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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Khan Network Could Erode U.S. Deterrence, Expert Says

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — The spread of nuclear technology on the black market could weaken U.S. efforts to block the transfer of fissile material by rogue nations to terrorist groups, a nonproliferation expert said Friday (see GSN, June 12).

Speaking before a group of congressional staffers, former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci questioned the U.S. capability to determine the origin of fissile material following a nuclear blast.

That ability — what experts call nuclear attribution — is “not certain,” said Gallucci, now dean of the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

“One of the reasons is that of course A.Q. Khan has played Johnny Appleseed, and the same kind of centrifuge has been spread all over the place,” he said.

Gallucci was referring to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former director of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. In 2004, Khan admitted to coordinating the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea (see GSN, Feb. 2, 2004).

With the U.S. ability to link fissile material to a particular country in doubt, nations such as Iran or North Korea might feel more confident supplying highly enriched uranium to a nonstate group, Gallucci said.

Citing North Korea’s track record of transferring weapon technology, he questioned whether the leadership in Pyongyang would be any more scrupulous about uranium.

“That’s what they do — they sell this stuff,” Gallucci said. “So what are they going to do, all of a sudden get religion and not sell highly enriched uranium?”

Iran is the primary supplier of conventional arms to terrorist groups, Gallucci said, arguing that it is not inconceivable that it would move up to transfers of nuclear material.

For Gallucci, the prospect of so-called rogue nations accumulating fissile material should be considered a priority security risk to the United States.

“I don’t know what’s in second place, but it’s way back there,” he said. “I’m worried about five nuclear weapons going off in five American cities, and the United States of America not existing anymore.”

Gallucci said the danger posed by a nation such as Iran holding banks of fissile material is so great that “pre-emptive war” should remain an option.

“I become interested in some pretty horrible options,” he said. “The implications are horrible for American interests. … It’s just dreadful, but not as bad as losing an American city or two.”
Detecting Faint Fingerprints?

Deterring a nation from transferring fissile material to a terrorist group on the sly relies largely on a U.S. ability to determine the material’s origin after a blast. That is an uncertain skill, Gallucci said.

If officials are banking on intercepting a nuclear device on its way into the United States, it is already too late given porous U.S. borders, Gallucci argued. Counting on the intelligence community to deter a rogue regime from transferring fissile material is also a gamble.

The objects in question could be small, he said, suggesting a golf-ball size lump of plutonium or a baseball-sized amount of uranium would be sufficient to create devastating nuclear devices.

Even an assembled bomb would fit inside a podium, Gallucci added.

“You’re going to have to have the confidence that the North Korean regime and the Iranian regime believe they couldn’t get a box out of their country to some place in Africa or central Asia or wherever it is al-Qaeda would set up a garage or a machine shop to make the weapon,” Gallucci said.

However, if a nation believes the United States could sift through the smoldering ruin of a U.S. city and pinpoint where the fissile material in a bomb came from, that country might be less likely to hand that material over to a terrorist group.

Striking a nonstate actor could be difficult, but the country that supplied the terrorists could be targeted.

“They should believe that we would regard that as an attack on the U.S. made by them and respond as if it were an attack,” Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said in an interview.

That assumes a distinct nuclear fingerprint could found and linked to a source, which experts say is an enormous challenge.

Jay Davis, a former national security fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, called it “the attribution problem” in a 2003 paper.

“I keep a standing mental list of the five hardest technical problems of which I am aware,” he wrote. Nuclear forensics is on that list.

“There is no assurance” that in the wake of a nuclear blast that the United States would be able “to uniquely determine a perpetrator,” wrote Davis, former director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Determining that plutonium came from a reactor in North Korea could be possible. “It has virtually a fingerprint,” Allison said.

The U.S. agencies that would be involved in such an effort have not released details of their capabilities.

In 2002, the United States was still several years away from having the capability to detect the country of origin of a nuclear weapon, according to a report released by National Academy of Sciences (see GSN, June 26, 2002)

The state of attribution technology has advanced since then, but it remains a “huge challenge,” said former U.S. Energy Department energy research chief William Happer, chairman of the academy panel that produced the nuclear and radiological threat section of the report. “If anything, I’m slightly … surprised we have been able to do a little better than I thought we could.”

Still, determining the provenance of highly enriched uranium following a blast might remain beyond U.S. capabilities, Happer told Global Security Newswire.

“If we got our hands on a terrorist bomb before it went off and it was uranium, we would have a very good chance of determining where it came from,” he said. “After the detonation it’s much harder.”
One Piece of the Puzzle

Attribution is just one piece of the puzzle, said Michael Levi, an arms control expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The purpose of technical attribution measures is not to tell you where the material came from but to reduce the number of possible sources you might detect,” he said. “Just because the technical intelligence doesn’t deliver a slam dunk doesn’t mean it’s not useful.”

Information gleaned from attribution technology would work in concert with human intelligence and other data, Levi said. If a blast were to occur on U.S. soil, there would be a crowd of nations rushing to clear themselves in the aftermath, he added.

When it comes to deterrence, the perception other nations have of U.S. capabilities is important. Levi suggests that the question is not whether U.S. officials could pinpoint the origin of the fissile material but if other nations think they can.

If a nation thinks the United States has the necessary capabilities, that could be good enough to keep it from spreading nuclear material around.

“It’s like poker where they’re going to lose everything they have if they bet wrong,” Levi said.
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