Cheney Hides As Concern
Mounts Over Nukes

(UPI) - Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday evening that he and President Bush are kept apart because the United States fears a decapitation attack by terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.
"You've got people able to organize a conspiracy able to come into the country and perhaps smuggle weapons of mass destruction in with them and threaten, in effect, not just one individual, but threaten the government and conceivably be able to try to decapitate the federal government," Cheney told CBS' "Sixty Minutes Two."
The comments mark the growing concern in the Bush administration over the possible use by terrorists of either radiological bombs or small, portable nuclear weapons, several administration officials told United Press International.
In Afghanistan, a reporter for a British newspaper found what The Times called al Qaida plans for an atomic bomb similar to the ones the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 56 years ago.
The reporter discovered partially burned documents in a house in Kabul that residents said had been an al Qaida safe house. The plans -- written in Urdu, Arabic, English and German -- give detailed instructions on how to use TNT to force together enough uranium to create critical mass and an explosion, The Times reported.
Experts said the technical expertise and precision necessary to produce an atomic bomb most likely is beyond the terrorists hiding in a war-torn country. Western experts and intelligence officials have said Osama bin Laden has been seeking nuclear material to make explosives for at least the last five years.
U.S. groups created to respond to nuclear threats such as the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) and the Pentagon's Joint Tactical Operations Team are "in stand-by mode, on major alert," according to one administration source.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official added: "The level of concern here is very high."
Last week, Saudi renegade Osama bin Laden told a Pakistani journalist that he has both chemical and nuclear weapons.
While many U.S. experts scoffed at the claim, even the possibility of its being true has proved profoundly unsettling to Washington's major policy makers, according to several sources.
"It's hard to say for certain that bin Laden has no nuclear devices when we do know he has had multiple sources over many years for acquiring them," said Peter Probst, a terrorism analyst formerly with the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations Low-Intensity Conflict.
But Larry Johnson, a former deputy director in the State Department's Office of Counter-terrorism and a onetime CIA employee, cautioned that, "Americans are needlessly scaring themselves," about the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack.
"There is a ratcheting up of concern being pushed by certain individuals" in the Bush White House, he said.
While most administration officials said they believe that bin Laden has not been able to acquire a finished nuclear weapon, they also said they did not rule it out. Nor did they rule out the possibility that bin Laden had been able to acquire enriched uranium and hired rogue Russian weapon designers to fashion it into a "workable fission device" in the words of one U.S. intelligence expert.
But there is even greater concern about a radiological bomb -- a conventional explosive device containing radioactive material -- which could contaminate a city center and make it uninhabitable for dozens of years, as well as killing potentially thousands of people.
A former senior CIA official said: "Detonating a conventional bomb that would strew radioactive waste around would make a terrible mess in downtown Washington, even if no one were killed."
According to U.S. intelligence officials, administration concern is increasingly centering on the nuclear arsenal and weapons facilities of the former Soviet Union which many experts believe were and still are inadequately protected, making it possible for rogue states or terrorists using criminal organizations such as the Chechen mafia, to steal nuclear weapons grade materials, hire corrupt Russian nuclear technicians, or even buy finished Russian fission weapons.
According to published reports, the countries of the former Soviet Union have 123 sites that house more than 1.100 metric tons of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium and 160 metric tons of plutonium. Four kilograms are all that are needed to build a nuclear device, analysts said.
Jim Ford, a former Department of Energy intelligence official who dealt with nuclear smuggling, said that in 1994, there were deep concerns about security at Russian nuclear facilities: "There were a number of incidents where Russian technicians or bureaucrats smuggled out materials and sold them in places like Munich or Prague."
He added, "The big, big fear is that nuclear weapons have been sold."
Stefan Leader, president of Eagle Research Group, Inc., and a terrorism specialist for a government agency, said that theft and trade of Russian nuclear materials "is an old story, but very worrying because security was so poor in many places and the Russians were in desperate straits."
DOD's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, known as the Nunn-Lugar program, has spent $4 billion to render harmless 5,708 nuclear warheads, destroy 483 surface-to-air missiles, and turn to junk other Russian weapons systems.
Nunn-Lugar and other programs run by the energy and defense departments aim at reducing the threat from former Soviet installations.
Advocates of these programs -- like Rose Gottemoeller, who served as assistant secretary of Energy for non-proliferation and national security during the Clinton administration -- admit that since December 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved into 14 other independent states, with thousands of nuclear weapons, there has been no comprehensive and reliable inventory made of such weapons.
Gottemoeller also concedes that improved security had been installed at only 55 percent of former Soviet Union nuclear sites.
Peter Probst and several U.S. intelligence officials voiced the fear that bin Laden has used contacts in the Russian mafia or the Chechen mafia to broker a deal that brought him a Russian nuclear weapon.
U.S. intelligence officials said only that they were aware of reports of efforts by bin Laden to acquire such weapons.
An expert in nuclear smuggling and a government consultant to DOE on the subject, Rensselaer Lee, discounted the widespread belief that most vendors on the black market are selling junk or have been stopped by sting operations, "I think behind the visible market of nuclear smugglers you have a shadow market that's well-organized and involves nation-states."
Probst and Lee believe that bin Laden has approached Iran or Iraq and attempted to purchase weapons grade materials from them.
"In terms of a nuclear buyer, we live in a post-proliferation environment," Lee said. "The proliferation of these nuclear weapons is a reality. Trying to stop fissile experts from Russia from selling their knowledge or materials is like trying to stop cocaine coming in from Colombia. We catch only about 25 percent of Colombia's product."
The real question is "what are we going to do for damage control?" he said.


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