Saturday, November 10, 2007

Suitcase Nukes?

Many government experts and intelligence officials say the threat of a miniature nuclear weapon, often referred to as a “suitcase nuke” gets much more attention than it deserves.

Counterproliferation authorities do not completely rule out the possibility that these portable devices once existed. But they are not convinced the threat is still there.

The idea of portable nuclear devices is not new.

During the 1960s, American intelligence agencies received reports from defectors that Soviet military intelligence officers were carrying portable nuclear devices in suitcases.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. made the first ones, known as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition. It was a "backpack nuke" that could be used to blow up dams, tunnels or bridges. While one person could lug it on his back, it had to be placed by a two-man team.

Some believe that the Soviets constructed similar devices.

General Aleksandr Lebed, who was also the Russian national security chief, said the separatist government in Chechnya had portable nuclear devices, which led him to create a commission to research the capabilities of the Chechen arsenal.

Even more details emerged in the summer of 1998, when former Russian military intelligence officer Stanislav Lunev — a defector now in the U.S. witness protection program — claimed that Russian agents were hiding suitcase nukes around the U.S. for use in a possible future conflict.

In a 2004 interview with the Russian Federal News Service, Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, the former head of the Russian strategic rocket troops, said he believed that Lebed may have been misled by mock-ups of special mines used during training.

Yesin believed that a true suitcase nuke would be too expensive for most countries to produce and would not last more than several months because the nuclear core would decompose quickly.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush asked Russian President Vladamir Putin whether he could account for all of Russia's nuclear material. Choosing his words carefully, Tenet said, Putin replied that he could only account for everything under his watch, leaving a void before 2000.

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