russian roulette

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how secure is the russian arsenal?

general eugene habiger

You have no concern about the security of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Is that accurate?

Based upon what I saw, yes. If you were to ask me, "What's your level of sensitivity today, based upon the fact that there are significant economic problems in Russia?" I would caveat that perhaps a little bit and say, "We need to be sensitive to what's going on in Russia...." What if we had severe economic problems here in the United States? Perhaps we'd be concerned about our security of our sensitive military forces, if our military people perhaps weren't being paid exactly on the first and 15th of every month. Or in Britain, or in France, or in China. So it is something that we need to keep on our radar scopes. But do I see alarm bells going off at this time? No.

You came back and you handled a rather remarkable press conference at the Pentagon, at which you said, "I want to lay this idea that there are loose nukes running around in Russia to rest." What did you see that made you so confident?

The first trip I made to Russia, where I actually went out into the field -- this was my fourth trip, in June 1998 -- the previous October, I'd been taken to two missile complexes. And at the rail [mobile] base at Kastroma, which is about 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow, they actually took me into a nuclear weapons storage area. They took me into the bunker where the warheads were, and they showed me the security, the door, the three man policy in terms of getting into the facility. They took me into the guard shack, and I actually got to talk to the young, very sharp professional soldiers that were guarding those nuclear weapons. And I was impressed. Again, there was a lot of areas that they could have improved upon, especially with the application of technology. But one of the things that drove us to technology in the late seventies and early eighties was getting rid of manpower to reduce cost. And the Russians, at this particular point in time, have lots of manpower and they don't have the bucks to go out and apply technology to these security issues.

So...[in October] I went to actually two missile bases, and I saw the security at the second base. But on this trip in June 1998, not only did I go to two entirely different missile bases; I went to a bomber base....I went to one of their national storage sites, a place called Saratov. And then they took me up to the North Fleet submarine base at Severomorsk, and I went on a ballistic missile submarine. And at one of the missile bases, the bomber base, the national site, and the navy base, they took me in their nuclear weapons storage sites. And what I saw gave me the realization that they're deadly serious about nuclear weapons security, just as we are. And I would expect nothing less.

General Bill Odom said, "Any general who would make an opinion based on one observation, one trip" -- he was referring to your press conference -- "Any general knows that you have to go back not once but several times." He was skeptical in that what you saw was in fact they can choose where they want you to go. They can drill their guys before you arrive. How can you be sure that what you saw reflects reality?

Let me set the record straight. When I got back in from that October trip and had that first press conference, I made it very clear that I saw one base, but that I was told that this base was representative of what was going on in Russia with the nuclear weapons security. I made that very, very clear. When I went on this most recent trip in June, I asked if I was being shown the best. If I were just [see]ing the best, how much worse were the worse bases? And the answer I got was that I saw about the middle of the road. There are some bases where some of the security was not quite up to the same standards, but that the disparity was not that great. I was assured by several senior officers -- and again, you know, trust and confidence is built on believing people when they look you in the eye and say, "This is what's happening." And again, from what I saw at the bases I went to, the two missile bases, the bomber base, the national storage site, and the navy base, they're doing okay.

Most intelligence people that I speak with are more concerned about tactical nukes, the threat of a rogue state getting fissile material and delivering a bomb to our door via truck or backpack. How concerned are you about that threat?

That's my primary concern. Of all the concerns I had while I was commander-in-chief of Strategic Command, it was a terrorist event using a nuclear device. I didn't say "weapon" but a device. The knowledge is out there on how to build a nuclear device. If you look at what happened the World Trade Center in New York with the conventional bomb, if that had been a nuclear device, and instead of tens of people killed, you get tens of thousands, and you have the nuclear radioactivity in the lower part of Manhattan, I mean, you would have shut down one of our major metropolitan areas. And then, in addition to the horrific things that would go on if a nuclear device were to be used like that, what if, instead of a rogue state setting off that device, you had an independent terrorist group? Now, who do you go retaliate against in that kind of a situation? That's the thing that scared me more than anything else. And then when you bring in the chemical and the biological concerns, I mean, you go back and look at what happened in Tokyo with that religious sect. That was very close to being a major, major disaster....And that's the thing that scares me more than anything else. [Now], one of the beauties of the Nunn-Lugar program is to insert lots of money into those areas in Russia where fissile material is stored, to ensure the security of that stuff.

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Do you have any concerns about the current command and control issues of the strategic arsenal in the former Soviet Union? And if so, what are they?

Although there are a number of ways that nukes could get loose, some of them are evocative of the old nuclear exchanges: somebody deciding that they want to launch a strategic nuclear weapon at the United States. That's something to worry about, but I think it's far, far less likely and therefore less worrisome than a much more mundane and simple scenario where a few guards at a location where there are tactical nuclear weapons or fissile material decide that they want to accept an offer of a terrorist group or a rogue nation to give them many millions of dollars for one nuclear weapon, or for some fissile material....

How worried are you about that scenario?

I never thought that we would get to 1999 from 1991 without a instance of loose nukes. When I was in the Pentagon, I would wake up every morning, and the first thing I would do was look at the intelligence about whether a diversion had taken place. I never expected to get through my time there, let alone to now, without an example of loose nukes. Now, knock on wood, as far as we know, there has been no example yet of loose nukes. But we're very lucky to have gotten as far as we are. And consider the fact that the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. The half-life of uranium is 713 million years. How many turns of the wheel of history will go by before this stuff decays on its own? It's a longlasting danger.

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On the scale of threats that the US faces from the former Soviet Union, are you looking at command and control of the strategic arsenal, the idea that tactical nuclear weapons might be spirited away by some malcontented soldier, a chemical or biological threat, or scientists selling services to a rogue state? What concerns you the most?

Well, earlier the tactical nuclear problem was paramount....Now, that is a threat that miraculously has been contained. Over 30,000 of these weapons were rounded up -- we think, almost every one of them. And they're in storage....And some of them have been dismantled.

The real threat is always the unknown. I mean, the potential for the stealing of material is always there with desperate people, if the security is not adequate. Some of the facilities (and I shall not name them) that I saw in November appear to me to have inadequate security. This is not because the Russians haven't thought about it, but once again, it costs money. And the pleas of the people in these facilities...[are], "How can we secure this place? How much money can you devote to making sure that even as we dismantle or we defuse or whatever we're doing, we're going to be able to hold this together?"

Another thing that we've dealt with, Nunn-Lugar has provided for a computer system in which literally the Russians are able to record wherever they [are]. That might seem rudimentary in this country, but the Russians always tells us eleven times, "Oh, it's a big country." And we've found, in fact, a lot of records being kept in pen and ink at various places. Now, this is important in terms of the accounting of this stuff, because how would you know if you were missing a few pounds of highly enriched uranium, if you really didn't know how much you had to begin with, where it is, if there are no testing of the system, no accounting? Americans would say, "Well, why do we have to provide a computer system to Russians so they can do their own accounting?" Well, because it's important to us to know where it is, too, and how much, and what is missing -- if something was missing.

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Bruce Blair, among others, has suggested that not only the morale but the hardware itself, the command and control system for strategic arsenals, has become dilapidated; that there's been no way to modernize; and as a result, there is an increased chance of an accidental launch. Do you agree?

I don't know how one would verify these propositions that because deterioration takes place in command and control system, that there's a greater chance. It could be that deterioration means it's almost virtually impossible to launch, because the systems don't work. Lack of maintenance of nuclear weapons for a few months means that a number of them, a large or increasing number, will not explode if launched. So I think a strong argument can be made that neglect is reducing the threat. The idea that we should go out there and spend money and try to improve their command and control system strikes me as the height of misguided endeavors.

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matthew bunn

How confident are you that the Russian nuclear arsenal that you spoke about are secure?

Unfortunately, I'm not at all confident. Let me make a distinction between nuclear weapons themselves and the nuclear material that is the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons themselves are much more secure. They're guarded by a highly professional force in the Twelfth Main Directorate. They are large items. You can't put a nuclear weapon under your overcoat or in your briefcase and walk off with it, without anyone noticing. And you can count them. A guy who runs a depot that has nuclear weapons knows that "I'm supposed to have 35" or "I'm supposed to have 36"; whereas with the nuclear material, it's a completely different situation. The guard force, many of them are 18-year-old, virtually untrained conscripts, have no idea of the importance of what it is that they're guarding. They haven't been paid in six months. Many of them literally have been leaving their posts to forage for food, have been refusing to patrol perimeters because they haven't been issued warm uniforms and it's freezing outside. Also, nuclear material can come in very small items that you can put in your coat pocket or in your briefcase and walk out the door. And most of the Russian nuclear facilities still don't have detectors at the gates that would set off an alarm if someone was doing that.

The Soviet Union had a security system for nuclear material that worked for 40 years. But it was built for a different world than the one we live in today. It was built for a world of pampered, well cared for nuclear workers, in a closed society, with closed borders, and everyone under surveillance by the KGB. Now you've got desperate, unpaid nuclear workers in an open society, with open borders. It's a totally different situation. Then, the threat was the American spy getting into the facility. Now the threat you have to worry about is the desperate worker carrying something out. And their systems weren't designed to address that threat. So that's what we're working with them on now, is installing the appropriate security technology to deal with this new situation.

But you have to work not only on technology; you have to work on people, on relieving the kinds of economic desperation to lead guards to go off and forage for food. I'm very concerned, frankly, that if we don't deal with the electricity at nuclear facilities keeping going, that runs the security systems, if we don't deal with guards who haven't been paid for months at a time and are literally hungry and heavily armed, that we could have a proliferation disaster on our hands, with nuclear material finally falling into the hands of a terrorist group or a rogue state. We know that kilogram quantities of nuclear material have been stolen from Russian nuclear facilities on several occasions in the past. We need to prevent that from happening again and finally falling into the hands of a hostile party.

The fact that we have programs at all ten of the nuclear cities, or at the various sites, does that mean that the materials at all ten of those places is equally secure?

Absolutely not. There are ten cities built to produce nuclear weapons, but there are more than 50 facilities in the former Soviet Union where there is plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Many of them are civilian facilities, just doing research with this kind of material. Many of them aren't even doing that research any more because they don't have the money, and yet they still have this material on site. There are facilities where the electricity has been cut off, that runs the security systems, because the facility couldn't pay its bills. There are facilities where they literally don't have the money to have 24-hour manning even at the central guard station. So if you came and tried to steal the material when the guard was off duty, you'd be able to. At most facilities in Russia, there has never been a real physical inventory where you actually measured how much plutonium and highly enriched uranium you had on hand. In the old days, they kept track of all of that on paper, and they had a piece of paper that said, "Well, this is how much this was supposed to be when it arrived," and another piece of paper that says, "This is how much I shipped out," and the difference between paper 1 and paper 2 must still be around here somewhere. That really has to be fixed. And that's going to be a lot of work to get that done....

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