Graham Allison: His book on suitcase nukes challenged

Historians in the News

... Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, wrote a book called "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." In that slim volume, Mr. Allison worries about stolen warheads, self-made bombs and suitcase nukes. Published in 2004, the work has been widely cited by the press and across the blogosphere....

The foundation of all main nuclear suitcase stories is a string of interviews given by Gen. Lebed in 1997. Lebed told a visiting congressional delegation in June 1997 that the Kremlin was concerned that its arsenal of 100 suitcase-size nuclear bombs would find their way to Chechen rebels or other Islamic terrorists. He said that he had tried to account for all 100 but could find only 48. That meant 52 were missing. He said the bombs would fit "in a 60-by-40-by-20 centimeter case"--in inches, roughly 24-by-16-by-8--and would be "an ideal weapon for nuclear terror. The warhead is activated by one person and easy to transport." It would later emerge that none of these statements were true....

Still, Graham Allison puts his faith in Lebed's story. How does Mr. Allison account for the high-level rebuttals? He makes two brief arguments. "Moscow's assurance that 'all nuclear weapons are accounted for' is wishful thinking, since at least four nuclear submarines with nuclear warheads sank and were never recovered by the Soviet Union." (One was recovered by the U.S. in 1974.) This is true, but beside the point; the subs were carrying nuclear missiles, not nuclear suitcases.

Mr. Allison's more pointed rebuttal is this:

The Russian government reacted to Lebed's claim in classic Soviet style, combing wholesale denial with efforts to discredit the messenger. In the days and months that followed, official government spokesmen claimed that (1) no such weapons ever existed; (2) any weapons of this sort had been destroyed; (3) all Russian weapons were secure and properly accounted for; and (4) it was inconceivable that the Russian government could lose a nuclear weapon. Assertions to the contrary, or even questions about the matter, were dismissed as anti-Russian propaganda or efforts at personal aggrandizement.

Mr. Allison is unfairly summarizing the official Russian view. There is no contradiction between points (1) and (2) because (1) refers to suitcase nukes, a journalist term for a weapon that never existed. The portable nuclear devices--the special mines that filled three footlockers and weighed hundreds of pounds--were destroyed as required by U.S.--Russia treaties.

We don't have to take Russia's word for this; the disposal and destruction of these weapons were supervised by expert American officials like Ms. Gottemoeller. So point (2) checks out. As for points (3) and (4), Russia's claims have been independently verified by U.S. officials. If Mr. Allison has specific evidence of misplaced nuclear suitcases, he doesn't provide it in either the hardcover or paperback edition of his book or in his speeches to the Council on Foreign Relations or elsewhere....

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