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Same Old Song with a Few New Lines

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Nuclear terrorism concerns aren’t new:

“Officials regard the possibility of atomic sabotage as the gravest threat of subversion that this country, with its virtually unpatrolled borders, has ever faced,” The New York Times reported in 1953, telling readers that the Eisenhower administration was preparing to alert the public to the danger from “valise bombs.”

Hundreds of pages of declassified documents from the 1950s, obtained by The New York Times from the F.B.I. under the Freedom of Information Act, lay out a strikingly familiar story, in which Communist agents played the role of today’s Al Qaeda.

Then, as now, investigators searched for agents they feared were in the United States awaiting orders to attack. Then, too, the government spent millions to install radiation detectors at airports and seaports despite doubts about their effectiveness. (In those days, false nuclear alarms were set off by radium watch dials, once hidden in a woman’s corset.)

Nor is the worry in recent years about nuclear material crossing the permeable Mexican border new. An F.B.I. memo from 1953 warned that “a saboteur could easily pose as a Mexican ‘wetback’ and get into the country without detection, presumably carrying an atomic weapon in his luggage.”

Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written on nuclear history, said: “The fear of a clandestine nuclear attack on American soil goes back to the very beginning of the nuclear era. There’s certainly nothing new here, even if they didn’t call it terrorism back in the ’50s….”

Security officials later speculated about whether China might set off a smuggled nuke in the United States and make it look like a Soviet attack, provoking devastating war between its rivals. Later, as portable tactical nuclear weapons proliferated in both Eastern and Western Europe, there were periodic alarms about their security.

Today, of course, our ability to track the transit of nuclear material is considerably greater than it was in the 1950s, and the science of nuclear forensics (being able to determine the origin of nuclear materials after a detonation) is far more advanced. There are perhaps more terrorist organizations, but their prospective state sponsors are far weaker than the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. At some point, the failure of non-state actors to launch a nuclear attack or even a credible chem/bio attack should make people think more seriously about the barriers that such organizations face in developing and delivering nuclear weapons.

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