Chemical Reactions

While U.S. officials bicker, weapons of mass destruction sit as easy pickings for international terrorists

WASHINGTON—Speaking at a chemical and biological weapons conference here last week, newly appointed federal antiterrorism czar Richard Clarke stridently declared that the United States "will not tolerate terrorist organizations acquiring or maintaining stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction."

Paul Walker, director of Global Green USA's Legacy program, finds this amusing. You see, Walker has seen an actual stockpile of weapons of mass destruction that's potentially terrorist-friendly—and is, intriguingly, tolerated by the United States.

When Walker first came upon the stockpile in question he was horrified. As a former House Armed Services Committee staffer, an ex-soldier, and head of a Cold War military cleanup organization, Walker is not unfamilliar with chemical weapons depots. And he has no real concerns about the physical security of the weapons in this country: stored on military bases in half-buried igloo bunkers of reinforced concrete, behind steel doors and one-ton cement blocks—and further protected by fences, electronic surveillance systems, security lights, and routine patrols—the possibility of perimeter penetration, let alone theft, is virtually nil.

Sue Coe

But as Walker stood in Shchuch'ye, Russia, just miles from the Kazakhstan border, he appreciated that the same cannot be said of such weapons under the guard of the Russian military. There, in the middle of a wooded glade, sat 50-odd dilapidated metal-and-wood warehouses behind nothing more elaborate than an aging barbed-wire fence punctuated by a guard shack. Some of the warehouse windows, Walker observed, were broken. He saw that the doors were secured with rusting padlocks or bicycle locks. The handful of guards who occasionally sauntered by hadn't been paid in months.

And they didn't seem terribly zealous, Walker noticed, about their mission: guarding approximately 6000 tons of deadly VX nerve gas (one drop of which can kill a person instantly) in ready-for-use artillery shells and midrange missile warheads. In a country where the question is not "Will things unravel?" but "How quickly are they unraveling?" Abutting a region that is not only similarly unstable, but also home to various armed Islamist groups.

Four years later, the situation at Shchuch'ye remains largely unchanged. Though the facility is slated to get an on-site chemical weapons destruction system courtesy of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, Congress sent a bill to the president last week that throws up several obstacles to that system. As one defense budget analyst told the Voice, the administration "can spend the money [on the weapons destruction machinery] only if they send lots of paperwork to Congress—it can still be done, but it'll be harder to do."

Outside the relatively insular and arcane world of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), few have ever heard of Shchuch'ye. And within that world, not everyone believes it's a potential problem. But to many, the site is a metaphor for an utterly confused and inconsistent approach—mired in political and philosophical squabbling—by the United States to countering the possibilities of WMD proliferation and terrorism.

"With regard to chemical weapons under CTR, the adjectives I would use are, for Congress, ‘wrongheaded,' and for the Clinton administration, ‘ineffectual,"' says John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "The main threat we face today is not a nuclear attack by a country, but a chemical attack by terrorists. If you look at the size of the former Soviet CBW [chemical and biological weapons] program, it utterly dwarfs anything Saddam Hussein could have dreamed of doing. The amount of the Russian chemical-weapons stockpile that would have to go missing to keep a terrorist organization in business for some time is a trivial fraction of what Russia has on hand."

When the General Accounting Office (GAO)—Congress's investigative arm—tried to make heads or tails earlier this year of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism, it concluded that they have, indeed, been underwhelming. The reason was simple: "[A]n apparent lack of consensus on the threat of terrorism, particularly weapons of mass destruction."

While this conundrum may be new to a plethora of government agencies, it merely mirrors a contentious debate that's been going on in terrorism-research circles for years. At one end are experts who take it as an article of faith that given the means and opportunity, terrorists and/or "rogue states" will unleash nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons on a large population in acts of "superterrorism." According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Ehud Sprinzak, this view is more or less reflected in the Clinton Administration's budget requests (worth hundreds of millions of dollars) for everything from domestic vaccine and antibiotic supplies to a multitude of federal law enforcement and intelligence programs.

At the other end are set of experts who believe that while some terrorist groups will probably use WMDs, it will be on a much smaller, more tactical scale. This faction feels that the most effective countermeasures include smaller, more efficient response units, better intelligence and research, and less alarmism. While most acts of terrorism involve death and destruction, these analysts point out, they're directed at individual targets—an embassy, an office, a barracks, or residential building—because their goal is to draw attention and create fear based on the randomness of an attack. Or, as one ex-CIA terrorism analyst says, "Simply put, if a country or group poisoned a water supply of a whole city, it would bring the wrath of the world down upon them. Poisoning a building, on the other hand, would get attention and scare the hell out of people."

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