Want to know where to find weapons of mass destruction? Last weekend, the New York Times buried an article on how authorities in Thailand had seized as much as sixty-six pounds of Cesium-137, a radioactive material which could be used to make “dirty” bombs.
Experts said they were startled by the amount found. “Pounds? Most studies of ‘dirty’ bombs start off by describing weapons with an ounce of Cesium,” said Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “Cesium-137 is serious stuff, highly radioactive. You put it alongside ten pounds or more of dynamite, and you’ve got a really dangerous terror weapon.”
Non-proliferation experts said they wouldn’t be surprised if the Cesium came from the former Soviet Union–the source of much of the radioactive material seized on the black market in recent years. Just three days later, the New York Times‘ World Briefing section ran a tiny item noting that police in Tbilisi, Georgia had just discovered 170 pounds of Cesium-137, along with strontium 90 in a taxi.
WMD in a taxicab in downtown Tbilisi? WMD in a metal box in Bangkok? Isn’t it time for a performance review of the job the Bush Administration is doing to ensure America’s national security? In the postwar chaos, Iraq’s nuclear sites have been looted, radioactive materials can’t be accounted for and there’s no sign ofany weapons of mass destruction. (And even if they are found, it’s clear that they never posed an imminent and grave threat.)
It’s no wonder former national security official and Special Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism Rand Beers, who resigned eight week ago, blasted the Administration’s agenda as the reason for his departure: “They’re making us less secure, not more secure.”
With each passing day, the White House’s priorities seem scandalously skewed. Just consider: The Bush team will spend close to $100 billion on war with Iraq, while they disastrously underfund vital programs to safeguard, destroy or neutralize Russia’s vast and poorly-secured nuclear, chemical and biological stockpile. (Current funding for these nonproliferation programs is around $1 billion a year–less than 1/400th of the current Pentagon budget.)
You think I’m hyping the problem. Listen to former Department of Energy official Jon Wolfstahl’s warning to Congress last May: “It is impossible to overstate the dangers posed by the continued lack of security over the weapons complex of the former Soviet Union. Each day, hundreds of tons of material and an unknown number of nuclear weapons–capable of killing millions of American citizens–are at risk of theft or diversion.”
After reaching the same conclusion, a bipartisan task force headed by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler called on the US to commit to a $3 billion per year, ten-year plan to secure or destroy Russia’s nuclear stockpile. But, as Wolfstahl says, the Administration continues to “spend a lot more time talking about ‘evildoers’ than spending time securing radioactive materials that could actually hurt Americans.”