By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
If al Qaeda had triggered a homemade, or pirated, nuclear device in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, this week's summit of 47 nations here in Washington would not have been necessary. With the same energy that the United States has devoted to security in air travel, we would have led a worldwide effort to secure plutonium, old warheads and highly enriched uranium.
But the terrorists chose an airplane as their weapon, and so we have lines at airports. Meanwhile, the effort to lock up nuclear material has been dogged, around the globe, by complacency. It is the nature of human beings to deal with the tangible threat, and not the conceptual.
That is why, Republican or Democrat, we should applaud President Obama for the leadership he showed in gathering this crowd of world leaders to address this issue. And send thanks to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, whose administration identified nuclear terrorism as the most dangerous threat that America faces, and started the arduous process of getting Pandora's toys back in the box.
Obama has made nonproliferation and nuclear safety a top personal priority. He knows that his dream of a world without nuclear weapons is decades, if not centuries, away. But he has chosen, wisely, to remind the world of this constant threat to our lives, freedoms and economies. This week, he took another modest, but important, step toward elevating the issue.
And you can bet that whoever succeeds Obama in the Oval Office, after hearing the first few CIA briefings on the number of loose nukes and the poor security at nuclear power sites around the globe, will follow in the footsteps of his or her post-9/11 predecessors.
If you don't mind the risk of sleepless nights, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a bipartisan organization led by former Sen. Sam Nunn, with help from former cabinet secretaries George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger, has just released its annual report on worldwide nuclear safety--or, rather, the lack of it. You can find it at www.nti.org.
This isn't just the stuff of Tom Cruise thrillers, although some of the nightmarish details sound like Hollywood scenarios.
In November, 2007, for example, a team of four intruders tried to break into South Africa's top nuclear site, got as far as a control room, and shot two workers. A second squad also penetrated the security fence and traded fire with guards. The intruders shot their way out, without any of the highly enriched uranium that was stored there.
David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, hailed the president's efforts to raise the profile of the issue.
"What they've done is break a culture of cynicism," he said.
We can hope so.