Thinking About The Unthinkable

Smash asks us to think about the unthinkable (if you haven’t read the book – ‘Thinking About the Unthinkable‘ by Herman Kahn, you damn well should).

Smash lays out a reasonable set of alternatives as strategies for response.

Personally, I think the responses would be harder to bring into focus.He points out that we can usually ‘fingerprint’ the fissile elements of a weapon; the problem of course is that we won’t have matching fingerprints for one that was produced clandestinely and never tested; and just because we know the provenance of a weapon doesn’t mean it wasn’t stolen from a badly guarded Pakistani or Russian storage shed.

I wrote on much the same thing a while ago, and said it might look like this:

There is some evidence that one of the weapons was a Russian tactical nuke, in a batch that was thought to have been in Georgia, and that Chechen militants were suspected of having access to it; they suddenly have a national treasury that is $100,000,000 richer, and it looks like some of the funds came from hawalas, the Middle Eastern ‘cash’ banking community.

One of the weapons appears to have been homemade, and we can’t figure out where the other one came from.

The pressure is on the president to do something.

The U.N. issues statements deploring the ‘tragedy’ and supporting direct action against the perpetrators, as soon and sufficient evidence is found to identify who they were.

We find that some of the funds which might have paid for one of the weapons might have been paid by a Jordanian oil trader who is thought to sometimes act as a front for the Iraqi government. We’ve turned a blind eye to him in the past, because the funds that went back were partially used for humanitarian purposes, and because he gave some of our intelligence assets entrée to the Iraqi underground.

Hussein goes on CNN and Al-Jazeera, and states that a conspiracy among his senior officers was responsible for ‘this humanitarian tragedy’ and publicly executes them and their families on live television.

He offers to open the country to inspections by a joint French/Swiss/German inspection team, and to pay $1,000,000,000 in reparations to the U.S. once the oil embargo is lifted.

The UK offers troops to assist with ‘humanitarian aid’ in the U.S.

There are fistfights in the Capitol, as the question of how to respond to this splits the House and Senate.

Sorting out the responsible parties – particularly if the responsible parties are a trans-state group operating with the tacit – but not explicit – support of state actors is going to be a nightmare.

I have to question how easily we’ll be able to step onto Smash’s chain of escalating responses; and that makes the prospect of this event even less thinkable.

37 thoughts on “Thinking About The Unthinkable”

  1. I acknowledge that it may be difficult, or in some cases next to impossible to conclusively determine the origin of a nuclear weapon. The responses I laid out, however, assume that the origin can be determined as a starting point.

    Also, despite rumors to the contrary, I seriously doubt that there are any nuclear weapons laying around unguarded in Russia, Pakistan, or anywhere else, for that matter. Nukes (and to a lesser extent nuclear material) cost literally billions of dollars and take years to manufacture, they are generally not left lying around for anyone to steal.

  2. Smash –

    First, given that “… it may be difficult, or in some cases next to impossible to conclusively determine the origin of a nuclear weapon.” , how do your policy options change?

    Next, I agree that the image of Soviet re-entry vehicles locked in a shed with a rusty padlock and a drunk guard are kind of a bad fantasy. But I also think that with five or ten million $US, I would have a shot at getting a nuke here (a low-odds play, to be sure) and a better shot at getting one in Russia.

    And “Hey,” by the way.


  3. SAO, that’s not an argument, it’s a lame insult, and I’m sure you can do better (either in making an argument or being insulting).

    And it’s just that when it happens, folks like you will point at the government and ask why no one did any planning beforehand, and no one prevented it.

    You must find some very odd stuff arousing if you think this is pr0n for anyone at all.


  4. A.L., it’s quite plausible, given the not-enough funding for the Coast Guard and US Customs. I checked your San Pedro scenario and the only thing unlikely is that the weapon would detonate in its container, instead of being innocently shipped to its destination by train or truck, unloaded by the people waiting for it, and detonated any place they chose, like, say, “Union Square in San Francisco”:, that alternate scenario suggesting that the unthinkable is very thinkable indeed.

    And not just in terms of a nuclear weapon. The “Dark Winter”: exercise managed to project an even worse scenario, and plausibly so — check out the Dark Winter PowerPoint link for the whole scenario. And that for a weapon far more portable than a 5- or 10-KT warhead.

    And SMASH may be right — maybe — about no nukes lying around. But for sale by some rogue group in Pakistan or Russia? One hell of a “lot of loose nukes”: are out there, and this last hyperlinked article notes that the head of Pakistan’s “nuclear weapons program was fired in February for secretly supplying nuclear technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran.” If he could sell blueprints, someone could sell other materiel.

    So, A.L., what’s to be done? More money for port and terminal security? Or simply start planning the retaliation now? Worth a discussion, especially as port and terminal security, against a hand-delivered weapons, would require a fraction of what we would spend on a missile-defense system.

  5. FYI, Iran has promised to destroy Israel and is developing A-bombs and missiles to do exactly that. For Iran’s information, Israel already has thermonuclear weapons (i.e., H-bombs, not less-destructive A-bombs). Were Iran to nuke an Israeli city, all thermonuclear hell would break loose in the Middle East. The final solution would come to the Levant. Many Muslim cities (Cairo, Mecca, Medina, Jeddah, Damascus, Teheran, etc.) would vanish permanently. It would cripple global Islam for at least a century. On the other hand, if an American city were attacked by Muslims, the U.S. would end Islam. Count on it.

  6. AL:
    I think the “loose nukes” scenario re. Russia is a lot, lot less likely than it was, for two reasons.

    First, Putin is ex-KGB, and likely to be far more serious about security than the Yeltsin regime was.

    Second, Chechens. Given their crazies might well be inclined to light off a nuke in Moscow, the Russians have got one heck of a motivation for keeping nukes and fissionables locked up tight.

    I suspect what that US $10m would actually buy you in Russia these days would be the old Dzerzhinsky Square 9mm terminal headache.

  7. We should make it explicitly clear, publicly, now that the rogue states engaged in the development of Nukes, Iran and North Korea and whom ever else we suspect, would be destroyed following such an attack anywhere in the world regardless of their specific culpability. The only way out is to join the responsible world and subject their activities to rigorous inspection by something other than El-Baradei’s clowns.

    The U. S. wil not end Islam. What is our gripe with the people of Indonesia? Arabia, that’s another story.

  8. And it’s just that when it happens, folks like you will point at the government and ask why no one did any planning beforehand, and no one prevented it.

    True, I probably would ask why no one prevented it.

    Of course, no one here is debating how to prevent a nuclear attack, A.L. Instead you are fantasizing about the response… typical.

    Pardon the insult, but I’m one who’s always felt that Tom Clancy novels belonged in the supermarket– next to the Daniel Steele.

  9. Tom Clancy gamed out this scenerio in one of his books (Sum of all Fears) and Hollywood ruined it by turning it into a movie. The material was American or Russian and the act was carried out by Middle East terrorists and an aggrieved Indian, er, Native American (in the book at least).

    Terrorism by proxy provides the state sponsor with plausible deniability. This would seem to work well for ‘low level’ or ‘conventional’ attacks.

    When WMD’s enter into the picture, all bets are off the table. Do the state sponsors/condoners of terrorism have the slightest clue that if one of their creations detonates a nuke in the US that their days very well could be numbered? Yes, the issue does become very muddy when the media’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard is applied for intelligence and decisions for national security…

    The US has shown remarkable restraint in prosecuting the war on terrorism. It has taken down two govs after 9/11 and is actively rebuilding them.

    The war in Iraq was fought with the the idea to minimize civilian deaths and damage to infrastructure while targeting regime elements. This ‘strategy’ has arguably made the job harder for the military,

    The US has a lot of military options left in the bag, and rightly so. We all know that the US could at any time throttle it up and level entire cities, but it hasn’t had to and hopefully it never will have to.

    As Thucydides, said: “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most”

  10. Alas, this “unthinkable” topic is too broad. Fortunately, it can be usefully narrowed (italics connote irony). Here are some premises that are very likely to be true, should a nuclear weapon be detonated on US soil.

    bq. 1. It will “just happen,” coming out of the blue (out of a conex shipping container, that is).

    bq. 2. Immediately, there will be a massive outpouring of sympathy for America, throughout most of the world, including Europe and parts of the Mideast. Offers of aid will pour in.

    bq. 3. Within the first few days, the US intelligence community will have strong suspicions, but not convincing evidence of the weapon’s source.

    bq. 4. After a week, analysis of the radioactive material, review of electronic intercepts and shipping records, and new interrogations and other ‘humint’ will allow US intelligence to know to, say, 90% to 95%, who smuggled and detonated the bomb.

    bq. 5. The US Government will be unwilling or unable to present all of the evidence that implicates organization X or country Y.

    bq. 6. The evidence that the US Government presents will not reach the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Still, it will be convincing to disinterested observers who trust that the USG didn’t cook the books or unintentionally rush to judgement. To say nothing of large sectors of the emotion-charged American public.

    bq. 7. The evidence will be unconvincing to those inclined to doubt the honesty or competence of the USG. The UN General Assembly will pass a resolution urging restraint, as will many other nations and supra-national organizations. Many on the American Left will agree.

    bq. 8. International sympathy will curdle, to be supplanted by writers and demonstrators calling, “ask yourselves why they hate you!” The murderous logic of Retaliation will be highlighted worldwide as a terrible symptom of the Evil at the heart of the imperial American Soul.

    (This is, of course, an adaptation of the trajectory that transpired following the 9-11 attacks. Per points 4, 5, 6, and 7, we now know that the Iranian government was an accomplice to 9-11; the major question is the extent of their involvement in the planning stages. Their pro-al-Qaeda actions after-the-fact are clear. See Dan Darling’s ongoing series here at WoC, “The Elephant in the Room.”)

    So–Given this narrower and very-unappetizing speculative framework:

    bq. What ‘threats’ should the USG be making now, publically and privately to, say, the Kim Family Regime, the Mullahs, the Saudis?

    bq. What retaliatory actions should the USG be prepared to make immediately, in the absence of definitive evidence as to the culprits?

    bq. What actions should the USG try to implement after, say, the first week, when the identities of the culprits and their supporters is likely to be known, but the evidence for their guilt is likely to be rejected by the Court of World Opinion?

  11. Pardon the insult, but I’m one who’s always felt that Tom Clancy novels belonged in the supermarket– next to the Daniel Steele.

    Isn’t that where they are, more or less? Maybe not directly adjacent, because of alphabetzation or which one is currently #1, but close. I like Clancy but I’ve never pretended it was for the brilliant dialoge or well-rounded characters.

    In any case, the insult is no more useful for moving the discussion forward for having some ring of truth about it. After all, the response to a nuke attack–that is, the publicly discussed, well-advertised response–is an important part of preventing it. Most cops never draw their guns, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t carry and practice with them.

    And though I’ve never read any Steele, anything would be better than Clancy’s sex scenes. Anything at all. Somebody please make him stop.

  12. SAO is on to something here. What to do to prevent an attack? The “GAO had one 2003 study”: that’s worth a look. Certainly US Customs is one agency that would be front-line on this, though how many containers go into the US un-inspected? The US Coast Guard should have more ability to stop vessels offshore on all approaches, not just the ones they patrol in the name of drug interdiction.

    Nor does it necessarily involve inspecting all containers, as this “testimony by a former USCG officer”: suggests. But it would mean a lot better verification of cargo manifests and ship registries worldwide, something that US Customs does “have a start on”:, putting inspectors in overseas ports, but, as you can see, the list is kind of short.

  13. Isn’t this the first season of 24? It seems about right a lot of heavy breathing and shooting at the same guys over and over. Oh and wait a minute there was even a whole set of villians including Middle Eastern types and some pretty American liberal girls that aided them.

    In the end we may go boom but it went off in other places and the last time I was there in Japan they are back in business.

    Cockroaches might survive nuclear attacks better but they can’t dig bomb shelters. I believe I will continue work on mine.

  14. Let me back up one step. There are two related, but separate questions here. To somewhat simplify, they are “What should we say we will do in the event” and “What should (will) we actually do in the event”. The first has to do with how you hopefully prevent the first event, the second with how you fight the ensuing war.

    In the Cold War there was a deterrent benefit to publishing our acknowledged doctrine, because it told the other side where our tripwires were located. Confusion over that almost caused the Big One once, during the Cuban crisis. I assume the Soviets also signaled their doctrine to us.

    That situation was simpler, as Wretchard among others has pointed out: We had a sane, though inimical, adversary. And the overall consensus was that the failure mode was cataclysmic, quickly escalating into a general exchange. In the current case, there is no Kremlin with which to negotiate, some number of the enemy are attempted to create Armageddon, and the ‘game’ is all too likely to be an iterated one if it begins and we do not finish it in one round.

    Does the idea of a publicly acknowledged deterrent doctrine make sense in this circumstance? Or is it likely to create more problems than it solves by inflaming the situation – c.f. the “Nuke Mecca” proposal frequented bruited about – without deterring the Armageddon seekers?

    (And to AMac: I find your scenario all too likely, but I think the outcome is also obvious, if you calibrate against the response to 9/11: International opinion would be totally ignored, the passage of a war resolution would be a mere formality. The President, having become the first whose term included a nuclear attack on America, would not go out of office without a response. My only guess is that the severity of response might be calibrated against the degree of certainty of the villain – strong suspicion drawing a conventional decapitation and regime change, complete certainty getting a counterforce – if not counterpopulation – nuclear strike. Just speculation…)

  15. Ther will be a nuclear attack on the USA. It will likely come from a proxy organization. The supporting government will not be whom it is most assumed to be. I believe it will be the People’s Republic of China. The issue likely to make it happen is Taiwan or our rivalry over economic developement in Asia. For the PRC itwould be an act of national defence against a country that has “HOLLOWED” its economy and can no longer economically support its military obligations. Letting Kim loose would only result in Japan rearming. The PRC doesn’t want a repeat of the late 20’s till 1945 nor a multiple front war.

    The Iranian government can make the case that the USA has acted against its interests since the restoration of the Peacock Throne in 1953. That its moves towards the acquistion of nuclear arms is legitimate because they are protecting their national state. You can call names till you turn blue in the face but I know not a single one of you would tolerate the interference the Iranians have had in their affairs in “OURS”.

    The correct policy to deal w/ a nuclear attack by anyone would to publicly announce during the State of the Union Address every year that “OUR” response will be a measured one that will result in the destruction of any government we believe responsible for helping perpetrate the attack. Measured is stated in private to the governments and proxies we believe capable of such acts.

    So as a matter of discourse stop the name calling, recognize and accept that people have interests different than ours and they are going to defend them differently than “WE” do. Then “WE” act with ameasured response.

  16. SAO is on to something here. What to do to prevent an attack?

    Open every cargo container on every ship in every port (outside every port, actually) as it arrives. Seal our borders at military levels of security. Implement domestic travel checkpoints at the county level to include vehicle searches and checks of the newly-issued biometric national I.D. card. Conduct active surveillence of immigrants/visa holders from axis/axis sympathetic nations. Declare Islam a political movement and strip protections from mosques and madrassas.

    Or we can win the war and drain the swamp. We don’t fear Japanese or German tourists today because they aren’t the enemy since we beat them in 1945.

    There’s no amount of money we can spend to prevent the possibility of attack, be it retail bombings or wholesale WMD, and remain an open society. None. Not as long as the enemy retains the will and capability to attack. We know which countries actively foster the Islamofascist movement, and acknowledge that the movement exists worldwide.

    The challenge is daunting. That doesn’t mean that it cannot be met. The trope “there are a billion of them” seems to ignore the fact that there’s four billion of us and that hasn’t slowed the enemy down much at all. Defense never won a war.

    BTW – Dan, you’re linked on my blog. Don’t go buying a new server contract. I get the same volume of traffic as a Maine outhouse on a January night.

  17. So many different scenarios. Here’s a novel one: what if the victim of the attack isn’t us, but Russia? If I were a sick minded terrorist (hmm… redundant), I’d attempt a “multiplier effect” – instigate a strategic exchange between nuclear powers. There is an element of distrust with respect to the US, given our previous support of the muj in Afghanistan – Putin alluded to as much in the aftermath of Beslan. If the weapons material could be traced to the US, the idea that the US carried out a proxy attack on Russia would be put into play. Now stealing weapons grade material from the US arsenal would be difficult – hopefully the _most_ difficult target. But consider that weak, “fizzle” (sic – not “fissile”, I mean do _fizzle_) weapons in the range of a few kilotons can be made from reactor grade plutonium. Small compared to Hiroshima, big compared to 9//1 or the OK bombing. US reactors are significantly less well guarded than weapons facilities. Just a thought.

    My point is that in considering responses, the responses of other countries to the same kind of nuclear attack are also worth considering. Tracing the source to a country with a strategic nuclear capability of it’s own (Russia, China, _France_) is really problematic. If the source is traceable to Iran or DPRK, the response is easy by comparison. Russia is just as likely a target as we are, and in the aftermath of such an attack we will have suspicions to allay. Even if Russia and the US conclusively determine that, say, Pakistan is the source of material which was used in an attack against Russia, we would have some interest in limiting the extensiveness of the Russian response, given the detrimental effect that massive strategic retaliation against Islamic nations would have on the world economy (among other considerations).

  18. Arrrrgh.

    Armed, accept my apologies. I linked to your excellent post from Regnum Crucis and posted without doublechecking authorship.

    I linked WOC the same time I did Regnum Crucis.

    I’ve had you’re blog bookmarked forever and look forward to your opinions here.

  19. Regarding prevention as opposed to deterrence:

    Stopping a bomb from being delivered is going to be well nigh impossible.
    Not only do you have to control ports which deal with HUGE volumes of traffic, but there are LOT of other delivery options.

    The next step back is preventing the assembly of a weapon.
    Unfortunately, this technology is now, for fission weapons at least, ‘out there’. Certainly for basic, first-generation type, uranium fuelled devices, and (largely thanks to the Soviet-Chinese-Pakistan-A. Khan “Nukes-R-Us” chain) too much for comfort re. plutonium fuelled.

    The step back from this is weapons fuel production and control. (Since Tom Clancy’s name has cropped up, IIRC he argued this in an afterword to _The Sum of All Fears_)
    As of now, this means states, as the scale of plant, support infrastructure, energy requirements, investment etc. places it far beyond the capability of even the largest non-state actors. So, assuming the ‘loose nukes’ problem is being adressed by the Russians and Pakistan, and N.Korea is deterrable in this this regard, the issue is the nuclear ‘wannabes’.

    Which is precisely the focus of current US policy in combining coercive pressures and diplomacy in preventing weapons fuel production re. Iran, which suceeded re. Libya, and failed re. N.Korea.

    Whether this can be relied on in the longer term is another question, if civil nuclear power use spreads.
    To prevent countries piggybacking covert weapons grade enrichment of uranium and production of plutonium onto civil reactor operations, it might be worth considering reviving a updated variation on the post-WW2 Acheson/Lilienthal/Baruch plans for international control of fissionables production.

    The problem is this would require a massive restructuring of international institutions: an IAEA with teeth and the will required, and likely a reconstruction/replacement of the UN.
    In other words, rogue nuclear-capable states with lunatic ideologies remain a massive problem.

  20. Robert M:
    I’d disagree about likely Chinese involvement in a proxy nuke attack on the US; assuming that ultra-nationalist fanatics are not in control, and that confrontation over Taiwan can be avoided.

    The reason being, that a likely international economic crisis could wreck the manufactures export (and raw-materials import) dependent economies of the Chinese ‘growth zones’, to an extent that could in turn remove resources needed for the rest of China.

    Such economic meltdown could threaten regime stability and even legitimacy. It would be a huge and reckless gamble, and one I doubt the present leadership would risk.

  21. AMac:
    Your suggestion that _”international sympathy will curdle”_ rings a bell in my head, relating to Dan Darling’s recent mentions of his ‘Origins of WW1′ assignment.

    IIRC, several historians have suggested that had Austria-Hungary struck at Serbia _immediately_ after the Sarajevo assasination, before other states had time to reflect and coordinate, it might just have avoided general war.

    Maybe delaying responses too long can be a mistake, sometimes.

  22. John Farren (9:00pm):

    You make a perceptive analogy with Austria-Hungary’s delayed delivery of its ultimatum to Serbia.

    Now as then, governments usually look at events through the prism of their own perceived self-interest. I think only in the US do the political elites (some of ‘em, anyway) chase after ideals like “our allies,” “the international community,” and “world organizations” with naive idealism rather than with cynical posturing.

    By the “rules of engagement” that Bush set up immediately after 9-11, we have every “right” to strike at Iran, with their behavior in that regard as causus belli. In practical terms, it’s impossible. The proof isn’t ironclad enough, and never will be. The damage that action would do to international relations would be too great.

    The unthinkable nuclear attack that would change everything would change very little in such regards as this.

  23. TmjUtah, unless you were being satirical, there’s just one problem with opening every container. It would slow our commerce to a crawl — the container ports and railroad capacities for them are already congested — and leave our economy in a state of ruin that our enemies probably want anyway.

    Check out “the US Customs site”: I hyperlinked above, and some of the other methods it suggests. Spotting suspicious vessels, suspicious containers and suspicious cargoes could be a lot simpler if the US insists on authenticity in ship documentation and cargo manifests, flags suspicious manifests or ships, and checks them out selectively. Ditto for sensor technology that could detect suspicious substances from outside the container, preferably in the port of embarkation.

    The principle is fairly simple: _nothing_ should move by sea or air without at least passing through detection — certainly for anything FOB to a US destination. It won’t solve all our problems but is certainly worth it given the threat. And it could interdict a lot of drug and people smuggling as well.

  24. Bob –

    Satire fits. Detectors inside of ports won’t do it either. The question posed was “what do we do to stop it from happening” and in my opinion removing the threat is the only answer.

    Maybe not today or tomorrow, but we will take the hit if we don’t. Rational, organized opposition would likely lessen the probabilities of it being anytime soon but the very nature of the enemy makes no tactic on their part out of the question. Consider also that by our breaking or compromising their command/comm links and the growing probability that both Afghanistan and Iraq will be self-governing soon, we have put them under quite a bit of stress.

    More than they already have living on the same planet as us infidels, even.

    There have been reports from Fallujah of cyanide and other toxins having been found in weapons stores/workshops. If they do it there, they can do it here.

  25. TmjUtah, point well taken, though I would say that eliminating the threat — all of them — from the planet would be just as much of a tall order.

    Either way it’ll take more money, people, effort and resolve than we’re showing so far.

    But better funding and equipment for the Coast Guard and US Customs would not be a bad thing. If “homeland security” is to mean something.

  26. Stealing or buying an atomic bomb would have been done in the last decade if it were easy. Nukes require maintenance to remain operational and this requires expertise and resources. If the terrorists got a hold of a nuke, they’d have every incentive to use it in short order and not to hang on to it.

    From what I understand, it would be very difficult to develop a true atomic weapon without the assistance of a state sponsor. (I’m excluding the “dirty bomb” scenarios that generate most of their destruction from hysteria.)

    So we’ve got two problems. First is the demand for the product which comes from the 57 varieties of terrorists who hate America. Eliminating them as rapidly as possible should be our objective. As pointed out, it will never be achieved completely, but we have made real progress.

    The other problem is supply. Fielding an operational nuclear device requires the cooperation of a nuclear capable state. We know who they are. Some are legitimate states unlikely to risk all the potential negative consequences of handing a nuclear device over to a bunch of nut cases. Khruschev put nukes in Cuba under Russian control. He didn’t give them to Castro. The other group is the “rogue states”. They would give nukes to terrorists because they are run by nut cases just like the terrorists. It is the supply from them must be curtailed. The way to do this is to tell the world that if a terrorist uses a nuke, whether on us or anyone else, we will uterly destroy the rogue countries. No ifs, ands, or buts.

    And we should make the threat publicly, we should be explicit and we should do so regularly as Robert M suggests.

    Bob Harmon makes a good point that we should try to maximize homeland security, but the likely effect of such efforts, if significantly more effective than current plans, would be to roll back much of the productivity gains of the last 20 years. And we would still have a border that would not be impenetrable.

    All three legs should be addressed.

  27. Bob –

    Mark me down as all over the “resolve” part of the deal.

    We fight this war with our minority party off the field (at best) and a western media that seems to regard itself as outside of the world it reports on.

    We live in interesting times. I believe the next six months are going to be pretty full. Real full, actually. Time fills of course.

  28. Mr Harmon raises a interesting point about inspecting containers. You currently can’t ship from foreign ports without some type of inspection or not at all if you haven’t met certain requirements. I believe that vessels are met at sea for inspection if you don’t meet them. One would think this would have reduced the amount of cocaine and heroin available on the streets raising the price. It hasn’t. So what is really happening?

  29. Robert M & Bob Harmon,

    Have you guys ever loaded or unloaded a trailer? Some ships have space for 4,000 TEU (Twenty foot Equivalent Units). How long will it take to get to every container on a ship with 2,000 to 4,000 trailers in it, packed in full density and then unload and inspect them? And what will it prove if you don’t open some of the pallets? It is impossible to efectively inspect containers coming in, except through sensor systems that can search the entire ship non-invasively. And what will you do when you get a false positive from such a system? If you think the airports are a mess, wait till you see the ports.

    The fact of the matter is that a determined malefactor can get a container into any U. S. port no matter what we do. They’re like hackers with ships instead of computers.

  30. If you are planning on thinking about the unthinkable, why not look at the worldwide impact of a 45% devaluation of the US dollar. Compared to that, a nuke in NYC does not look that big.

  31. Sure, unloading even one container is a big matter, and a sea of them comes in through our terminals. We can’t inspect them all, and certainly our rail net is already jamming with the flow we have.

    We can — check the hyperlinks I put up — maybe figure out ways of either scanning them or, more likely, flagging suspicious ship registries and cargo manifests, and examining selected containers. Or stopping the vessel offshore — that’s where the Coast Guard comes in. Think of it as profiling.

    And certainly if we have NORAD tracking every aircraft moving in and around our shores, it shouldn’t be a tall order to track ship movements and match them to their documentation. If we don’t, we certainly should try to do that much.

    Look, we should at least _try_ to deal with the problem, not throw up our hands at it.

    And — main point — if a weapon does go off in this country, having good ship and cargo documentation may allow us to find the perpetrators. A.L.’s scenario poses itself as a mystery. Better tracking could mean better identification on who wrote FOB San Pedro on it.

  32. One of the reasons for what’s been called the “forward strategy” in the WoT is the acknowledgment of the futility of inspecting every container in every vessel entering our ports. It’s not throwing up our hands, Bob Harmon, it’s recognizing what we’re prepared to do and what we’re good at.

    Let’s put it another way. If we charge a fee equal to the complete cost of inspection for every ship entering one of our ports, it will bring international trade to a halt (not to mention that it will make the trade in perishables impossible). If we fail to charge that fee, the American taxpayer will bear the cost. Either way we lose.

    We’re not going to close our borders. We’re not going to inspect every container in every vessel. And doing less than that provides an unsatisfactory level of security. A forward strategy is the only practical one.

    That isn’t to say that the forward strategy we’re using is the only one, though.

  33. There is nearly universal agreement that reliable prevention of terrorist attacks here is impossible. Some comfort comes from knowing that effective defenses don’t have to be airtight, just enough trouble to steer an enemy elsewhere.
    The forward strategy, however, is truly hopeless. Short of sterilizing the rest of the planet there is no guarantee of eliminating sources of attacks. There is, however, a guarantee of making more sources of attacks by really pissing people off.
    It’s an illusion of power that having a big gun means no one can hurt you. What about when you’re asleep? The same applies to nations. What to do?
    One approach is to accept the risk and just go on living. 9/11 killed roughly 1/10 of 1% of the population. We have sent nearly that many soldiers to their deaths in answer. (Soon the number may exceed the 9/11 dead.)
    Another approach might be to stop pissing people off. Bets are that Spain will not see any Al Qaeda attacks for the foreseeable future.
    Nukes in particular, though, allow for targeted strategies with the possibility of successful prevention. Many nations may want nukes but none of them really wants them running around loose.
    If we were serious about reducing nuke risk we would make a big show of decommissioning nukes here. We would generously fund the Nunn-Lugar program in Russia. And perhaps we should admit that we are not provably more mature or saintly than any other nation and they have a right to arm themselves to deter us from throwing our weight around.
    It is interesting that the “inalienable rights” of our Constitution are, in practice, easily alienable elsewhere. The inherent disprespect that our non-proliferation approach shows to nations like Iran just asks for violation. This only works for nations so weak that they depend on us.
    Of course, the Rice/Wolfowitz foreign-policy conservatives sneer at treaties and figure they can bust up any gang they don’t trust. Although we tried to warn them, they tried it in Iraq with the current results.
    How about a regime of nuclear states that accept each others’ right to deter attack and stand by their openness by allowing reactor product analyses to be publicly available? A state announces it is nuclear armed and invites inspectors to sample its fissonables. The public statement and fingerprinting ensure that the state will safeguard its weapons, and that any use will have to be justified defense.
    Unfortunately, even Democrats would be hard to persuade when asked to show classified weapons to outsiders. But why should Iran or North Korea accept being restrained and monitored while we are secret?

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