WASHINGTON -- When John Kerry was asked to name the single most serious threat to America's security during his first debate against President Bush this week, the Democratic candidate didn't hesitate. "Nuclear proliferation," the Massachusetts senator said. "Nuclear proliferation."
Security specialists advising both candidates say the nation's most daunting challenge is preventing terrorists from killing hundreds of thousands of people in a nuclear nightmare that would dwarf the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush agreed with Kerry's assessment in the debate Thursday night and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly has said that the prospect of nuclear terrorism keeps him up nights.
"To contemplate the possibility of them unleashing that kind of capability . . . in the midst of one of our cities -- that's a scary proposition," Cheney recently told an interviewer on talk radio.
No matter who wins the election next month, the next president will face a nuclear proliferation problem that continues to worsen, specialists say.
Bush said in the debate that his administration has increased funding by 35 percent to contain nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, and cites as success stories both Libya's willingness to dismantle its program and the breakup of a Pakistani black-market supply network that reached from North Africa to East Asia.
But North Korea, despite US-led talks involving six nations over the past two years, is suspected to have built several nuclear bombs in recent years. Iran, also labeled a supporter of terrorists, is widely thought by international intelligence agencies to be on the brink of developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons. The sheer amount of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union makes security specialists nervous.
When Chechen terrorists seized a school in southern Russia last month, officials in Moscow took urgent action to increase security at nuclear facilities across the country, fearful that the guerrillas -- whose cohorts had boarded and crashed two Russian jetliners after a $40 bribe to airport personnel -- could secure nuclear supplies with cold cash. The Sept. 11 commission concluded in July that Al Qaeda has been seeking nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction for a decade.
At least twice since the Sept. 11 attacks, US intelligence officials believed, terrorists had smuggled a nuclear device into the United States, once in New York City and later along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. A senior Bush administration official who asked not to be identified said that before the information was determined to be unfounded, he considered calling his wife and telling her to take the children and head for the Virginia mountains.
In September, national security officials gathered in Washington for a secret exercise that simulated the detonation of a small-scale nuclear device and tested how the government would respond.
"It would be difficult for terrorists to mount a nuclear attack on a US city, but such an attack is plausible and would have catastrophic consequences, in one scenario killing over a half-million people and causing damage over $1 trillion," according to a new study by the Congressional Research Service obtained by the Globe.
The study cites "many potential weaknesses in US ability to thwart nuclear terrorism."
Kerry insisted that as president he would devote more attention and funding to the threat than Bush and would immediately appoint a presidential coordinator to oversee the issue. Citing a recent Harvard study by Matthew Bunn and Anthony Weir, Kerry noted that less Russian nuclear material was secured in the two years after the Sept. 11 attacks than in the two years before.
Kerry also has called for speeding up efforts to secure vulnerable Russian material, which he said at the current pace will take 13 years to complete. Kerry has pledged to complete the process in four.
Bush, meanwhile, said Thursday that stanching nuclear proliferation is "one of the centerpieces of a multipronged strategy to make the country safer." He cited recent efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, involving 60 countries, to disrupt the shipments of materials for weapons of mass destruction. "And we've been effective," Bush said.
To specialists on nuclear proliferation, the two candidates differ little on the magnitude of the danger but part company on how to control it.
"In identifying the challenge, there is pretty broad agreement," said Laura Holgate , a former Clinton administration official and a vice president of the nonpartisan Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization established by former senator Sam Nunn and media executive Ted Turner. "The techniques and the mechanisms have some differences. Kerry plans to secure loose materials faster, giving the job executive-level focus and additional funding.
This issue doesn't seem to come up in much detail in summit discussions over the last four or five years."
Holgate said Kerry, compared with the president, also has focused on breaking through some of bureaucratic logjams, particularly in regard to Russian cooperation, that have stifled progress. She said a Cabinet-level commission in the Clinton administration that was supposed to streamline nuclear control efforts "trailed off and was never recreated."
Bush wants to protect the homeland from a nuclear launch by developing a national missile shield, a standing Republican Party goal since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Kerry argued that terrorists are more likely to smuggle a nuclear device across porous US borders and that he thinks the proposed antimissile system, which has cost about $100 billion, is unproven.
Kerry also said he would re-embrace the international treaties and other multilateral efforts that he contends Bush has rolled back. The senator said he would negotiate directly with the North Koreans and lead multinational efforts to force Iran to open up its nuclear program. He also derided the Bush administration's determination to pursue research on new US nuclear weapons even as it is trying to dissuade others from developing nuclear capabilities.
"I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world, we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation," he said Thursday.
The Bush campaign says the president deserves credit for a range of accomplishments to limit the nuclear threat. Bush persuaded the Group of Eight economic powers in 2002 to pledge $20 billion to secure former Soviet nuclear, chemical, and biological materials and expertise, although little of the money has been spent.
Bush cites success in Libya and the unraveling of the Abdul Qadeer Khan supply network in Pakistan; his campaign says Washington "is working with allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that Iran meets its commitments and does not develop nuclear weapons."
But in the view of many specialists, the right words have not translated into the right deeds. Morten Bremer Maerli, a nuclear proliferation specialist at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said the threat of nuclear terrorism is the "great paradox" of the war on terrorism.
"Despite the rhetoric out of D.C., the United States has done less in securing highly enriched uranium . . . and undermined the international nonproliferation regime and weakened the fight against terrorism," Maerli said from Oslo, where he recently completed a doctorate thesis on securing loose nuclear weapons.
Only 6 percent of Russia's estimated 600 tons of potentially vulnerable nuclear materials have been secured -- enough to make thousands of nuclear bombs.
The security manager at one of Russia's largest nuclear processing centers reported that guards routinely patrol without ammunition and a Russian businessman was charged last year with offering $750,000 for stolen weaponsgrade plutonium for sale to a foreign client.
And while Russia may be the front line in the race to stop a nuclear nightmare, it is only the beginning. The United Nations estimates that 110 lack the necessary safeguards to protect nuclear materials terrorists are seeking.
An earlier installment of this series was published Sept. 29.
Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org