By Major General George A. Buskirk (Ret.) and Alexandra Toma
April 10, 2013, 5 a.m.
Three years ago this week, President Barack Obama signed the New START treaty with Russia.
The stroke of a pen ended the lull in inspections of Russia’s nuclear stockpile and allowed the U.S. and Russia to start eliminating excess Cold War nuclear capabilities in a mutual, verifiable way.
Reflective of its name, the treaty was a new start in a much more aggressive global effort to decrease the modern risk posed by nuclear weapons: preventing terrorists from acquiring a nuclear weapon, a commitment shared by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, as well as national security officials from both political parties. So just what more can we do to keep America and her allies safe from the modern threat posed by nuclear terrorism?
While the threat of a nuclear war has plummeted since the end of the Cold War, the risk posed by the spread of nuclear materials has risen. Two thousand cases of illicit or unauthorized trafficking of nuclear and radioactive material have occurred in the past two decades. In fact, just last year seven people were arrested in Moldova carrying AK-47’s, hand grenades, and uranium that could be used to produce a nuclear bomb. There is a growing and continued black market demand for these materials — bold new thinking and political will is needed to combat this distinctly 21st century nuclear risk.
It is clear terrorists are trying to get “the bomb.” Interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaida operative who planned the September 11th terrorist attacks, revealed al-Qaida hoped to unleash a “nuclear hellstorm” if Osama bin Laden was killed. Bin Laden himself previously stated that he considered it a religious obligation to obtain nuclear weapons. If al-Qaida does obtain a nuclear weapon, there is little doubt they will use it. Of course, obtaining a nuclear weapon is a relatively difficult task. Unfortunately (and scarily), obtaining the materials to build one isn’t.
Fortunately, President Obama is a man that puts his money where his mouth is: He negotiated and secured the ratification of New START; his Nuclear Posture Review formalized his famous 2010 Prague speech goals as U.S. policy; he launched the Nuclear Security Summit so world leaders could collectively coordinate strengthening global defenses to prevent materials from falling into the wrong hands; and he secured agreement to maintain the “nuclear rules of the road” so that those countries that have these weapons work to get rid of them, while those that don’t agree not to acquire them.
But more can — and must — be done. Building on his recent “charm offensive” on Capitol Hill, the president should use Wednesday night’s dinner organized by Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia to bring up nuclear security. Focusing on this win-win issue could begin to bridge the acrimonious partisan divide and boost the public’s view of Congress at a time when public opinion hovers near an all-time low. It will also increase our national security. At the gathering, the president and members of Congress would do well to heed the nonpartisan spirit and call by Henry A. Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William J. Perry that, “leaders owe it to their publics to reduce, and eventually to eliminate, these (nuclear) risks.”
Their first task should be passing two counter-terrorism treaties that would enhance our ability to protect nuclear materials and apprehend extremists intent on using them. As retired Army Maj. Gen. Roger R. Blunt puts it, “Two treaties with very complicated names but very straight-forward goals will equip our security and intelligence communities with tools they need to better prevent attacks.” The Convention on the 2005 Amendment to the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism are supported by our military leaders, as well as by legislators on both sides of the aisle. It’s high time to pass them.
Major General George A. Buskirk (Ret.) served in the National Guard from 1978-2004 and is adjunct general for the Indiana Army and Air National Guard. Alexandra Toma is a Truman National Security Fellow and founder of the Fissile Materials Working Group.