- (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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.