Nuclear Terrorism: How Big a Threat?

Is al-Qaeda Trying to Get a Bomb? Documents Trace U.S. Nuclear Counter-Terror Efforts – Published on The National Security Archive NSA, by Jeffrey T. Richelson, September 7, 2012.

Eleven years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, how concerned Americans should be over threats of nuclear terrorism remains a subject of vigorous debate. Declassified documents have confirmed that the U.S. (and other) governments have anticipated the possibility of a terrorist nuclear incident at such high-profile events as the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Ever since 9/11, U.S. experts have been particularly interested in whether al-Qaeda is trying to acquire a nuclear device … //

…  Some items of particular interest in today’s posting are:

  • A Defense Science Board report (Document 8) which discusses Project SCREWDRIVER (1950-52) and the resulting Project DOORSTOP (1953-70), whose objective was to detect any attempts by Soviet Bloc diplomats to smuggle nuclear material into the United States.
  • An after-action report (Document 4) of the 1998 ERRANT FOE exercise, which identifies issues concerning the effort to disable a terrorist device as well the mission, capability, “deployment trigger,” team size, and composition of NEST components.
  • The existence of a yearly Defense Intelligence Agency report – Postulated Threat to U.S. Nuclear Weapons Facilities and Other Selected Strategic Facilities.
  • Creation of the ‘SIGMA 20′ nuclear weapons data category – to protect information about data on improvised nuclear devices (Document 12).
  • The report (Document 17) of a radiological survey of Washington, D.C. in preparation for the nuclear detection efforts conducted before and during the 2009 presidential inauguration.
  • A description of the potential terrorist tactic (Document 15) of employing a radiation exposure (or emission) device.
  • The pre-9/11 conclusion of the Defense Science Board (Document 8) that “current nuclear forensics capability is inadequate to support timely response.”
  • The efforts by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to create a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (Document 13, Document 37).

Nuclear Terrorism: Threat and Response:

The issue of how concerned American citizens and the United States government should be with the threat of nuclear terrorism has been the subject of vigorous debate in the almost eleven years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 1 But U.S. apprehension over the possibility of clandestine nuclear attack dates back to the early days of the Cold War, when it was feared that the Soviet Union might seek to smuggle nuclear devices into the United States to attack selective targets. From at least 1972, the U.S. has also been concerned with the possibility that a terrorist group might acquire or construct a nuclear device or radiological dispersal device (popularly known as a ‘dirty bomb’) for use in the United States … //

… (full text, Documents 1 to 37 and Notes).

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