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The chemical arms threat Russia's stockpile could be easy prey for terrorists


IT IS OFTEN THE LEAST obvious threat that materializes with the deadliest of consequences. Such is the case with the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. When religious zealots menaced Japan earlier this year, they chose not the ultimate doomsday weapon -- a nuclear bomb -- but poison gas.

That haunting reality should not be forgotten as the Senate takes up the crucial issue of ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in weeks ahead. If nothing else, Congress should be unnerved by the prospect that Russia's chemical weapons stockpile, the world's largest, appears to be vulnerable to theft.

At four of Russia's seven declared chemical weapons storage sites, eyewitnesses report that the entry gates for trains were unguarded and doors to storage buildings were often locked only with a single-key padlock. No electronic intruder detection devices were seen at the perimeter of Russian chemical weapons storage facilities and only at two sites were such devices possibly observed on individual storage buildings.

Given the economic circumstances in Russia, it should be expected that some of the troops guarding these facilities may be tempted to profit by purloining chemical weapons for sale on the black market.

According to those eyewitnesses, such containers were often not protected with tamper-proof seals.

Easy for terrorists

Chemical weapons are much easier to use than nuclear weapons. A terrorist does not have to crack missile launch codes or get past the other devices installed in many nuclear weapons to prevent unauthorized use.

A terrorist could don commercially available protective wear, drain the munitions and wreak havoc by later releasing their contents in a public building or, as in Tokyo, a mass transit system.

With full-strength Russian chemical agents -- Japan's terrorists used a low-grade concoction -- thousands would probably die. If these weapons made their way into the hands of rebellious military forces, they could be launched from any of the tens of thousands of Soviet-made artillery pieces worldwide.

Congress has at its fingertips mechanisms to reduce the possibility that chemical weapons of Soviet origin might one day harm American soldiers or civilians. First, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program wisely channels U.S. assistance to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to help secure former Soviet nuclear weapons and to begin dismantling them. Only about 5 percent of these funds have been used to help Russia get its chemical weapons destruction program started.

For a modest amount, the United States could markedly enhance the physical security at Russia's chemical weapons storage facilities by installing perimeter lights, better doors and more rugged locks. More advanced seals and electronic intrusion devices -- such as closed-circuit TV -- might also be offered.

In addition, the Senate's consent to ratification of the CWC would help open Russian storage sites to international scrutiny, allowing inspectors to inventory and secure these weapons. If the Senate ratifies the treaty, which will ban the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, pressure will increase for Russia to do the same. After two years, however, the CWC still awaits Senate action.

Fateful decisions

The decisions taken in Washington this fall can either make it less complicated for a financially strapped Russia to proceed along a constructive path toward chemical weapons disarmament or easier for it to veer off course. Ratification of the CWC and the provision of additional U.S. resources to secure and help destroy Russia's chemical arsenal are strong incentives for Moscow to choose the correct path.

Amy Smithson is a research fellow specializing in chemical weapons at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

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