Commentary Magazine


Topic: national security adviser

Is an al-Qaeda Nuclear Suitcase Bomb On the Way?

Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

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Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

I’ve long been skeptical that these things could be floating around. States that build nuclear weapons are well aware of their destructive potential and go to extraordinary lengths to keep them under control.

To be sure, there have been reports pointing in the other direction. In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian national security adviser, told CBS’s Sixty Minutes that the Russian military had 250 such weapons and had lost track of more than 100 of them. But was Lebed in a position to know? As James Kitfield pointed out in National Journal, other Russian authorities have asserted that the KGB was in charge of these devices, which would explain why the Russian military could not offer an accurate accounting of their numbers and whereabouts.

In his 2000 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Yossef Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” But this claim was unsourced and seems difficult to credit. Although bin Laden has openly expressed interest in getting the bomb, and also obtained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric giving him divine permission to use one against American civilians, presumably, if he already had one in the 1990’s, we would have seen or heard it go off by now.

Still, the fact that there has been some sensationalist reporting does not mean there is no reason to worry. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains a chief concern. The country hemorrhaged nuclear-weapons technology for years when its atomic-energy program was being run by A. Q. Khan, who remains a national hero. Even if Khan is no longer in the loop, other elements within the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment might well offer to supply one to al Qaeda either for cash or to earn a place in heaven.

George Tenet adds significantly to our anxieties on this score. Although there are many things wrong with his recent memoir—and I point out some of them in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) —what he writes about this problem seems credible. Immediately after September 11, it turns out, the U.S. government was uncertain whether or not al Qaeda already had such a device:

In late November 2001, I briefed the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser on the latest intelligence. . . . I brought along with me my WMD chief, Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, and Kevin K., our most senior WMD terrorism analyst. During the ensuing conversation, the Vice President asked if we thought al Qaeda had a nuclear weapon. Kevin replied, “Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qaeda nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can’t assure you that they don’t.”

Tenet continues for many pages laying out precise intelligence about al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and from Russia. Whatever his flaws as a CIA director, Tenet was in a position to know all that can be known about this issue. His memoirs show that we do have reason to be afraid. But we shouldn’t be quivering in our boots. Rather, even as we work to avert a disastrous vacuum from forming in Iraq, we should be prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and allied Islamic terrorists with a vigor commensurate with what is at stake.

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Secretary Slaughter?

Who will be Secretary of State or National Security Adviser in the Hillary Rodham Clinton administration? The answer as of now is still rather unclear. But one woman who might be angling for the job—as we see from her essay, “Undoing Bush: How to Repair Eight Years of Sabotage, Bungling, and Neglect,” (link requires a subscription) in the latest issue of Harper’s—is Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Of course, just because she wants such an important job, doesn’t mean she’ll get it. Dean Slaughter may think of herself as a Democratic Condoleezza Rice, but she does not yet have even the minimal level of experience Condi had when Bush tapped her for office. What’s more, she’ll be up against some very power-thirsty competitors. Perhaps, given her interest in international organizations—the subject of her academic research—she will end up as Ambassador to the United Nations, or some such mid-level post.

Whatever her prospects, Slaughter’s Harper’s essay is significant. It casts light on what mainstream Democratic foreign-policy thinkers are talking about at a moment when George Bush has “taken a prosperous nation and mired it in war, replaced our national composure with terror, and left behind him a legacy of damage so profound that repairing it will likely be the work of generations.” Or so the editors of Harper’s say in their preface. 

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Who will be Secretary of State or National Security Adviser in the Hillary Rodham Clinton administration? The answer as of now is still rather unclear. But one woman who might be angling for the job—as we see from her essay, “Undoing Bush: How to Repair Eight Years of Sabotage, Bungling, and Neglect,” (link requires a subscription) in the latest issue of Harper’s—is Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Of course, just because she wants such an important job, doesn’t mean she’ll get it. Dean Slaughter may think of herself as a Democratic Condoleezza Rice, but she does not yet have even the minimal level of experience Condi had when Bush tapped her for office. What’s more, she’ll be up against some very power-thirsty competitors. Perhaps, given her interest in international organizations—the subject of her academic research—she will end up as Ambassador to the United Nations, or some such mid-level post.

Whatever her prospects, Slaughter’s Harper’s essay is significant. It casts light on what mainstream Democratic foreign-policy thinkers are talking about at a moment when George Bush has “taken a prosperous nation and mired it in war, replaced our national composure with terror, and left behind him a legacy of damage so profound that repairing it will likely be the work of generations.” Or so the editors of Harper’s say in their preface. 

Interestingly, Slaughter is not quite as pessimistic as they are. According to her, undoing the damage wrought by Bush won’t take generations; it can be done right away. “The paradox of American foreign policy,” she writes, “is that the United States, though more powerful than ever, has rarely been so lost in the world and never more reviled.” But as recently as September 12, 2001, “everyone was with us—until we told them, both in word and in deed, that if they weren’t with us they were against us.” All a new President need do is “restore American moral and political leadership in the world” by taking five steps.

The first of these is very simple: “we must close Guantanamo.”

The second is a little less simple: “we must get serious about nuclear disarmament.” It is time, says Slaughter, for America to reduce its nuclear arsenal. If we do, and if we provide them with civilian nuclear aid, even the three members of the “axis of evil” might agree “not to pursue nuclear weapons”—a remarkably elegant solution to a perplexing problem. It is a wonder that no one (apart from Jimmy Carter) ever thought of it before.

Steps three and four are a little more simple: the U.S. should join the International Criminal Court and reform the United Nations to expand the Security Council. “Why isn’t a single African, Middle Eastern, or Latin American country permanently represented on the world’s highest decision-making body?” she asks. The time for global inclusiveness has come.

The final item, number five, is very simple: “we must try to stop global warming.”

Is number five a case of hedging one’s bets in case Al Gore becomes President? Perhaps. But such long-range calculations can be as difficult as forecasting the climate.

My favorite among Slaughter’s easy steps is number four: expanding the Security Council to bring in a third-world country. Consensus in the Council itself will of course be required to implement any such proposal. So which country should be invited by us to join? Sudan? Venezuela? Syria? I am sure our good friends on the Security Council, the Russians and the Chinese, would be very happy with any or all of the three.

Let’s wish Anne-Marie Slaughter godspeed in her pursuit of high office. Even if many of her ideas are ludicrous, she’s right about one thing. When it comes to foreign policy, the Bush coterie can be strikingly incompetent. Exhibit A is the fact that even as Slaughter trashes the President for “sabotage, bungling, and neglect,” his administration has turned around and showered her with honors, naming her to chair an important State Department initiative to promote democracy. It is going to take more than five easy steps to undo that particular piece of damage.

 

 

 

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Brzezinski’s Paranoia

Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

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Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

Brzezinski’s goal, he says, is an end to “this hysteria . . . this paranoia.”

How to react to this? Would that one could say simply that it is sad to see a former high official go off the rails, and leave it at that. But the very fact that the Post chose to give the man such prime space shows that he will be taken seriously, although he no longer deserves to be. So here are a few comments.

It is rather rich to decry hysteria and paranoia in the same breath that one likens the slights to Arabs in the American news media to the depiction of Jews by the Nazis, and to imply that these slights may be the prelude to another Holocaust.

It is also rich to hear Brzezinski sneer at “security entrepreneurs.” How, exactly, would Brzezinski describe his own career? The Encyclopedia of World Biography’s entry on him reminds us that “Brzezinski was openly eager to be appointed assistant to the President for nation security affairs and delighted when President-elect Carter offered him the position in December 1976.”

It is amusing to be lectured that “America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor” by the national security adviser of the President who delivered the infamous “malaise” speech, telling Americans that our problems arose from “a crisis of the American spirit” and a “los[s of] confidence in the future.” Aside from being rich, Brzezinski’s claim is false. Fear of the enemy is not the opposite of determination and confidence in ultimate victory. There was much fear of the enemy in 1941, including some that was quite hysterical. The main difference in regard to self-confidence between World War II and the war on terror is that after Pearl Harbor, one no longer heard voices like Brzezinski’s claiming that the real enemy was ourselves.

In a further sneer, Brzezinski writes: “President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging [the war on terror] lest al Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.” Quite a fool, that Bush. Terror here in the United States? Absurd, indeed! How could al Qaeda cross the Atlantic? In airplanes? Ha, ha.

Between sneers, Brzezinski waxes professorial. “Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique,” he explains. Quite so. The enemy might more precisely be described as jihadism, a political ideology that claims that the Christian and Jewish worlds are at war with Islam and that the Islamic world must make war on them. This ideology traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the 1920’s. But it only took wing after a jihadist government seized power in Iran in 1979, much as Communism only emerged as a major force after a Communist government was established in Russia. And where was Brzezinski when this enemy was taking shape? At the very pinnacle of the American government, flapping about pathetically, pursuing policies that enabled this strategic disaster to happen. His qualification for instructing us about how to deal with jihadism is therefore clear: there are few Americans who did us much as he to create the problem.

* Editor’s Note: You can read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s response to one of Muravchik’s critics here.

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All the News That’s Fit to Print?

Despite warnings that it is damaging national security, despite the prospect that it is inviting an unprecedented prosecution under the espionage statutes barring communication of national-defense information, the New York Times presses ahead in its campaign to place our country’s most highly classified military, counterterrorism, and diplomatic secrets on its front page. The string of extremely sensitive leaked information making it into the paper was extended recently when a memorandum by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, summarizing difficulties the U.S. faces with Iraq’s prime minister, appeared on page one.

But while avidly disclosing U.S. secrets, how does the Times report on intelligence operations directed against the United States by foreign powers?

Back in June, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst by the name of Ronald Montaperto was convicted on espionage charges. According to the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Montaperto had held 60 meetings with Chinese military intelligence officers over two decades and provided them with information bearing “secret” and “top-secret” designations. Despite the gravity of the offense, Montaperto was sentenced to only three months in jail. This stands in striking contrast to other well-known cases. Jonathan Pollard, who passed information to Israel in the 1980’s, is serving out a life sentence. Last January, Larry Franklin, a Defense Department desk officer, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for mishandling classified documents and passing sensitive national-defense information to employees of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

There are many mysteries here. One of them is why Montaperto got only a slap on the wrist. One answer is that unlike Pollard and Franklin, he was not a nobody or an outsider but a creature of the establishment. In addition to his work for the DIA, he helped to produce a Council on Foreign Relations study on Chinese nuclear weapons and had many friends in the fraternity of China experts, both in and out of government. The federal judge in the case evidently reduced his sentence on the strength of numerous letters he received from Montaperto’s former colleagues. One of those letters came from the current deputy national-intelligence officer for East Asia, Lonnie Henley. Yesterday came word, from Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, that several months ago Henley received a formal reprimand for writing it.

Another even more intriguing mystery is why, even as the New York Times feels free to compromise one classified program after another, it has kept readers in the dark about the Montaperto matter and Henley’s intervention. The story is already beginning to age, Montaperto will be getting out of prison next month, but his name has yet to be even mentioned in our newspaper of record. One explanation for this silence, easy to demonstrate from their own behavior, is that the editors of the Times do not think the loss of governmental secretswith the single revealing exception of the leak of Valery Plame’s CIA affiliationis of any consequence to national security. It is thanks only to the dogged reporting of Bill Gertz, who has himself been known to publish highly sensitive governmental secrets, that the public is aware of these cases at all. 

To find out about A & O (admission and orientation) programs for a federal prisoner like Ronald N. Montaperto, inmate number 71342-083, click here.

Despite warnings that it is damaging national security, despite the prospect that it is inviting an unprecedented prosecution under the espionage statutes barring communication of national-defense information, the New York Times presses ahead in its campaign to place our country’s most highly classified military, counterterrorism, and diplomatic secrets on its front page. The string of extremely sensitive leaked information making it into the paper was extended recently when a memorandum by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, summarizing difficulties the U.S. faces with Iraq’s prime minister, appeared on page one.

But while avidly disclosing U.S. secrets, how does the Times report on intelligence operations directed against the United States by foreign powers?

Back in June, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst by the name of Ronald Montaperto was convicted on espionage charges. According to the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Montaperto had held 60 meetings with Chinese military intelligence officers over two decades and provided them with information bearing “secret” and “top-secret” designations. Despite the gravity of the offense, Montaperto was sentenced to only three months in jail. This stands in striking contrast to other well-known cases. Jonathan Pollard, who passed information to Israel in the 1980’s, is serving out a life sentence. Last January, Larry Franklin, a Defense Department desk officer, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for mishandling classified documents and passing sensitive national-defense information to employees of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

There are many mysteries here. One of them is why Montaperto got only a slap on the wrist. One answer is that unlike Pollard and Franklin, he was not a nobody or an outsider but a creature of the establishment. In addition to his work for the DIA, he helped to produce a Council on Foreign Relations study on Chinese nuclear weapons and had many friends in the fraternity of China experts, both in and out of government. The federal judge in the case evidently reduced his sentence on the strength of numerous letters he received from Montaperto’s former colleagues. One of those letters came from the current deputy national-intelligence officer for East Asia, Lonnie Henley. Yesterday came word, from Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, that several months ago Henley received a formal reprimand for writing it.

Another even more intriguing mystery is why, even as the New York Times feels free to compromise one classified program after another, it has kept readers in the dark about the Montaperto matter and Henley’s intervention. The story is already beginning to age, Montaperto will be getting out of prison next month, but his name has yet to be even mentioned in our newspaper of record. One explanation for this silence, easy to demonstrate from their own behavior, is that the editors of the Times do not think the loss of governmental secretswith the single revealing exception of the leak of Valery Plame’s CIA affiliationis of any consequence to national security. It is thanks only to the dogged reporting of Bill Gertz, who has himself been known to publish highly sensitive governmental secrets, that the public is aware of these cases at all. 

To find out about A & O (admission and orientation) programs for a federal prisoner like Ronald N. Montaperto, inmate number 71342-083, click here.

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