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A Preventable Catastrophe

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A Preventable Catastrophe

Published September 21, 2005 in The Hill

It is the middle of the afternoon in late October. The House, eager to adjourn for the midterm elections, is in the midst of a series of votes. The Senate is also in session, as is the Supreme Court. Tourists crowd the Capitol grounds as traffic starts to pick up in anticipation of the evening rush hour.

A nondescript delivery truck cruises along Independence Avenue toward Capitol Hill. When the truck approaches the Rayburn Building, it is waved down by the Capitol Police for a routine search. As officers approach the truck, the driver and his passenger, terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda, look at each other and nod. The driver presses the "send" button on his mobile phone, and seconds later a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon detonates in the truck's cargo bay.

In an instant, the Capitol complex is almost destroyed. All 435 members of the House die together in the House chamber. Nearly every senator perishes, either in the Capitol or the three Senate office buildings, which are engulfed in a firestorm. Thousands of congressional staffers and tens of thousands of other people are killed. The Supreme Court is destroyed, and all nine justices die in their chambers.

As fires rage for a mile in every direction, deadly fallout drifts over the city and the surrounding suburbs. Hundreds of thousands of panicked Washingtonians jam the roads leading out of the nation's capital. Panic also grips New York and other major cities as residents flee in fear of another attack.

The attack on the Capitol permanently alters our country. When the bomb is traced to a container that came through the port of Baltimore, maritime trade slows to a standstill and the nation slips into a deep economic recession that triggers a global economic slowdown. Civil liberties are seriously curtailed through executive orders, martial law and a series of hastily enacted laws passed by an acting Congress meeting in secret. National Guard checkpoints become fixtures on American streets. A climate of fear and xenophobia grips the nation, and police engage in large-scale roundups and deportations of aliens.

While the above scenario is imaginary, the threat is not. President Bush has called the prospect of a nuclear attack by terrorists the greatest national-security threat facing the United States. Osama bin Laden has termed the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction "a religious duty," while his spokesman has announced that al Qaeda aspires to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children. In February, CIA Director Porter Goss and FBI Director Robert Mueller warned Congress and the nation that al Qaeda and other radical Islamists are committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon and using it against the United States.

While a growing number of experts believe that if we fail to change course an act of nuclear terrorism is only a matter of time, they are equally united in their conviction that we can avert such an attack by taking a series of steps to prevent nuclear material and expertise from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Broadly speaking, these actions fall into five categories:

• Securing nuclear material and facilities in Russia and beyond.

• Removing nuclear material from the most vulnerable sites around the world.

• Finding alternative employment for nuclear weapons scientists and engineers in the former Soviet Union.

• Working with our allies and the international community to deter, detect and defeat efforts to smuggle nuclear material and related technologies.

• Strengthening the international community's efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and I introduced the Omnibus Nonproliferation and Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Act of 2005, H.R. 665, which would accomplish many of these goals. Our bill lays out a comprehensive plan to overhaul our nonproliferation strategy by centralizing America's efforts to prevent terrorists from gaining access to nuclear weapons and accelerating efforts to secure existing nuclear material in the former Soviet Union and other places. It also urges the president to build on existing treaties and initiatives to halt the worrisome trend toward more nuclear-weapon states and to make nuclear material more difficult to obtain.

Despite the urgency of the threat, neither our bill nor any of a large number of other pieces of legislation introduced since the Sept. 11 attacks have been acted upon by the Congress. The administration, House and Senate have failed to make the prevention of nuclear terrorism an urgent priority. This must change.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, senior officials repeatedly asserted that we failed to prevent the attacks because we could not have "imagined" them. We know about the danger of nuclear terrorism; we are in a race with terrorists who are actively seeking nuclear weapons. The choice is ours: continue doing what we are doing now and risk a nuclear disaster or take action to prevent it. When one considers the consequences, the choice is really no choice at all.

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