Does Threat Reduction Require Threat Inflation?

Linked with K.N. Pandita’s Answer to. Mr. Krepon. And also linked with Michael Krepon – USA, and with (will appear on our blogs on Dec. 12, 2008).

Received by mail:

From: Michael Krepon
Date: 10/12/2008

By Michael Krepon

Another panel of experts, another dire warning.  This time, a commission led by former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent have concluded that, “Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”  Beware: According to the commission, “America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing.”

Senators Graham, Talent and Co. are not alone.  Another commission convened by the government of Australia has issued a public warning that the world “is on the brink of an avalanche” of nuclear danger and proliferation.  Former Senator Sam Nunn believes that “The risk of a nuclear weapon being used today is growing, not receding.”  And eighty-five nonproliferation experts polled by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005 (including this author) estimated that the combined risk of an attack by weapons of mass destruction was fifty per cent over five years, and seventy per cent over ten.

Sherlock Holmes would find this case to be exceedingly strange.  There have been plenty of motives and opportunities to make mayhem with weapons of mass destruction since the Soviet Union dissolved almost twenty years ago.  And not one of these dogs has yet barked.  If threat estimates are as great as advertised, and if all of our protections are so weak, there should have been a number of mass casualty attacks using weapons of mass destruction by now.

Does this mean we have good reason to be complacent?  Absolutely not.  A terrible nuclear event could happen tomorrow, or the day after.  Experts are absolutely right to call our attention to the need to expand the scope and quicken the pace of efforts to lock down dangerous weapons and materials.  The recommendations of the Graham-Talent Commission are sensible.  It’s the scare tactics that are objectionable.

I understand why threat inflation happens.  It’s believed to be necessary to get the public’s attention and to secure congressional appropriations.  And the U.S. intelligence community is always safer warning of great danger than downplaying threats.  But the “better safe than sorry” school of threat inflation also has significant down-side risks.  A fear-based strategy of reducing nuclear dangers is not politically sustainable.  Fear can be a powerful motivator for short periods of time, but nuclear threat reduction requires success over the long haul.  A fear-based strategy can lead to costly errors in judgment and policy – witness the costs in blood and treasure of a war in Iraq based on false assumptions and inflated threats.

Nor does a fear-based nuclear threat reduction strategy begin to explain why we have not yet witnessed a nuclear event over the past twenty years – especially soon after the Soviet Union fell apart, when controls over loose nukes and fissile material were abysmal.  What might explain this disconnect between expert assessments and the absence of worst cases?  One explanation is that we are either very lucky or the beneficiaries of divine intervention.  A second is that we have gained protection through preventive measures such as those advocated by the experts warning us of dire consequences.  A third explanation is that the nuclear event we most fear is either harder to accomplish or less likely than we estimate.

All of these explanations have merit, but none figure prominently in the executive summary of the Graham-Talent report or in mainstream press coverage of the report.  Seven years after the 9/11 attacks, we are still living in an echo chamber of public anxiety over nuclear terrorism.  The Bush administration and its harshest critics agree that we should be very nervous about mass casualty attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.  Take, for example, the iconic doomsday clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which is now set at five minutes to midnight.  That’s two minutes closer to midnight than in 1962, when President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev faced off in Vienna, and the Cuban missile crisis.  Are we really two minutes closer to midnight than in 1962?

I’m not asking the intelligence community to deflate threat estimates.  I am asking public officials and my fellow experts to provide reassurance in addition to warning notices.  The U.S. government, despite its missteps, has succeeded in making it harder for terrorists to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.  Taxpayer money has been well spent to lock down dangerous weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.  Taxpayer dollars have also been well spent to install radiation detectors at border crossings, to improve port security, and to help train and screen guards at sensitive facilities abroad.  Domestic intelligence coordination has improved, as has intelligence sharing with friends and allies.

The toolbox of cooperative threat reduction measures has never been fuller.  Many small steps have been taken to improve the odds against an attack by weapons of mass destruction that will produce mass casualties.  These success stories, mostly quiet, are usually not subtracted from the fifty per cent plus probabilities that we keep hearing about.

There’s another reason for cautious optimism: For the first time in the history of the Bomb, all states possessing nuclear weapons face a common enemy — nuclear terrorism.  This common enemy also provides a basis for collaboration against the challenges of nuclear proliferation and terrorism – including the two toughest cases of Iran and North Korea.

The absence of a terrible nuclear event since the demise of the Soviet Union can also be explained by the sad truth that terrorists do not need weapons of mass destruction to cause grievous harm; they can do so using automatic weapons and grenades, as has once again been demonstrated in Mumbai.

So where does this leave us?  With extremely serious nuclear threats that need to be addressed more broadly and quickly.  We need to apply all available tools against the two newest cases of proliferation, including diplomacy, deterrence and containment — three pillars of nuclear threat reduction that were denigrated for most of the Bush administration.

Congresswoman Jane Harman is right:  It’s time to retire the fear card.  The United States has many proven, successful techniques to reduce nuclear dangers.  So far, we have managed to avoid a nuclear disaster since the Soviet Union collapsed.  Continuing this track record of success may seem as implausible as, say, hoping that the United States and the Soviet Union could somehow manage to avoid a nuclear exchange during the cold war.  But the implausible has been accomplished before, and it can be accomplished again.

Paul Nitze, a man who was not unfamiliar to worst case thinking about the Bomb, also possessed the perfect mental antidote to nuclear dangers during the cold war.  Nitze counseled, “Try to reduce the dangers of nuclear war within the relevant time period as best you can; you just get depressed if you worry about the long-term future.”  Nitze’s advice is equally true today.  No less than before, we need relentless effort to reduce the dangers of nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

Fear and threat inflation aren’t the answer.  As Nitze would say, we need to “work the problem” day by day, month by month, and year by year.  Yes, we need to be mindful of the dangers we face.  Taxpayers also need to know that we are making headway in reducing these dangers.

(Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.  His newest book, Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb, will be published in January by Stanford University Press).

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