Why the Mafia Will Grow to Love Star Wars
-- Nukes on the Loose (Parts III & IV)

January 18, 1999

Comment: #226

Discussion Thread:  #s 216, 218, 219, 220, 222, 224


[1] Jeffrey Fleishman, "NUKES ON THE LOOSE: Sting Unravels Stunning Mafia Plot," The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 12, 1999, Pg. 1 . (Part III)

[2] Jeffrey Fleishman, "Nukes On The Loose: Bumbling Gang Took Gray For Gold," Philadelphia Inquirer, January 13, 1999 Pg. 1 (Part IV)

The references are Parts III and IV of the "Nucs on the Loose" series that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week.

Recall that Part I [Comment #222] told a story of past diversions of nuclear materials and argued that smuggling of stolen enriched uranium and plutonium out of Russia is probably on the increase. Part II [Comment #224] moved the story forward with a description of some of the motives actuating these diversions, many of which are rooted in the desperate economic hardships now facing the thousands of nuclear workers who used to work on nuclear projects in the Soviet state. Using personal examples, the author illustrated how the need to survive and feed their families may induce many of these workers to cooperate with those smugglers and criminals trying to get their hands on fissile materials.

In Part III, Jeffrey Fleishman weaves organized crime into this evolving tapestry by describing a global conspiracy among three powerful Sicilian Mafia families to smuggle uranium through Europe and into the Middle East. The Italian police thwarted this operation with sting operation and confiscated a 190-gram uranium bar. But, paradoxically, the incident revealed how the United States has done its part to contribute to the loose nucs problem.

The bar seized by the Italians was originally manufactured by General Atomics in San Diego in 1971 (serial #: Uranium bar No. 6916) . It was shipped to Zaire for use in a research reactor under the provisions of the Atoms for Peace Program (APP), a program begun by President Eisenhower in 1953. APP continued as an integral part of our Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for influence in the third world. Over the last 30 years, the U.S. shipped 749 kilograms of plutonium and 26.6 metric tons of highly enriched uranium to 39 countries under the APP.

According to Fleishman, police and intelligence officials in Italy acknowledged they failed to capture the mob's entire fissile stockpile. There may be seven other bars, comprising 1,330 grams of uranium, most probably all hidden in Italy. The police also pointed out that the mob MAY have gotten its hands on eight Russian missiles, but Fleishman does not say what kind of missiles -- most probably they were short range Scuds. Missiles are definitely on the world market. Last year, for example, newspapers reported the customs service was investigating a weapons collector who imported a complete Scud B Missile, minus the warhead, into California [see Reference #2, Comment #194].

In Part IV, Fleishman continues his discussion of criminal activities by describing an incredibly amateurish operation to smuggle enriched uranium out of Russia. What is frightening about this incident is how easy it was for such a bumbling collection of criminals to get their hands on six pounds of highly enriched uranium in the first place. Think about the keystone cops when you read this one.

The four part series in the Philadelphia Inquirer helps enormously to clarify some of the strategic issues and responsibilities raised by the rapidly growing loose nucs crisis. There are at least three points decision makers ought to consider when shaping a national strategy for neutralizing the threat posed by nuclear diversion:

(1) The Cold War will not be over until its nuclear legacy is neutralized. Loose nucs in Russia are clearly a legacy of the Cold War, but Russia is not the only source of loose nucs. The Atoms for Peace Program is also a source, particularly the shipments to Zaire, and APP is a legacy of the Cold War competition in the third world. The United States, therefore, also bears some responsibility for the existence of this menace.

As the last remaining super power, that responsibility places an obligation on the US to lead a cooperative effort with other nations [e.g., like that outlined in Comment #216], including Russia and the NATO countries, aimed at ridding the world of this threat. To its credit, the U.S. has recognized its obligation with the Nunn-Lugar program and the Energy Department programs, but on balance, these efforts are minuscule when compared to the BMD program ($4.5 billion in FY 99 alone, $55 billion since 1983) -- [see Comments #216 & 218 for information regarding the Nunn-Lugar and Energy Department programs].

(2) Time is important. To the extent there is any window of opportunity to plug the leakage, it is closing rapidly. In particular, the growing breakdown of law and order in Russia clearly makes nuclear diversion a fast mounting near-term threat. It is also clear that organized crime has seen lucrative opportunities for making money by nuclear smuggling. It should be expected, therefore, that the Mafia will stay in this business for the long haul. While the Mafia may not realize the advantages of smuggling plutonium in lieu of uranium, it would be naive to assume the primitive thinking and clumsy operations exhibited in the two reports below will remain as a steady state condition.

On the contrary, a prudent strategic planner should expect the Mafia to evolve much more sophisticated smuggling methods as they experiment with different strategies for acquiring, handling, and moving this material. Similarly, a prudent strategist should assume terrorist organizations and rogue nations will evolve ever-more sophisticated psycho-terror strategies for acquiring and using these materials to achieve their political aims. So, time is of the essence, and the sooner the U.S., Russia, and the wealthy countries of Europe and Japan join forces to neutralize this growing menace, the better it will be for everyone who feels threatened by this scourge.

(3) No doubt, BMD freaks will cite the criminal acquisition of missiles as a reason to accelerate spending on their sacred cows. While missile smuggling may create an emotional hot button, planners would be well-advised to recognize that it is one thing to smuggle a short-range Scud missile, it is quite another to obtain a reliable ICBM capability with a reliably fused nuclear or biological warhead. Juxtapose this hazy improbable threat to the mounting near-term threat posed by an infiltration of a radiological bomb or a primitive uranium bomb, not to mention the need to shape balanced and proportional strategic priorities among competing needs, and it becomes obvious that a much higher spending priority ought be attached to neutralizing the clearer and more present and more likely danger.

But the imbalance and disproportionality in our spending priorities were just made much worse by the FY 1999 emergency readiness supplemental which added $1 billion to the $3.5 billion already budgeted for BMD programs [see Comment 216] and the decision to set aside $7 billion for early deployment in the FY 2000-2005 budget plan. Like the France's misguided obsession with the Maginot Line, current spending priorities are directing our attention and efforts further away from the increasingly more likely danger. The consequences go beyond sheer waste, because, as we saw in the argument presented in Comment #216, a mental orientation shaped by the simplistic idea of an impenetrable defensive shield stifles thinking and makes us less capable of adapting quickly to the far more serious infiltration threat.

Decision makers must realize it is wishful thinking to assume that criminal organizations and terrorists are too stupid to figure out how to take advantage of the strategic opportunities implicit in the imbalance and disproportionality of our current spending priorities and efforts.

Taken together, these three considerations suggest that the more prudent course of action would be for the United States to change its strategic outlook and adopt a more balanced approach with a much greater emphasis on proactively neutralizing the near term threat. To do this, the U.S. should increase spending on and devote more human resources to cooperative efforts aimed grabbing the initiative with an active interdiction strategy to plug sources of the illicit fissile flows [as outlined in Comment #216]. Considerations of balance and proportionality suggest that we should finance these PROACTIVE efforts by reducing spending on the REACTIVE missile defense systems, which to date, show little promise of ever working.

So, How would one were to evaluate the wisdom of such a policy change? What would the opportunity costs of such a change entail?

Or put another way, what would be given up?

The place to start this kind of examination is the track record: We have spent about $55 billion since 1983 but have not deployed a single operational BMD weapon!

Moreover, most of the current BMD programs are in technical trouble and many can not even be tested scientifically to determine if they will ever work [e.g., see Comments #213, Atch #1 and #216, Atch #2 for a discussion of the troubled SBIRs program, which is central to a NMD system or consider Comment #33]. Finally, even if one made the case that smuggled missiles or missile technology was the greater threat, one must make the case that it is more effective to reactively intercept the at their destination than by proactively interdicting them their source.

Decision makers would be giving up the "rush to failure" [see Comment #s 21 & 31]. Those in Congress, the Pentagon, or the defense industry who insist on throwing more money at weapons that don't work for threats that don't exist should be made to explain in strategic terms how maintaining or accelerating BMD programs contributes more to national security in a BALANCED and PROPORTIONAL way than an equivalent expenditure for proactive cooperative strategy to interdict loose nucs (or missiles) at their sources.

In the interest of helping them to frame this issue, my next comment will examine the central question of balance and proportionality and begin to show why it is unlikely that a shift toward a more rational allocation of resources will occur -- which is why the Mafia will grow to love Star Wars.

Chuck Spinney

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