1997 Congressional Hearings
Special Weapons
Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Missile


Statement of

Jessica Eve Stern

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet has warned that "fanatical" terrorists pose an "unprecedented threat" to the United States. Tenet also testified that the CIA is increasingly seeing terrorist groups looking into the feasibility and effectiveness of chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. His predecessor, John Deutch, testified that nuclear materials and technologies are "more accessible now than at any other time in history." And yet, to date, U.S. budgetary priorities do not reflect these assessments. Only a tiny fraction of our defense dollars directly address these threats.

Americans are increasingly fearful of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, according to a recent poll. There is no question that Americans are right to be afraid. Crude designs for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are increasingly available in book form and on the Internet. Nuclear and chemical-weapons components are leaking from poorly guarded facilities in the former Soviet Union. Closer to home, extremists and cults are experimenting with weapons of mass destruction. In the last several years, right-wing extremists have planned to use ricin, an extremely toxic biological agent, and in a separate incident, radiological materials, to kill IRS and other US government officials. Cults are expected to become even more violent in the next few years: the final years of a century have often been met with acts of extreme violence, and the end of the millennium may provoke even more extreme outbursts. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons may be uniquely attractive to terrorists seeking to conjure a sense of divine retribution, to display scientific prowess, to kill large numbers, to invoke a deep sense of dread, or to retaliate against states that have used these weapons in the past. Research on risk perception shows that poisons - including radioactive materials -- have many characteristics common to risks that are disproportionately feared, including invisibility, delayed effects, the potential for catastrophe, and the victim's inability to control exposure. Fear of these weapons enhances their military effectiveness, and even more so, their effectiveness as terror weapons.

Three interrelated developments have increased the risk that terrorists will use nuclear chemical, or biological weapons against civilian targets in the next decade:

· Loose nukes and poisons

· Proliferating know-how

· Changes in terrorists' objectives and tactics

Each of these developments is examined briefly below.

I. Loose Nukes and Poisons: Hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium - the essential ingredient of nuclear weapons - are spread at some forty sites throughout the Soviet Union. Some of this material is secured with the equivalent of bicycle locks. Of particular concern is a reactor at Aktau, Kazakhstan, where three tons of "ivory grade" plutonium are stored directly across the Caspian Sea from Iran. Even more troubling is the prospect that terrorists could acquire bombs ready-made. Senior Russian officials have expressed grave concerns about inadequate security for warheads in transit as well as in storage. The Russian military reportedly claims that it faces "chronic shortages" of specially equipped trains to protect against acts of sabotage. General Maslin described an exercise to test the warhead security system. As a result of those exercises, he claimed in a press interview, "I became greatly concerned about a question that we had never even thought of before:What if such acts were to be undertaken by people who have worked with nuclear weapons in the past? For example, by people dismissed from our structures, social malcontents, embittered individuals?" Two additional sources - in one case the "greens" in Perm, in another, General Lebed, describe experiments to determine whether nuclear-weapons depots could be penetrated. In both cases, the mock "terrorists" allegedly encountered no special difficulties in penetrating the storage sites.

II. Proliferating know-how: Information about production of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is increasingly available. For example, in 1995, a neo-Nazi molecular biologist published a manual on producing biological weapons that he is advertising on the web and on anti-abortion talk-radio. Terrorists and rogue states might also buy former Soviet weapons-scientists' expertise. Senior Russian government officials admit their concern that weapons scientists, especially biological-weapons specialists, are selling their expertise abroad. Russian physicists are reportedly providing consulting services to missile and nuclear energy programs in Iran and Pakistan. "Because of the deteriorating condition of the military-industrial complex in the former Soviet Union, many specialists in the field of chemical weaponry do not have enough sources of income to support their families and are ready to go anywhere to earn money," a Russian chemical-weapons scientist testified. Strikes at nuclear facilities have become commonplace. The director of Chelyabinsk 70 - one of Russia's most elite nuclear-weapons laboratories - killed himself, claiming he could no longer bear his inability to pay his own workers. These financial pressures on former weapons scientists pose grave risks to international security.

III. Changes in Terrorists Objectives and Tactics: Until recently, most terrorists confined themselves to relatively low-level violence. Now terrorists are becoming more violent. While the number of international incidents fell in 1996, the number of deaths increased. Until now, in Brian Jenkins' famous words, terrorists seemed to want "a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead." But it is increasingly clear that not all terrorists continue to be constrained by moral or political inhibitions. The ad hoc group of radical Islamic fundamentalists responsible for the World Trade Center bombing intended to bring the World Trade Center buildings down. Had they succeeded, the FBI estimates that some 50,000 people would have died. The terrorists made a minor error in their placement of the bomb. Nonetheless, the structural integrity of one of the twin towers and of the adjoining Vista Hotel was in jeopardy and would have collapsed spontaneously -- perhaps within days of the bombing -- had the buildings not been reinforced with steel supports, according to the FBI. Investigators found a cache of sodium cyanide in the bombers' warehouse. Some experts, including the sentencing judge, are convinced that cyanide was used in the bomb, but that it burned instead of vaporizing. Had it vaporized, hundreds or thousands could have been poisoned. Also in 1993, the FBI successfully thwarted a "summer of mayhem" planned by another multinational group of radical Islamic Fundamentalists. The group was in the act of mixing up explosives when the FBI moved in, arresting eight suspects. The group was planning to bomb the UN, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and the Federal Plaza; and planned also to assassinate the President of Egypt, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and two members of the US Congress. These groups clearly had the motivation to kill in large numbers. They failed in the first case because of a minor technical error and in the second because the FBI had been informed of the plot.

An Appropriate Response to the New Terrorists

The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici program has made great strides in addressing these dangers, but the funds directed to these efforts are inadequate to the task. We must attack the problem at its source, by continuing to help the Russian government secure its nuclear and chemical facilities and find alternative employment for weapons scientists. We must expedite efforts to enhance border controls to prevent smuggling of weapons of mass destruction- both at home and abroad. We must improve our ability to detect and disable nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon-systems. And we must improve our intelligence abilities in support of these efforts. New legislation could expedite progress in the following areas:

Create a "nuclear emergency fund." The fund would be used in cases where immediate assistance is requested to locate misplaced bombs or materials, or to secure vulnerable facilities. For example, General Lebed requested assistance in locating atomic demolition munitions that he claims are missing from the Russian arsenal. Although we cannot be sure that what he says is true, it is imperative that we investigate his claims, and that we be able to respond to his request immediately. In addition, the fund would be used for future "Project Sapphire" type operations. Both during Project Sapphire and a subsequent smaller operation in Georgia, lack of funding delayed action. In emergency situations like this, delayed action could result in lives being needlessly lost.

Accelerate and expand the purchase of Russian HEU. The United States is buying 500 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from dismantled nuclear weapons, blended down to low enriched uranium (LEU) to be used as nuclear fuel. The current plan is to purchase the HEU over twenty years. Because of Russia's inability adequately to store the material, we should negotiate with Russia to buy more HEU and to buy it faster. Two constraints have prevented us from expediting the purchase: Russia's limited capacity for blending down its HEU, and market concerns. One way to get around these constraints would be to establish a "strategic nuclear fuel reserve" analogous to the strategic petroleum reserve. All uranium (whether HEU or natural) going into the reserve would be exempt from anti-dumping legislation and other limitations.

Increase funding for R&D to detect, disable, and mitigate the effects of weapons of mass destruction. The National Laboratories have vast capabilities in the chemical and biological sciences. Because of inadequate funding, those capabilities are not being fully exploited. Immediate requirements include sensors adequate to deploy on subway cars, technologies for predicting the spread of agent during the course of an attack, and advanced pharmaceuticals and vaccines. Work on these technologies would build off significant investments and expertise in existing programs such as the human genome project and bio-remediation programs. In the area of nuclear terrorism, additional resources are required to improve nuclear forensics capabilities, develop robust low profile gamma and neutron detection systems, and to improve capabilities for detecting nuclear materials (for example gamma ray imaging to extend detection limits of plutonium).

Expedite efforts to protect US and foreign borders. The borders of the Southern tier - including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- are particularly permeable, including points of entry into Iran on the Caspian Sea. US Customs and other agencies are training personnel and supplying enforcement agencies with tiny radiation-detection devices the size of pocket pagers, endoscopes (for looking into gas tanks); and other essential gear. In addition, DOE and Customs are working together to develop new technologies for interdicting weapons of mass destruction at US points of entry. Additional funds are required to improve these technologies and to enhance systems analysis and implementation of advanced interception methods.

Expedite efforts to secure nuclear facilities. At the current level of funding, DOE will require approximately four more years to help secure nuclear materials in former Soviet states. It is entirely unnecessary to move so slowly. With additional funding and personnel, this essential initiative could be accelerated.

Accelerate efforts to secure Russia's warheads. Poor security for Russian warheads, and deteriorating command and control may be the most significant threat to international security we currently face. Russia has requested assistance in upgrading its old-fashioned inventory and security systems. These efforts should be expedited.

Prevent "Brain Drain." Increasing economic desperation in Russia's closed cities poses a grave risk to international security. While most weapons scientists would never sell their expertise to terrorists or proliferant states, eventually some may become sufficiently hungry that they will sell their expertise abroad. Innovative programs run by the Departments of Energy and State help employ former weapons-scientists in civilian projects that are often commercially viable. In one of these projects, scientists have developed a technique to un-irradiate milk contaminated by the Chernobyl reactor, so that local children have milk to drink that won't harm their health. In another, Russian scientists are working with Harvard Medical School on a new diphtheria vaccine. Rather than abandoning these efforts, Congress and the Administration need to work out a way to make these programs work better and faster.