The U.S. government's ability to monitor emerging rogue nuclear threats is "either inadequate, or more often, [does] not exist," according to a new report from a task force of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board.
The task force also suggested it may take another major terrorist attack before effective vigilance against 21st century nuclear threats become a reality, because it requires a "level of commitment and sustainment we don't normally do well without a crisis."
Terrorist groups and states seeking nuclear weapons "hostile to the U.S. and its allies … do not appear to be bound by established norms nor deterred by traditional means," the science board's 100-page "Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies" warned.
Although the report said "monitoring for proliferation should be a top national security objective," and "monitoring will need to be continuous, adaptive, and continuously tested for its effectiveness," the task force stressed that "the nation is not yet organized or fully equipped to address" the challenges that effective monitoring poses.
The task force also warned that "the pathways to proliferation are expanding to include networks of cooperation among nations and actors who would otherwise have little reason to do so" — such as North Korea's nuclear weapons collaboration with both Iran and Syria.
Meanwhile, the report noted that "growth in nuclear power worldwide offers more opportunity for 'leakage' and/or hiding small programs."
"Fundamental nuclear knowledge is widespread and know‐how increasingly accessible," the report pointed out, with "more sophisticated methods of denial and deception" than in the days when nuclear information was less available.
Faulty monitoring of foreign nuclear threats is nothing new for U.S. intelligence.
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Tim Weiner noted in his history of the CIA, "Legacy of Ashes,"
that on Sept. 20, 1949, "the CIA confidently declared that the Soviet Union would not produce an atomic weapon for at least another four years. Three days later, Truman told the world that Stalin had the bomb."
Similarly, in May 1998, the CIA was shocked when India tested a nuclear bomb, revealing the agency's "failure of espionage, a failure to read photographs, a failure to comprehend reports, a failure to think, and a failure to see," Weiner charged.
Less than three weeks later, India's hostile neighbor Pakistan exploded multiple atomic bombs, joining India as a member in the nuclear club.
U.S. government nuclear engineers Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman in their 2009 chronicle of global nuclear proliferation, "The Nuclear Express,"
argued that in watching for modern nuclear threats, intelligence agencies are overly focused on Cold War-style strategies like satellite photo surveillance.
"Overhead photography and signals intelligence gave the United States great insight into the Soviet war machine, but today's challenge is different," Reed and Stillman warned. "We need insight into the radical Muslim and isolated North Korean mind. That can only be accomplished on the ground, with great effort, training, and by the recruitment of Muslim and North Korean agents in place."
According to Graham Allison, considered founding dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and an assistant secretary of defense for former President Bill Clinton, "The detonation of a terrorist nuclear device in an American city is inevitable if the United States continues on its present course."
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