Loose Nukes

May 31, 1994

What is "the greatest long-term threat to the security of the United States"? According to FBI Director Louis Freeh, it is the rise of Mafia-style organized crime in Russia, with its present or potential capacity to steal nuclear weapons and fissile material that can be sold to rogue nations or terrorist groups. "Organized crime has unique abilities to commit theft and diversion," he warns. "This is why we must take action before a major nuclear incident occurs."

The action he contemplates is establishing an FBI office in Moscow itself, there to work with Russian police and security officials to combat a wave of criminality engulfing the states of the former Soviet Union. Mr. Freeh pronounces the U.S. "lucky" that no illegal diversions of nuclear-weapons material have yet occurred, but even that cannot be verified absolutely in light of the intermeshing of Russia's civilian and military nuclear programs as well as the notoriously inadequate protection of its facilities. It is one of the anomalies of this post-Cold War era that once the Soviet police state collapsed, along with its reliance on terror and intimidation, crime has had a heyday.

Mr. Freeh's outspoken warnings before a Senate subcommittee mark a shift in the Clinton administration's handling of this scary matter. Heretofore, officials have alluded to the problem in muted fashion for fear that publicity might encourage criminal elements to seek possession of salable nuclear materials.

With The Atlantic Monthly running a cover story on criminality in Russia and various European publications reporting near-successful test attempts to buy warheads from Russian military officers, it appears that the new policy is to confront the issue head-on. If so, it is for the best.

The "loose nuke problem" has added new dimensions to the long crusade to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Its central feature, from the beginning, was to stop as many nations -- especially North Korea -- from going nuclear. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, three new nuclear-weapons states (Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus) had to be prodded, so far with mixed success, to turn their facilities over to Russia. There also was worry about a "brain drain" of Soviet nuclear scientists to the likes of Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. And, finally, there was the criminal problem, raising what FBI Director Freeh calls the "dreadful possibilities" of having stolen nukes fall into the hands of terrorists bent on using them against the United States.

Russia is the site of thousands of nuclear warheads and hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium (the stuff of nuclear bombs). Clearly, it will require monumental cooperation between American and Russian authorities to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of international organized-crime operations. With governmental authority eroding in Russia, the prospects are not encouraging.

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