It's only a matter of time. That's what the experts say when asked whether a terrorist organization might detonate an atom bomb in an American city.
The Bush administration has taken several initiatives to defend the country against nuclear terrorism. These measures will help to prevent the theft of uranium and plutonium and to interdict any illicit shipments of nuclear materials or equipment. The recent capture in the Republic of Georgia of a smuggler carrying enriched uranium is a case where cooperative intelligence worked quite well. But we are still playing catch-up. Why?
First, the task of preventing the spread of nuclear materials and technology too often is assigned a lower priority than other national goals.
Second, we are not aggressively using the full array of diplomatic and security tools available to us in this fight.
The consequences are clear to see. While the Bush administration debated whether to negotiate with or strangle North Korea's government, that country built and tested a nuclear weapon. Pakistan, whose president has escaped two assassination attempts by Islamic extremists, is the home of Abdul Qadeer Khan, who set up an international black market in nuclear materials, equipment and even weapon designs, and used this to help Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Pakistan has tested nuclear weapons. The Bush administration perceives that it needs Pakistan's help in the war on terror. Consequently, nuclear nonproliferation issues must take a back seat in our dealings with that country.
India refused to accept the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and tested nuclear weapons, causing Pakistan to do so shortly afterward. Despite the worries of a few "proliferation hawks" in Congress and elsewhere, President Bush negotiated a deal to assist India's civil nuclear power program. Congress even endorsed a change in U.S. anti-proliferation laws to accommodate India.
In the case of Iran, the United States missed opportunities after 9/11 to engage with that country on security and other issues. Subsequently, we became bogged down in Iraq on the spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program. Now, according to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the United States has little leverage to bring to bear in any discussions with Iran. And military options carry grave consequences. Meanwhile, Iran is putting in place the infrastructure needed to build atom bombs.
Is all this relevant to preventing a nuclear bomb from being detonated in an American city? North Korea and Iran are not so bent on national suicide as to think of launching a nuclear attack on the United States. India and Pakistan are friends and are likely to remain so. So what's the problem?
In the nuclear field, America has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. We would do well to remember that America once supported Iraq in that country's war with Iran. Before that, we supported Iran's aspirations to become a dominant power in the Middle East. From the beginning of the nuclear age, America's interest has been to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to any other nation, even our closest allies. That is still our interest.
We cannot expect that the defensive measures we take to prevent terrorists from infiltrating a nuclear device into our country will succeed indefinitely in a world where more and more nations - some reliable, others less so - acquire the capabilities to build the bomb. Like the levees around New Orleans, sooner or later the rising tide of nuclear weaponry will break through those barriers.
To the everlasting credit of all concerned, the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before it, worked with Russia to improve the security of nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these improvements relate to civilian research establishments. However, there are thousands of small, portable, "tactical" nuclear weapons in Russia - presumably in secure military installations scattered around the country - that terrorists would pay millions of dollars to get their hands on. None of these has been touched by any U.S.-Russian agreement.
We need an aggressive U.S. policy aimed at denying terrorists the pool of nuclear weapons and related materials from which they can buy or steal the means to destroy an American city. A diplomatic offensive to block nuclear terrorism should not just fix the easier problems. It should dry up the most serious potential source of nuclear terror: the weapons that are stockpiled, the new weapons that are being built, and the infrastructure that supports these programs - and not just in Russia. No American anti-proliferation policy can be complete or successful if it does not address this side of the problem.
Our offensive against nuclear terrorism should have the highest priority. It should be equipped with all the leverage we can provide it. That's not the case today. And that's why the experts can confidently say: It's only a matter of time.
James E. Goodby, a former U.S. ambassador, is the author of "At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb." His e-mail is email@example.com.