIA and FBI had to get together-and they did," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

But even with everyone looking together, wouldn't tracking down a few nuclear terrorists hiding somewhere in the world be a bigger needle-in-a-haystack problem? Not so, say optimistic experts, because the smallest, most elusive groups lack the technical expertise to acquire a nuclear device.

And, after nine years of U.S. assistance under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, Russian security for nuclear materials and weapons, while far from perfect, has improved significantly over the "Wild West" days of 1991, when the Soviet Union had just collapsed. Even if a group managed to steal a Russian nuke, "there's a low probability, unless they have some kind of nuclear expert, that they would be able to detonate it," said a former FBI official. Jury-rigging a trigger to bypass built-in safeguards means that even a ready-made Russian warhead would take tricky customization before terrorists could set it off. Building stolen plutonium or uranium into a bomb would take even more work and skill. "Some of that information is probably available on the Internet," said former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington, "but it would still require significant scientific expertise ... to physically put the device together."

So although Sen. Roberts says "I don't think there's any question" that terrorists could obtain their own "crude weapon," some experts doubt that any one group could do it alone. "If you buy it, that would require a couple of dozen people; if you build it, it would require hundreds," said Pike. "[It] requires a commitment of resources of the sort that a country can develop, but I don't think a terrorist organization could."

Fortunately, too, for the good guys, there are a finite, watchable number of states willing and able to invest so heavily in mass destruction. And nuclear programs, even in secretive states, have proved hard to conceal completely: American and Israeli agencies suspected Iraq was working on a bomb years before post-Gulf War inspections proved it. Dictatorships can tighten security, as can any large terrorist group with the capability to build a bomb, but even if no one talks, the effort is noticeable. "It takes brains, it takes the material, [and] you can track that," said one State Department official. Nevertheless, once a known nuclear weapons program comes within striking distance of success-as have North Korea's and Iran's-it becomes difficult to say whether they have built a bomb, or none, or maybe two. So who can tell if a single weapon is on its way to America by slow boat?

The task is daunting, but not impossible. Unless the bad guys are willing to put their bomb on a boat and kiss it goodbye, trusting radio detonators and luck to set it off, smuggling nukes is a complex covert operation. It takes spies to scout out the best means of entry into the United States, staff to plan the operation, agents to guard the bomb in transit, and support personnel to feed, hide, and transport everyone else.

Most dictators do not come to power by giving powerful weapons to a few subordinates who are then allowed to leave the country. "The Soviet leadership tended to like land-based ICBMs for precisely this reason, as opposed to bombers," said Baker Spring of the pro-missile defense Heritage Foundation. "If you are going to deliver by terrorist, [control] becomes removed from what is typically the very small circle of reliable individuals that run these totalitarian countries." So, while a homemade missile depends on unreliable technology, smuggling a bomb depends on unreliable human beings. Neither approach to attacking the United States is clearly easier. So, "you have to do what you can to meet both threats," Roberts argued. "It's a lot like buying flood insurance and fire insurance."