by Brett Wagner / USA Today –
(October 5, 2003) — The release Thursday of chief US weapons inspector David Kay’s report detailing America’s six-month search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has reinflamed the debate over whether anyone will ever uncover that country’s alleged stockpiles of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
A great irony, however, seems to have gotten lost in that debate: As a direct result of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq without sufficient forces to secure and protect its nuclear research and storage facilities from rampant looting, enough radioactive material to build scores of dirty bombs now is missing and may be on its way to the international black market.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. In the weeks before the invasion, the U.S. military repeatedly warned the White House that its war plans did not include sufficient ground forces, air and naval operations and logistical support to guarantee a successful mission. Those warnings were discounted — even mocked — by administration officials who professed to know more about war fighting than the war fighters themselves.
But the war fighters were right. Military commanders weren’t given enough manpower and logistical support to secure all of the known nuclear sites, let alone all of the suspected ones.
It wasn’t until seven of Iraq’s main nuclear facilities were extensively looted that the true magnitude of the administration’s strategic blunder came into focus.
The White House knew all along, for example, that enormous quantities of dangerous nuclear materials were at the Tuwaitha nuclear storage facility near Baghdad, sealed and accounted for by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. Soon after the war began, the IAEA warned the White House that it should strive to secure the facility quickly. When word of looting at the site began to leak out through the international media, the IAEA again warned the White House.
The looting, however, went on for more than two weeks before the U.S. took any action. When the site was finally secured and US authorities permitted a brief inspection by IAEA officials, the inspectors were inexplicably forbidden to check the status of highly radioactive materials that could be used in dirty bombs. Many of these materials are now unaccounted for. What the inspectors were allowed to verify is how much uranium is now missing: at least 22 pounds.
Other looted nuclear sites include the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center, where significant quantities of partially enriched uranium, cesium, strontium and cobalt were stored. US survey teams have not been able to determine how many of those materials are missing.
Small Amount, Huge Effect
It takes only a small amount of such materials to arm a dirty bomb. The 22 pounds of missing uranium, for example, could arm a device that could shut down Capitol Hill or the New York Stock Exchange for weeks, if not months.
Properly built and encased with radioactive materials, a dirty bomb can kill thousands and render large areas uninhabitable for months or years. While their destructive capacity pales in comparison to that of actual nuclear bombs, a dirty bomb’s capacity to inflict terror should never be underestimated.
Should an organization such as al-Qaeda acquire a dirty bomb, it is unlikely authorities could keep it out of the US or prevent it from being detonated. Under such circumstances, a terrorist group would not even actually need to possess a second device; it would merely just have to say one was planted in a US city. Imagine what the outbound highways would look like or the overall effect on our economy, our security, our civil rights, our way of life.
Several terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, have shown interest in acquiring the radioactive materials necessary to transform an ordinary bundle of explosives into a weapon of mass terror. The blueprints and other components are commonly available. And now, thanks to sloppy war planning by the White House, the only missing component – radioactive materials — may be readily available, too.
Sort of takes the “pre-emptive” out of pre-emptive war, doesn’t it?
Brett Wagner is president of the California Center for Strategic Studies and a professor at the US Naval War College.