PRESIDENT BUSH has called nuclear terrorism our "ultimate nightmare," and combating it America's "highest priority."
As we reflect on the third anniversary of al-Qaida's assault on America, it is chilling to realize that we are now more vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 than we were when Osama bin Laden hit us three years ago. Consider the evidence on five related fronts: bin Laden, Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Russia.
Some in the intelligence community now refer to the leader of the al-Qaida movement as "Osama bin Missing." While he lost his sanctuary and terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, bin Laden, his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and 86 percent of the individuals identified by the U.S. government as al-Qaida leaders remain at large.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida has conducted dozens of attacks, including one in March that helped topple the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, one of Mr. Bush's staunchest allies. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri regularly issue audiotapes and videotapes calling upon al-Qaida members and new recruits to attack America and our allies. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, al-Qaida's ranks have likely swelled to more than 18,000. In short, there is little reason to think the enemy is weaker now than it was then.
Second, however one assesses the wisdom of going to war with Iraq, the way we went compromised the campaign against nuclear terrorism. In seeking support, Mr. Bush argued that Saddam Hussein might transfer weapons of mass destruction to terrorists such as al-Qaida.
Having called for war on false pretenses, the administration's credibility to address urgent WMD threats from North Korea and Iran has been seriously weakened. Moreover, Iraq has so consumed the Bush administration's attention, diplomatic leverage and military capability that it has sucked the air out of efforts to address other gathering dangers.
Third, since the United States made Iraq its top priority, what have North Korea and Iran done? Since January 2003, North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has turned off the 24-hour cameras that were watching its 8,000 nuclear fuel rods, has kicked out the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who were ensuring that these rods were not used to make weapons, and has begun reprocessing the rods, which should produce enough plutonium for six more nuclear weapons.
Certifiably the most promiscuous proliferator on Earth, North Korea has sold missiles to everyone who will pay: Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen. Al-Qaida has said publicly that it is in the market for a nuclear bomb, and North Korea may soon have a few spare bombs to sell. As a result of our neglect, we could awaken tomorrow to an announcement that North Korea now has a nuclear arsenal of five or even eight bombs and that it is completing a weapons factory capable of producing another dozen a year.
Fourth, in the past two years, Iran has rushed to complete its factories for producing highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the stuff of nuclear weapons. Once it achieves this goal, it will be able to transfer nuclear weapons to its terrorist client and collaborator, Hezbollah, which repeatedly has attacked Americans in the Middle East. That includes the attack that killed 241 U.S. military personnel in Lebanon in 1983 and the attack on American military barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in 1996.
In 2001, Iran's program was years away from making the essential ingredient of nuclear weapons. Today, because of accelerated development occasioned by our invasion of its neighbor, Iraq, Iran stands months from that finish line.
Finally, on the Russian front, many nuclear weapons and weapons-grade nuclear materials remain poorly guarded and vulnerable to theft by terrorists or by insiders who might sell them to terrorists. One incandescent fact summarizes the bad news: In the two years after 9/11, fewer of these weapons and materials were secured than in the two years prior.
Although bureaucratic obstacles on both sides are partially to blame, Mr. Bush clearly has not used his relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to break through these logjams and secure material that could fuel al-Qaida's nuclear bomb.
Regarding the next al-Qaida assault, CIA acting Director John E. McLaughlin said recently, "In the summer of 2001, we had ample warning of an attack. ... We had the conviction that something big was coming at us. We have that same conviction now."
If this "something big" is a nuclear terrorist attack, history will judge harshly a president who spent his time, our money and American lives on a country that had no nuclear program while leaving us vulnerable to the gravest threat to American lives and liberty.
Graham Allison, director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.