Security threats we choose not to think about


WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat, is among the best presidents this nation never had.

As was the case with another such, Sen. Henry Jackson, the Washington Democrat, Mr. Nunn's most conspicuous service -- stressing security threats that people would rather not think about -- was an impediment to his presidential aspirations.

Recently Mr. Nunn, a decorous Cassandra, addressed a small meeting of military and other specialists on the subject of new security threats. He presented a quiz, in which he sketched eight frightening scenarios and asked his listeners to decide which were fact and which were fiction.

1. A region declares itself a state independent of the fragmenting Soviet Union, asserts ownership of nuclear weapons on its territory, requiring nuclear commanders to swear allegiance to the new state. Russian troops sent to retrieve thousands of tactical nuclear weapons are thwarted by the new state's militia. Only Russia has the unlock codes needed to launch strategic nuclear missiles, but the locking devices are built in the new state, which could replace the old ones.

2. A cadre of political and military figures -- the defense minister, the chief of the General Staff, a senior intelligence official and some extreme nationalist politicians -- topple the regime of a heavily armed nuclear state, placing the president under arrest. The plotters declare a nuclear alert for all forces. The military retains control of launch codes, but the military splinters, breaking and confusing the nuclear chain of command until the coup collapses.

3. Blips on Russian radar sites suggest one or more missiles being launched from the Norwegian Sea where U.S. and U.K. submarines operate with ballistic missiles capable of hitting Moscow in 15 minutes. In Russia's doctrine, the main option is to launch retaliatory forces no later than 10 minutes after an attack is detected. Russia's General Staff orders missile commanders to begin launch preparations. Two minutes before deadline, Russia's warning center informs the government that the flight path of whatever has been detected involves no threat. Days later, the Russians find a misplaced U.S. notification of a satellite launch.

4. A computer hacker calling himself "Phantom Dialer" gains access to various computer networks worldwide, including those of universities, corporations, banks, federal agencies and military facilities, including top secret weapons research sites. FBI agents find Phantom Dialer in Portland, Ore. He is brain-damaged by viral hepatitis, with fingers gnarled from typing on a computer 20 hours a day. He lives in a room filthy with rotting food and dog feces. The FBI flinches from prosecuting him, and instead keeps the story quiet.

5. Two hackers penetrate computer systems worldwide, including systems at a U.S. Air Force laboratory and the South Korean nuclear agency.

6. After Desert Storm, Libya, convinced it cannot compete with sophisticated U.S. weaponry, cultivates 25 computer whizzes. Their mission is to be able, by 2000, to disrupt U.S. telecommunications, energy, finance, transportation and emergency services.

7. A criminal organization spirits tactical nuclear weapons out of Russia and sells them to terrorists supported by Libya and Iran. At Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, disgruntled personnel, having gone unpaid for months, sell weapon-grade materials to a criminal organization.

8. Two nations with extreme religious and historical animosities (including three recent wars, and a simmering war over disputed territory) acquire nuclear weapons, but not enough of them to deter a disarming nuclear first strike, and neither has a sophisticated warning system. As terrorism increases, the military leader of one of the nations tells his prime minister that they must launch a pre-emptive strike or lose their weapons.

Mr. Nunn says scenarios 1 through 5 have occurred, 6 and 7 are imaginary, and 8 may be unfolding on the Indian subcontinent.

"The world," he says, "has never before had an empire collapse still containing over 30,000 nuclear weapons, tons of chemical and biological weapons, thousands of missiles and scientists who know how to make these weapons, but don't know how to feed their families."

Mr. Nunn's suggestions include: a joint U.S.-Russian missile warning system (which could lead to missile defense cooperation); joining with Russia to provide missile launch warning to both India and Pakistan; helping Russia solve any Year 2000 computer problem affecting its missiles, nuclear arsenal or nuclear power plants; joint law enforcement efforts targeted at terrorism; and working with Russia to safeguard and eliminate our weapon-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium stockpiles.

We live, Mr. Nunn says, in an era of "big challenges and little ideas." He is too polite to say: little leadership, too. However, his insistent voice is a reproach to others who are not doing their duty to describe the world as an increasingly dangerous place.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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