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   "Dirty" Bombs, and the Bush Administration's Dirty Little Secret

SPEAKING OUT:

"Dirty" Bombs, and the Bush Administration's Dirty Little Secret

by William D. Hartung
Attorney General John Ashcroft reported on June 10 that authorities had a Brooklyn-born Latino man in custody for involvement in an alleged Al Qaeda plot to explode a radiological bomb in Washington, DC. His announcement underscores the continuing vulnerability of the United States to a wide variety of possible terrorist attacks.

If the evidence against the suspect proves to be accurate, the Bush administration deserves credit for heading off this plan in its early stages. But this case also highlights the Bush administration's dirty little secret. They still don't have their priorities straight when it comes to taking measures to thwart the most damaging -- or the most likely -- kinds of potential terror attacks on U.S. soil."

There is general agreement among experts that the most damaging effects of a so-called "dirty bomb" -- a conventional explosive set up to disperse radioactive materials in a populated area -- would be psychological and economic. Loss of life would be minimal compared to the use of a nuclear weapon, which could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a highly populated urban area. The threat of a radiological weapon still needs to be taken seriously, however, since a crude device would be far easier to construct and transport than a nuclear weapon, and the fear and chaos that the use of one or more of these devices would cause could strike a devastating blow to the morale of the public, as well as to the economies of the targeted areas.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration's priorities are off the mark when it comes to dealing with either a radiological weapon or an actual nuclear bomb. While the U.S. government spends nearly $9 billion per year for an unproven missile defense system designed to protect against what many U.S. intelligence experts argue is the least likely method a rogue state or terrorist group would use to target the United States with a nuclear weapon -- a long-range ballistic missile -- policymakers have barely scratched the surface in efforts to secure radioactive materials that might be used to construct a 'dirty' bomb or to establish monitoring systems to detect dangerous radioactive materials at major facilities and transportation hubs.

As for the threat of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group, the most important single step that can be taken to prevent that from happening -- destroying Russia's vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons and bomb-grande nuclear materials -- is completely ignored by the loophole-laden Bush-Putin accord on nuclear arms reductions. For further information:


William D. Hartung is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Policy Institute, 66 Fifth Ave., Suite 901, New York, NY 10011 (212)-229-5808, ext. 106; hartung@newschool.edu


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This story was published on July 3, 2002.
  
JULY 2002
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