Seminal Issues as Viewed through the Lens of The Progressive Case

Remarks at the Conference “Weapons of Mass Destruction, National Security, and a Free Press: Seminal Issues as Viewed through the
Lens of The Progressive Case”

Cardozo School of Law

I am pleased to appear at this anniversary of the “Progressive Case,” which tested whether information about the design of nuclear weapons could be published in the mass media. What strikes me the strongest about the case today is how much things have changed. The problem today is not to get information about the bomb out, the problem is to keep it in. And the press is essential to keep pressure on the governments of the world to do a better job of keeping it in.

We have just learned that Libya purchased a workable bomb design from a nuclear smuggling network set up by Dr. A.Q. Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. That design was given to Pakistan in the early 1980’s by China, which had already tested it. It is an implosion device that uses highly-enriched uranium. Pakistan then provided the design to middle-men, who were tasked with importing its components. The design thus made its way into the nuclear black market. We have also learned that Khan’s network provided it to Libya. The CIA has brought the design back to the United States in a box. How many more people have it? We don’t know. There were also engineering drawings showing how to make it. Will it wind up on the web, or perhaps in the Progressive magazine?

I would like to talk about Mr. Khan’s smuggling network and what it did.

First, the bomb design was not the important thing. The most important thing Khan provided was the means to make nuclear material – the fissile material that actually explodes in a bomb. This consists of either plutonium or highly-enriched uranium. That is what is hardest to make. Eighty to ninety percent of the effort in the Manhattan Project was devoted to making this material.

Libya had a contract for about 10,000 centrifuges, which could have produced at least 10 bombs’ worth of material per year. Iran was outfitted with centrifuges in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Libya was still getting things last fall. A.Q. Khan got millions in bribes, built big houses, and traveled around the world for more than a decade. He had been known since the 1970’s as a nuclear thief and was indicted for it. He nevertheless succeeded in supplying Iran and North Korea with what they needed, and Libya was on its way to the same result. Last October, our intelligence agents finally intercepted a shipment. A little bit later Libya agreed to give up all of its WMD programs, which meant that Libya would stop suffering from international sanctions and would not have to worry about being invaded.

But where were our U.S. intelligence agents during the past decade? Why didn’t we detect this smuggling network and stop it before it succeeded? Stopping such networks is the first line of defense, but it is not working. Networks need to be stopped before they succeed. Why isn’t the press pointing out what amounts to an international intelligence disaster?

Sadly enough, it is not an isolated failure. Our intelligence agencies missed Iraq’s nuclear program before the first Gulf War, when they failed to detect the existence of giant devices for enriching uranium called calutrons. They also missed Iraq’s biological weapon program. In addition, they missed Iraq’s lack of WMD production before the most recent war. And they missed India’s nuclear test in 1998, and couldn’t find the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. We obviously need more accountability from our intelligence agents. We spend 30 to 50 billion a year on them and we still don’t have the answers to the big questions. These are quite simple: How many nukes does North Korea have? How much of a threat was Saddam Hussein? How far is Iran from building a bomb?

We have an extensive system in the developed countries for controlling the export of sensitive items like centrifuges for enriching uranium. But this Pakistani network went around it like the German army around the Maginot line. The good news is that the Libyans are turning everybody in the network in, which includes at a minimum all of Libya’s suppliers. We now have a fair chance of rolling the network up. And with Libya and Iraq gone as proliferation threats, we are down to Iran and North Korea. There are only these two current cases left, with perhaps Brazil lurking in the far background.

Iran is really the big question. If Iran goes nuclear, then the non-proliferation treaty and export controls and international diplomacy will all have failed. The Middle East will have another nuclear power, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt will have to think about their own nuclear plans. Iran also supports terrorism, and has done so for many years.

Iran could take a number of different paths. It could follow the Libyan model and get rid of its nuclear fuel cycle plants, centrifuges, heavy water reactors, and associated equipment. It would be left with a power reactor it really doesn’t need, due to its large amount of oil and natural gas. Or, it could follow the North Korea model and drop out of the non-proliferation treaty and tell everyone to go to hell. This would probably result in international sanctions that would be unpleasant and perhaps even painful for Iran to endure. Or it could follow the Iraqi model of deception, which Iran seems to be using now. Iran could try to deceive international inspectors, engage in secret activities and play for time. Or, finally, it could follow a new model and achieve a “breakout” option while staying within the non-proliferation treaty. This would entail making plutonium and highly-enriched uranium legally under the treaty until reaching bomb capability, and then dropping out of the treaty and using its nuclear advances to quickly get the bomb. It may be hard for us to distinguish which of these last two options Iran is really following.

The nuclear weapon timeline for Iran is rather unclear. What we do know is that Iran is much closer than Saddam was when we invaded Iraq recently. And Iran is probably closer than Saddam was at the time of the first Gulf War. Iran’s long range missile program is important too. The only purpose of a long-range missile is to carry a nuclear warhead. The existence of such a program reveals one’s intentions.

So, what is the world-wide threat today? Looking around the world, we see the following:

Egypt, Syria and Iran can all target Israel with chemical or high-explosive warheads on missiles. Certainly many hundreds of these missiles and possibly as many as a thousand could be targeted on Israel. Israel, in turn, can target all of these countries with the same, plus nuclear warheads. These nuclear warheads number in the low hundreds and are sufficient to destroy every target in the Middle East. India and Pakistan can target each other with scores of nuclear warheads on both missiles and aircraft. India’s expanding nuclear capability will cover China soon and may cover the entire world within the next decade (India hopes to deploy submarines with nuclear missiles). Iran will achieve nuclear weapon status in a few years unless someone intervenes. Iran will also continue to develop its missile program. North Korea may continue to produce nuclear weapon material and may even begin to export it. Virtually all of this capability will have been built with imports, and will continue to be developed with imports. So export controls will be a great tool for slowing it down, and so will an effective intelligence organization. We do not have the latter, and without it, the former does not do us much good.