November 9, 2001

Former Clinton Official Warns of Nuclear Threat

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As the war against terrorism flares across Afghanistan and the United States prepares for a lengthy military campaign, Robert J. Einhorn ’69, former assistant secretary of state, urges Americans not to dismiss another very real and present danger: the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.

While doubting the al-Qaeda terrorist network headed by Saudi-born fugitive bin Laden has nuclear capability, he said yesterday in a lecture in McGraw Hall that the U.S. had “certain knowledge” of their “appetite for acquiring weapons of mass destruction.”

“Unfortunately, this is no longer the domain of fiction novels or Hollywood movies,” Einhorn said. “Osama bin Laden has called nuclear weapons acquisition a religious duty.”

And he singled out three “rogue states” — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — which could supply these weapons to terrorists and must be contained if the United States is to hold its own in a mercurial battle where the rules seem to change daily.

“The possibilities are ominous,” he said, warning that a few wrong moves could bring the U.S. perilously close to the position John F. Kennedy predicted for America in the 1960s.

The situation with Iraq is especially tenuous because of the country’s refusal to admit weapons inspectors since December 1998, according to Einhorn. Satellite photography and other surveillance technology can detect nuclear bases, but there is no substitute for qualified experts patrolling the grounds and investigating suspicious buildings.

“Ultimately the best we can do is assume that Iraq is doing what it can to foster nuclear prohibitive programs,” Einhorn said in an interview with The Sun earlier in the afternoon.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is regarded as a long-term threat to Middle East stability and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The regime must be undermined — an act that would receive widespread support in the Middle East and worldwide — Einhorn boldly said, but the U.S. must wait patiently and intervene strategically, because it will be difficult to prove the link between Iraq and terrorists.

“The only reliable way for Iraq to possess weapons of mass destruction is to replace the regime with one willing to abide by sanctions,” he said. “I’ve come to this conclusion along with many people in Washington. The question is when.”

Einhorn also addressed the importance of safeguarding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in its era of civil unrest and vulnerability.

There is the growing concern that weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists or their allies if the Pakistani government falls as a result of its decision to support the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

“Such concern is exaggerated,” Einhorn said. “So far, Pakistan has a done a responsible job in employing tight security measures.”

But the greatest terrorist danger comes from the possible theft of nuclear material, such as enriched uranium or plutonium, he said. The fissile material could be given to Iraq, which has sought to make its own nuclear weapons.

The U.S. should concentrate aid on improving the physical security around nuclear weapons through better surveillance equipment, he said.

But we must be careful to do so without overstepping our bounds, he said, and fanning fears that the U.S. wants to collect information about the weapons to destroy them or giving Pakistan greater confidence to deploy the weapons.

“It is essential that nuclear priorities are not pushed off our radar,” Einhorn said. “We will ignore them at our own peril.”

He concluded on the need for better cooperation between Russia and the U.S. — two nations wise beyond the years of the post-Cold War period, but with nuclear arsenals stuck in the Cold War.

The two countries are moving closer to an understanding that would meet Russia’s hopes for deep cuts in nuclear arsenals and give the U.S. more freedom to test missile defenses, Einhorn said.

A compromise may be achieved as early as next week at the summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, he added.

“This is a crucial opportunity that must be seized,” he said. “Bush needs to show Putin and the Russian public that Putin is getting something in return for the agreement.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts