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Suppose a terrorist succeeds in setting off a nuclear attack. What then?

ASK THIS | June 09, 2010

President Obama has put the unthinkable into words, saying there is “no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.” Now isn’t it up to Congress to follow up and try to ensure that there would be a thought-out response to such a disaster?

By George C. Wilson

Standing up like a red lighthouse of warning above the other­wise murky prose in President Obama’s new National Security Strategy document is this statement: “The American people face no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.”
Obama himself or somebody on his White House team decided to think about the unthinkable and then write it down. Now it is the uncomfortable obligation of senators and representatives returning to work this week to read those thoughts and ponder what it could mean to the folks back home.
“Indeed,” continues the white paper, “since the end of the Cold War the risk of a nuclear attack has increased. Excessive Cold War stockpiles remain. More nations have acquired nuclear weapons. Testing has continued. Black markets trade in nuclear secrets and materials. Terrorists are de­termined to buy, build or steal a nuclear weapon. Our efforts to contain these dan­gers are centered in a global nonprolifera­tion regime that has frayed as more people and nations break the rules.”
The “no greater danger” warning comes shortly after a terror­ist parked a vehicle full of explosives in New York’s Times Square. Luckily, very luckily, the inept terrorist did not know what he was doing, so the explosives did not go off. Just imagine if he did know what he was doing and set off a nuke. Thousands, perhaps millions, could have been killed and whole blocks of the city obliterated.
If Obama has been bold enough not only to think about but write it down, it seems to me Congress has the obligation to hold hearings on how ready, if at all, our individual states are to respond to the consequences of such a nuclear attack. Urgent questions Congress needs to ask include these: 
  • “Governor, if your state is attacked with a terrorist’s nuke and you don’t have nearly enough police, firemen and medical people to treat all the victims, what will you do? How will you get clean water? Combat radiation sickness? Bury radioactive bodies? Sup­posing most of your National Guardsmen have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Where do you go for help?
  • “Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a terror­ist parked his vehicle in Times Square with nonnuclear bombs. If those bombs had gone off, how many people would have been killed and wounded? Would your responders have been overwhelmed? What if the terrorist’s bomb had been a nuke?
  • “Mr. Scientist, supposing the U.S. government detected a nu­clear weapon in a ship or plane headed for the United States. Sup­posing the ship or plane ignored all attempts to stop it or force it to turn around and entered our territorial waters or air space. Is there a way to destroy the suspected nuclear weapon before it went off with­out poisoning the sea or atmosphere? If not, how long would the sea or atmosphere remain poisoned? What would be the consequences for people, animal and plant life? How would those consequences compare to BP’s disastrous oil leak?
  • “Adm. Michael Mullen, before you became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President George W. Bush said the following on June 1, 2002, at West Point: ‘Deterrence — the promise of massive retaliation against nations — means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead, a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.’ Admiral, it is eight years later. How prepared is your military to detect a nuke in a ‘dark corner of the world’ and neutralize it?
  • “Defense Secretary Gates, you wrote in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairsthat ‘the most lethal threats to the United States’ safety and security — a city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack — are likely to emanate from states that cannot ad­equately govern themselves or secure their own territory. Dealing with such fractured or failing states is, in many ways, the main se­curity challenge of our time.’ Please tell us in the Congress — whom the Founding Fathers in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution put in charge of providing ‘for the common defense’ — how we can help you to meet this ‘main security challenge of our time.’”
What more do presidents have to say, ones as far apart philosoph­ically as Bush and Obama, and what more has to happen beyond the Times Square bombing attempt and the BP oil leak, to get the hired hands of the American people, senators and representatives, to take a systematic, informative look at this clear and present danger?
To repeat, Obama himself has just finished saying on page 23 of his little-publicized National Security Strat­egy white paper that “the American people face no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.” If nothing else can inspire a bipartisan re­sponse this election year, that presidential warning should.
This column first appeared in National Journal’s congressdaily.com.

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