Interviews

DR. DAVID KAY

DR. DAVID KAY is the former head of the evaluation section of the International Atomic Energy Agency. After the Persian Gulf War, he served as the deputy leader of the Iraqi Action Team of the IAEA which investigated Saddam Hussein's secret nuclear weapon program. He led three inspection missions to Iraq and located the major Iraqi center for nuclear weapons assembly. Dr. Kay has testified before Congress on what the lessons of Iraq can teach about current proliferation threats.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: A question that I have been asked repeatedly from people who I would say are characterized mostly as indifferent is, why should Americans care about this? Okay, the Russians have a problem, but why should we be concerned at all?

MR. KAY: I think there are two answers to that. We're like tarantulas in a bottle in one sense. What happens in the boundaries of Russia, the former Soviet Union as a larger whole really does affect us and can affect us.

We're talking about the ability to smuggle something that is not that huge. If you look at how much comes across our border, both legally and illegally in terms of drugs, you'd have to be, I think, extremely foolish to say it could never happen here.

Q: If something does get smuggled out, what are the chances that we could detect it at our borders?

MR. KAY: I think you have to say--it's a two-part answer. If you have no clue that it's missing, that is, the Russians don't pick it up, someone in the group involved doesn't talk and it just simple comes in blindly, there's almost a zero chance that you will pick it up.

If on the other hand, the Russians know so you have a long lead time to set up your guard, to try to look, pick up patterns of movement, then there's a greater chance. But it's still, in my view, right now a very low chance. That's something we ought to be working at seriously.

Q: You had said to me before in comparing it, in thinking about when drug busts are made by customs that, almost none of those things are discovered by random inspection.

MR. KAY: I think that's true.

Drugs are much easier to detect, believe it or not, than nuclear materials. You're really going to have to depend upon that, right now at least.

Dogs can smell them and dogs can't smell nuclear material. And contrary to the popular conception, there's not a lot of radiation that comes off of a nuclear device. It's easily shielded, what little there is and, any semi-competent group of terrorists, certainly anyone competent enough to figure out how to set off the device will know how to shield it.

Q: Have there been nuclear blackmail threats in the United States?

MR. KAY: Nuclear blackmail threats, at least, those that have been hoaxes, actually have been running in the United States for well over two decades. They range from the 12 year old who reads an "Encyclopedia Britannica," decides he wants to stop school, copies a design and sends off a letter to the governor or the mayor of the city, some of them more sophisticated than that.

Q: What we do? What is our response when a threat like that is communicated?

MR. KAY: Well, broadly what one tries to do is first look at the threat and see if internally it is consistent enough to believe that it is more than just a crude hoax. And a lot of them fail that test.

Beyond that, you try to treat--you treat it with seriousness, particularly if it fails the first test or succeeds in passing the first test and looks real and you run it to ground. This is very, very difficult. Really finding a needle in a haystack is much easier than finding a nuclear weapon hidden in an urban environment.

Q: Why is that?

MR. KAY: Just the laws of physics. God was not kind in this regard. Cities are inherently building shield nuclear material and if someone has hidden it--and we're talking about really small volumes. While it's rare to have a nuclear device in a briefcase or a small suitcase size, although they do exist, you're talking something not much larger than a large footlocker. And hiding that in a building of hundreds of thousands of square feet and in an urban area of tens to twenties to larger square miles without knowing where to look, it's just an impossibility to believe that you really would find it.

Even if you have a threat statement, a letter of extortion or demands from a terrorist group saying, if you don't give in to our demands, we will set one off in New York City, think about the volume of space you will have to look at. And the terrorist will have set his device up before he sends the demands.

Q: That is all fairly frightening.

MR. KAY: That is very frightening. And you think, how many hundreds of thousands of containers enter this country without inspection. How many thousands of bales of marijuana cross our border without detection?

I've often said, my preferred method for delivering a nuclear device is, I would hide it in a bale of marijuana, contract it out to the drug lords and move it. Marijuana is a good shielder actually for radiation. The drug lords have a superb record for delivery. They're not Fed Ex, but they're awfully close to it. And contract it out and get it across the border.

Q: Do you think the U. S. Government is taking this problem seriously enough?

MR. KAY: I think it's taking it seriously. I do not think it is taking it seriously enough. This was, after all, for most of our history a pretty low probability threat. When you had 30,000 Russian nukes facing you, you had other things to worry about than the onesie or twosie of a terrorist device and we had every reason to believe that, during the Soviet period, the Soviets in fact treated their nuclear stockpile with extreme seriousness and guarded it.

This has emerged in the last five years and it's emerged and it's a difficult task.

Q: What about some of the missed opportunities, some of our misperceptions of how the Russians would react to our attempts to assist in improving their security, that sort of thing.

MR. KAY: Well, I think in the early days--and I fault no one because this was something that came about perhaps more unexpectedly than it should have. I think we should have done a better job about seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we didn't. So, it came about.

And so opportunities to early move in, in the early days and offer the Russians to buy up large amounts of their enriched uranium and plutonium just were missed. We were too slow and this was primarily in the Bush administration.

The Russians were already moving from that period of collapse and willingness to cooperate with the United States to a period of suspicion and hostility, suspicion that we were after their vital state secrets, that we were not paying enough for whatever we bought from them; that in fact, we were interested in dominating and not cooperating with them.

So, there arose a sense of suspicion and hostility and, quite frankly, a sense of feeling that you had fallen from, if not the first, certainly the second country in the world to a status of a beggar. And for a proud nation--and it would have been for us, I have to say--this has been a difficult transition.

Q: And the sense of national humiliation that many Russians feel, we weren't as sensitive to that perhaps as we should have been?

MR. KAY: No, we had won the cold war. We were proud of having won the cold war. It showed the superiority of our strategy, of our sense of politics. That's too bad. I mean, the worst thing you can do in any victory is start crowing about the success. Every victory has the seeds of another conflict.

The sense of humiliation that the Russians feel, we ought to understand. On the other hand, we can't let that stop us from seeking ways to work at the problem, because it's ultimately as much if not more in their interests than it is in our interests.

Q: Explain what you've referred to as the copycat issue; that one of your next fears is, after the first incidents of nuclear threat or terrorism, there will be the copycats.

MR. KAY: We've been very lucky with regard to nuclear weapons. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a period of revulsion set in and although both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the British and the French and Chinese spent a tremendous amount of money in building up military nuclear forces, in fact, we have not seen the use of nuclear weapons.

There is always the danger in the world that, after the first use, when the barrier against use comes down, the next time doesn't seem as horrific and particularly if the first time, some group has gained their aims, political extortion, terrorism, whatever their aims may be. We've seen this in almost every terrorist group.

Q: Let's talk about the danger of proliferation, that the leakage of this material might lead to another nation becoming a nuclear power.

MR. KAY: Well, that's certainly a serious danger and, in many ways, may be more serious even than terrorism, although it's hard to compare two things that are very likely and equally horrible.

If you look at Iraq, Iraq spent well over $10 billion and ten years to develop nuclear weapons, almost got there but didn't before Desert Storm/Desert Shield.

Today, if the Iraqis were able to smuggle in stolen material for one or two nuclear devices, I have no doubt in saying that, the UN monitoring system wouldn't detect it and you would have Baghdad, Saddam, an individual who the only thing we're confident of is, he doesn't learn very easily. He knows how to jerk our chain at the worst possible moment would be sitting there with it.

So, that is really frightening. And you've got a number of states--Iran certainly. I would put Syria on the list, North Korea and others that could easily do that. And you're talking about really handfuls of size, of quantity of material. In terms of plutonium, grapefruit sizes. Easily in terms of uranium, bowling ball sizes of material to smuggle. That's relatively easy and the amounts of money are quite within the amount that Saddam--you think, he spent $10 billion for a program that didn't work.

A fraction of that, a billion dollars in Russia today would be a temptation for any, regardless of economic status or position, to give into.

Q: So, all of the money or most of the money that Saddam spent before was essentially to create this material?

MR. KAY: That's absolutely right. It's not as difficult as it was 50 years ago, but the most difficult part of producing a nuclear weapon is producing the fissile material, the uranium, highly enriched uranium or the plutonium that is at the core. That's easily 80 percent of the expenditures in that.

Smuggling allows you to compress a program that, in most countries, is probably a five to ten year technological hurdle into days or weeks and no detection system is adequate for that sort of challenge. That's why in terms of proliferation, it's extremely important to stop the material before it moves, not try to detect it after it is gone.

I'm also not very worried about the shipments that have been detected in Western Europe. If you look at where the zones of danger are around the borders of the former Soviet Union, they're not in Germany or Poland or in Sweden. They're in Iran, Iraq, along the southern cone of danger.

That same southern cone has been the traditional smuggling routes that really have been, from czarist times, have been zones of smuggling and were actively used in communist times, mostly to bring in high tech western electronics and other industrial equipment.

Q: From what you know, is Russian law enforcement taking this problem as seriously as it ought to?

MR. KAY: I must say, from what I know, it's an uneven pattern. There are individual Russians in the law enforcement community who realize, appreciate the seriousness of it.

On the other hand, I have to say, as a whole, the establishment has quickly tried to explain it away, to belittle the people who have in fact caught people trading in it, belittle the trading itself. There has been too, far too much self-protection about that.

The criminality that you see on the streets in Russia today is not nuclear smuggling. And in fact, so law enforcement officials, I think, legitimately in one sense, worry about the obvious, everyday crime they see and tend to push away--now, that will, of course, all change after the first nuclear device goes off in Moscow. But that's too late.

So, we have this very difficult transition period of trying to convince them to worry about this other problem, even though daily crime in the streets, economic crimes are there. That's a tough, tough go, one has to say.

Q: One of the U. S. officials who is involved in the securities and safeguard improvements said to me that his optimism disintegrates when contemplating the idea of high level corruption, high level collusion, in trying to steal and smuggle nuclear material.

MR. KAY: That strikes me as a reasonable reaction. If you ask any of us who have a technical background about a technical problem, we tend to think of technical solutions that will meet those problems. And because we are a very good nation technologically and the Russians are too technically, we can think of technical solutions.

But when you layer on top of that social disintegration, political corruption, high level involvement in some of the crimes, at least, economic crimes and simply just a general falling apart of social structure, technically, I don't know what the solutions are to that.

And so you have to realize, sure, your immediate optimism is, I know if I buy the right camera or the right portable monitoring equipment or I put the fence a little higher or close the holes in the fences, the case usually is in Russia these days or pay the guard force a reasonable wage, I can solve this problem. That doesn't get at what really may be the problem, corruption, crime, collusion.

Q: Do you think it's possible to bottle up this huge problem?

MR. KAY: I would have no confidence that we're going to succeed at this. This is not to say I don't think we should try as hard as we trying. Actually, I think we should try harder. But ultimately, you have to realize you'd better spend some of your time worrying about consequence management of when it fails.

That's partly because we're not worried about a problem that is the problem for 1996 or 1997. The Russians, at their current dismantling rate, will take at least two decades to dismantle the nuclear weapons that they have withdrawn from service. That will produce a huge amount of material.

This is a problem well into the 21st century that we're going to have to struggle with. Do I know that we can bottle up something like this in a society that is currently failing? Can I be confident in that? No, I don't think anyone can be confident in that.

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