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An Inadequate Response to Nuclear Terrorism



VIENNA, Austria--The fuss over Iran--the major investment by the French oil company, Total, and the alleged indirect support of Russia for Iran's nuclear bomb program--is taking our eyes off the real ball. It was the same three years ago when CIA leaks about North Korea's bomb ambitions were part of an effort to steamroller President Bill Clinton into ordering the bombing of North Korea's nuclear installations.

The real issue in terms of imminent danger both then and now is the Russian mafia. "The director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, has warned that Russian organized crime networks pose a menace to U.S. national security and has asserted that there is now greater danger of a nuclear attack by some outlaw group than there was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War," reported the Washington Post last week.

In conversation, Munir Ahmed Khan, the former chairman of the world's nuclear watchdog body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirms that opinion here is moving in the same direction as Mr. Freeh's. Mr. Khan, commenting on the recent allegations made by the former Russian general and national security advisor, Alexander Lebed, that the mafia have stolen Soviet-era nuclear suitcase bombs, says that if this is true they would be useable, contrary to statements made by President Boris Yeltsin's government. "Competent nuclear scientists of which there are many out of work and in economic difficulties could be hired to keep them operational." Mr. Khan knows a thing or two about undercover bomb work. He masterminded, against all the odds, the clandestine manufacture of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.

Iran, even if it is trying to develop a nuclear bomb, North Korea, if it has ever been, are both unlikely to ever use them. "Rogues" they may be. Suicidal they are not. Both live in neighborhoods where a move to deploy such weapons would be met with a totally debilitating blitzkrieg. As Pakistan does, these countries would keep their nukes in the background, partly deterrent, partly prestige item.

The Russian mafia--and the people they do business with--are another matter. If they do trade in nuclear weapons the danger will not be with governments with a fixed address where Washington, Moscow, London, Paris or even Beijing know where to retaliate, it will be a free-lance terrorist group of no fixed abode, determined to use blackmail to secure a particular objective. It could be to force the withdrawal of the Turkish army from Kurdish areas, Israel from its settlements in Palestine or to demand the release from prison of Colombian drug barons.

Mr. Freeh promised "drastic steps to prevent and detect" nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Russian criminal gangs. Yet at the same time he admitted that the Russian syndicates with former KGB officers in the hierarchy run the most sophisticated criminal operations ever seen in the U.S.

What "drastic steps" does Mr. Freeh have up his sleeve? The former CIA director John Deutch in the new issue of Foreign Policy, commenting on the statement that "the U.S. government is effectively organized to address the terrorist threat," said two words: "Ha, ha."

Every policy-maker should read this article. It makes the plain obvious--America is wide open to nuclear terrorist blackmail. Nevertheless, the White House is being very careful to keep the lid on the debate, for fear it could unnerve and alarm public opinion.

Their caution and reticence is understandable. For decades Washington justified the possession of nuclear weapons as creating a stable balance of power. All through the Cold War years it paid little or no attention to the now known dangers of atmospheric testing or to those who warned that nuclear weapons were a Faustian bargain and would inevitably fall into the wrong hands or, as General George Lee Butler, the former head of U.S. Strategic Command warned in January, be used by accident.

Moreover, Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, Rome, Ottawa and Tokyo (the G7) missed the historic opportunity of the century to put Russia the right way up when they refused to provide the financial wherewithall to enable Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to make what could have been a relatively smooth transition from rigid communism to a more liberal set up, something short of today's present wild west capitalism. They repeated their mistake when they, led by president George Bush, refused the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, help in late 1991, Washington sending as the sole emissary a Treasury under-secretary whose job was to insist to the new Russian government that they honor the old Soviet debt. Only 2% of NATO defense spending would have done the job and avoided nearly eight years of economic turmoil and, not least, the emergence of the mafia that now threatens us.

No doubt Washington would like to deal with this grave crisis without having to throw into relief its past errors. Common sense suggests the White House is working with Moscow to try and quietly buy off the would-be nuclear terrorists. One wishes the authorities well, for if they fail it will be the greatest tragedy to befall humanity since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


October 8, 1997, VIENNA

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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