Accessibility links

US Congress Works on Nuclear Terrorism Resolution - 2002-09-25

As Congress continues work on a resolution that would authorize possible military action against Iraq, lawmakers are hearing from experts about the threat of future terrorist attacks whether by terrorist groups or carried out by unfriendly governments. Some witnesses at a Capitol Hill hearing said there is no need to wait for more evidence of Saddam Hussein's intention to use weapons of mass destruction, while others caution against U.S. military action and urge more time to see if aggressive U.N. inspections can work.

Lawmakers generally agree that President Saddam Hussein poses a threat to Iraq's neighbors and to Israel, but many remain skeptical of the basis for the Bush Administration's determination to take pre-emptive military action. Tuesday's hearing focused primarily on this question: how likely is it that the failure to move against Iraq now could lead to an incident or incidents of nuclear terrorism in the future?

Khidhir Hamza was formerly director of Iraq's nuclear weapons program. His assessments of Iraq's nuclear weapons efforts have been quoted frequently in the media and cited by administration officials.

Mr. Hamza says that given sufficient amounts of nuclear material, Iraq could be two to three years from being able to produce nuclear weapons. He says this, combined with Saddam Hussein's unpredictable nature, spell trouble. "The bigger concern is that Iraq will have its own production facilities in the nuclear area, and then you are dealing with a major nuclear power after a while," says Mr. Hamza. "Would that be an acceptable future one would want for the Middle East, with Iraq in possession of several nuclear weapons sitting right there in the region, and doing what it wants under a nuclear umbrella?"

Matthew Bunn is Senior Research Associate with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He agrees with Mr. Hamza it is unlikely Saddam Hussein would give nuclear weapons technology to terrorist groups.

However, Mr. Bunn says it is well known Osama bin-Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network was attempting to obtain nuclear materials, and says what is needed is a world coalition to do everything possible to control these materials. "These materials are the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons and they need to be secured at least as well as gold and diamonds are. That is demonstrably not the case in the world today."

Rensslear Lee is an expert in foreign affairs, defense and trade with the Congressional Research Service. He says there is little hard evidence of al-Qaida activity in the nuclear marketplace, adding that the threat of nuclear terrorism appears so far to be over-stated. "It is not inconceivable that terrorist could lay their hands on the perhaps 40 to 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary to build a crude nuclear weapon," says Mr. Lee. "But accomplishing this would be no small feat for a pariah, non-state actor like al-Qaida." But Mr. Lee adds that while nuclear terrorism appears not to be a clear and present danger, the world cannot be complacent.

President Bush, backed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, say pre-emptive action against Iraq is the only way to ensure that Iraq, or groups helped by Baghdad, can't carry out future terrorist attacks. However, Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says relying only on pre-emptive action will not bring security in the long-run. "Even if the current effort to oust Saddam Hussein is successful, there is no guarantee of continuing success over the long term with other such cases," he says. "Success in pre-emption depends on timely knowledge of terrorist threat, which we should not be so foolish to believe we will always have. Surely we have learned, or should have learned, that much from September 11."

Mr. Paine warns that inaccurate intelligence could lead to mis-directed pre-emptive attacks, which would only increase political hostilities and heighten the risk of further terrorism.

The congressional panel also heard testimony about the dangers posed to nuclear weapons facilities in the United States. "Weapons-grade material, stolen from a DOE (Department of Energy) facility, could be used by a terrorist group to either fabricate a crude nuclear weapon or create a dirty bomb," says Danielle Bryan, executive Director of The Project on Government Oversight. "This is not as far-fetched as some might believe. In fact, in full-scope mock [simulated] terrorist attack tests performed by the government, half the time mock terrorists are successful in breaking in, stealing significant quantities of special nuclear material, and leaving the site."

Ms. Bryan says the danger is compounded in scenarios involving potential suicide terrorists. A successful penetration of a nuclear facility, she says, by a suicide terrorist using convention explosives, could result in a "sizable nuclear detonation".