The ISIS leader told US soldiers as he was leaving imprisonment in Iraq that he would see them in NYC. Maybe it was a joke, but on the other hand, these guys aren’t fooling around. We think there is a actually pretty good chance ISIS/Iran/etc could get away with blowing up lower Manhattan in a nuclear martyrdom operation. What follows is our post from April 24, 2006, The Logic of Nuclear Terrorism is that Retaliation becomes the Crime. It’s as true today as it was then.
Get away with nuclear terrorism? Absurd, you say. Ridiculous. Unthinkable. Well, think again. We have written on this subject before, but were reminded of it again when we read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s piece in the LAT yesterday. The piece argued against attacking Iran (in almost identical terms to a London Times piece today), and included this:
[T]he notion floated by some who favor military action that Tehran might someday just hand over the bomb to some terrorist conveniently ignores the fact that doing so would be tantamount to suicide for all of Iran because it would be a prime suspect, and nuclear forensics would make it difficult to disguise the point of origin.
Brzezinski seems to be wrong that setting off a bomb in NYC would necessarily be “suicide for all of Iran.” Brzezinski’s reasoning is incomplete and self-serving, ignoring many factors, including the length of time required to do a forensic analysis, the probability of the analysis proving inconclusive, and the role of the media, among other factors. Let’s leave aside (or perhaps not) that this analysis comes from a foreign policy team so feckless that they let America and 52 hostages be humiliated for 444 days without taking effective action. Let’s take a look at what the US plans to do in the realm of “nuclear forensics” in the case the big one goes off in front of the New York Stock Exchange, via NYT:
The Pentagon has formed a team of nuclear experts to analyze the fallout from a terrorist nuclear attack on American soil in an effort to identify the attackers, officials have said. The team, which can draw on hundreds of federal experts, uses such tools as robots that gather radioactive debris and sensitive gear to detect the origins of a device, whether a true atomic weapon or a so-called dirty bomb, that uses ordinary explosives to spew radioactivity. The objective is to determine quickly who exploded the device and where it came from, in part to clarify the options to strike back, the officials said….
A senior military official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the program, said the threat reduction agency successfully conducted an exercise in October involving hundreds of people from many agencies. The participants, he said, included field workers gathering radioactive samples, nuclear analysts in laboratories working on the data and intelligence experts.
Do you understand what nonsense is currently the standard procedure of the United States in response to a suitcase nuke going off? “Hundreds of people from many angencies” will get their paws into this matter. For how long and when will they gather radioactive samples? How many committee meetings will there be, how many conference calls? What happens if the experts can not all agree? What happens if the plutonium actually came from old bombs spirited out of the Ukraine or Russia? What happens if Iran claims that materials were stolen? What happens if a Pakistani or Indian group claims responsibility? What happens if in a month the “hundreds of people” form the following conclusion: there is an 86% probability that the nuclear material originated in Iran?
If you are the president, do you act on the 86% chance? What about the 14% probability that you are wrong? And by the way, what is it exactly that you intend to bomb? Some military facility? Qom? Teheran? With what intensity? Will the destruction be proportional, or larger? Why?
On top of all these problems, consider what the worldwide media would have been doing for the days or weeks or maybe a month between the New York bombing and the completion of the forensic analysis. Imagine the 24/7 coverage of candlelight vigils, expressions of sympathy, and interviews with young children and old women by CNN, Fox and all the rest in Teheran and around the world. Day after day of wailing and calls for no more war, and pleas by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury and various Imams and rabbis. To top it off, just imagine listening to Jimmy Carter or maybe Zbigniew Brzezinski himself calling for restraint.
Imagine the CNN graphic as the investigation proceeds: “Countdown to Doom.” How many times would we have to watch Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove? How many retired generals would be on the op-ed pages of the NYT and on the cable news? Do you doubt what we would hear from Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, George Clooney or Richard Gere?
All these horrors, on top of the horror caused by the New York explosion, are the reasons that things must be prevented from going that far.
The logic of nuclear terrorism is that retaliation becomes the crime. That is one reason why the Chirac Doctrine is preferable to the “nuclear forensics” approach with its “hundereds of people” doing all manner of analysis for a protracted period of time. Jacques Chirac has made it clear that if a WMD goes off in Paris, he has nuclear missiles with a return address to Mr. Ahmadinejad, no questions asked.
The United States should be similarly forthright in saying, for example, that in the event of a catastrophe, the likeliest suspect can expect instantaneous retribution 100x or more powerful than that visited upon this country. We can think of no reason for strategic ambiguity that serves the interests of the United States. Indeed, there is an ancillary good effect that the promise of destruction has on the “likeliest suspect” — that country would have an increased interest in policing others. We are not claiming that the approach suggested here is perfect; rather that the current policy of the United States, with its ambiguities and delays, makes it more likely that the Iranian Supreme Leader, ISIS, or others might reasonably conclude they could get away with an unspeakable act.
2014 Update: Wretchard has some related thoughts.