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Kennedy confronted his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev,
and demanded that the missiles be withdrawn. As the crisis
unfolded, American strategists worried that Khrushchev might
transfer control of the nuclear arsenal in Cuba to a young, hot-
headed revolutionary named Fidel Castro.
After conducting careful deliberations, Kennedy issued an
unambiguous warning to Khrushchev and the Soviet Union:
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear mis-
sile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western
Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United
States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet
Union." Khrushchev well understood what Kennedy was talk-
ing about: the certain prospect of a full-scale nuclear war.
In the years after the crisis, nuclear strategists consid-
ered the array of scenarios in which one or a small number
of Soviet nuclear weapons might explode on American soil.
In one such scenario, a single missile is launched against an
American city in an attack the Soviet leader claims is "acciden-
tal" or "unauthorized." For example, a Soviet leader calls the
American president on the hotline to inform him that a Soviet
missile commander has gone insane and, without authoriza-
tion, launched a single missile with a nuclear warhead against
an American city. How should the president respond?
Grisly though the logic was, the canonical answer was a
strategy of "an eye for an eye." Herman Kahn, author of the
controversial 1960 work On Thermonuclear War, described
this approach as "graduated, or controlled deterrence ... of
provocative actions by a counteraction which is expected to
be so e ective that the net e ect of the 'aggressor's' action is to
cause him to lose in position." The U.S. plan was to retaliate by
delivering a nuclear warhead capable of destroying a counter-
part Russian city. Pentagon planners developed lists of such
unfortunately twinned cities in support of that policy.
Who knows whether an American president would have
responded to the accidental destruction of Minneapolis by
destroying Minsk. But Soviet leaders' belief that a president
might do so undoubtedly reinforced their determination that
no accidental launches occur.
As one moves beyond Cold War logic to the crueler, more
complex logic of nuclear terrorism, the question is whether
personal accountability for terrorist use of a nuclear weapon
manufactured by a given state can deter the state's leader from
selling weapons to terrorists. What's more, the question of
accountability applies equally well in cases where proliferation
is not willful. If leaders believe that they will be held account-
able for their nuclear weapons even if those weapons are stolen,
will they be better motivated to prevent theft?
The answer depends on two further questions. First, can we
attribute the weapon to its source? Second, how will account-
ability be defined politically, and how can it be enforced?
As I wrote in Technology Review in the summer of 2005 (see
"Nuclear Accountability," July 2005 and at technologyreview.com),
"The technological prerequisite for rethinking the unthinkable
is nuclear forensics: the ability to identify a bomb's source
from radioactive debris left after it explodes." A credible
capacity to identify nuclear material definitively and quickly
is essential. If the leader of a government---say, Kim Jong Il
of North Korea---knew that the United States would be able
to identify his "fingerprints" on a nuclear weapon he sold to
terrorists, it should be a useful deterrent. Similarly, nuclear
custodians, scientists, and others whose main motivation for
helping terrorists is financial, not ideological, would probably
be more hesitant to do so if they could be found out.
A post-9/11 study by the National Research Council (NRC),
Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in
Countering Terrorism, concludes that such detection is techni-
cally feasible: "The technology for developing [post-explosion
nuclear attribution] exists but needs to be assembled, an e ort
that is expected to take several years."
Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, Program Needs, a 2008
study by the Joint Working Group of the American Physical
Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advance-
ment of Science (AAAS) that is the best recent public report on
the subject, concurs with the NRC's judgment: "The underly-
ing scientific disciplines ... are understood adequately for the
purpose of forensics." Nevertheless, the report concludes that
the current state of the art will not yield maximally e ective
deterrence. We lack a central global database of unique mate-
rial signatures that countries can promptly access in the event
of a nuclear detonation. Even if such a database existed, states
would not be fully prepared to take advantage of it in a day-after
scenario. The APS and AAAS report that "neither equipment
nor people are at the level needed to provide as prompt and
accurate information for decision makers as is possible."
The report suggests that two separate technological initia-
tives are critical to improving U.S. forensic capability. The first
is the development of equipment that can provide immediate,
rough assessments in the field---portable instruments capable
of what the APS and AAAS call "all-weather, all-scenario rapid
response." The second is improvement of equipment for per-
forming more detailed analysis of forensic samples. Accord-
ing to the report, the equipment in the U.S. Department of
Energy's labs must be upgraded to "world standards."
Assuming that there is an attack and we have identified the
source, we come to the much more di cult question. What
response is appropriate?
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