Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark
(Episode #1: The Case of the Missing “Permissive Action Links”)
Bruce G. Blair, Ph.D, CDI President, firstname.lastname@example.org
Feb. 11, 2004
Last month I asked Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the
Kennedy and Johnson administrations, what he believed back in the 1960s was the
status of technical locks on the Minuteman intercontinental missiles. These
long-range nuclear-tipped missiles first came on line during the Cuban missile
crisis and grew to a force of 1,000 during the McNamara years — the backbone of
the U.S. strategic deterrent through the late 1960s. McNamara replied, in his
trade-mark, assertively confident manner that he personally saw to it that these
special locks (known to wonks as “Permissive Action Links”) were installed on
the Minuteman force, and that he regarded them as essential to strict central
control and preventing unauthorized launch.
When the history of the nuclear cold war is finally comprehensively written,
this McNamara vignette will be one of a long litany of items pointing to the
ignorance of presidents and defense secretaries and other nuclear security
officials about the true state of nuclear affairs during their time in the
saddle. What I then told McNamara about his vitally important locks elicited
this response: “I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell
authorized that?” What he had just learned from me was that the locks had been
installed, but everyone knew the combination.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to
all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970s,
during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed.
Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the
locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other
than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel. SAC remained far less
concerned about unauthorized launches than about the potential of these
safeguards to interfere with the implementation of wartime launch orders. And so
the “secret unlock code” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War
remained constant at OOOOOOOO.
After leaving the Air Force in 1974, I pressed the service, initially by letters
addressed to it and then through congressional intermediaries, to consider a
range of terrorist scenarios in which these locks could serve as crucial
barriers against the unauthorized seizure of launch control over Minuteman
missiles. In 1977, I co-authored (with Garry Brewer) an article (reprinted below)
entitled “The Terrorist Threat to World Nuclear Programs” in which I laid out
the case for taking this threat more seriously and suggesting remedial measures
including, first and foremost, activating those McNamara locks that apparently
he and presidents presumed had already been activated.
The locks were activated in 1977.
It is hard to know where to begin, and end, in recounting stories like this one
that reveal how misinformed, misled, and misguided on critical nuclear matters
our top leaders have been throughout the nuclear age. A multitude of such
examples can, and will, be described in forthcoming columns
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The Terrorist Threat to World Nuclear Programs
BRUCE G. BLAIR
GARRY D. BREWER
School of Organization and Management
[originally appeared in:
The Journal of Conflict Resolution
Vol. 31, No. 3, September 1977
Terrorism in the global setting has become the predominant
form of confrontation between differing subcategories of societies that seek to
overcome each other, regardless of size. In the case of nuclear terrorism, the
consequences of failure are potentially catastrophic. While the logic of our
strategic nuclear policy is clear, the same clarity does not hold for policies
directed at nuclear terrorism. In the former case, a prevailing view is that
the risk of nuclear war is low because the United States responds vigilantly to
nuclear threats posed by other nations. In the latter case, there is no
terrorist prevention doctrine, nor is there an institutional focus for
preventing terrorism that is even remotely commensurate with that which exists
for deterring nuclear war. We here consider the dimensions of the nuclear
terrorism problem, discuss these with respect to the Minuteman Intercontinental
Ballistic Missile System, consider the capabilities and objectives of potential
terrorist groups, and formulate some basic recommendations for improving the
current state of affairs.
In this decade, terrorism has grown from an esoteric aspect
of aggression and violence to a predominate means for international and
intranational conflict resolution.
It appears likely that as the smaller nations and weaker specialized interest
groups of the world acquire the technology of modern war, both conventional and
nuclear, they will increasingly turn to terrorism – just as the Palestine
Liberation Army has done in the Middle East, as the Irgun and Stern Gang
previously did against the British Empire, as guerilla groups in various Latin
American countries do, and as the nineteenth-century eastern European
revolutionaries did in order to bring down autocratic governments.
It is ironic that terrorist groups have been among the
first to recognize that we live together in a planetary community, rather than a
conglomerate of national communities. The nearly threefold increase in the
number of nations that have come into being since World War II makes this appear
to be the most nationalistic of times. However, most of the newer nations are
caricatures, the products of historical accidents rooted in the imperialism of
the last three centuries. These new nations often have little in common, and
many have no viable resources.
Nationalism was perhaps the main social, political, and
historical focus of the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century we have
become one planet. The consumption of irreplaceable elements by a relative
handful of the human race affects the lives of all members of the race, as it
always has; however, now the relationship is known and often felt strongly.
Couple this realization with the knowledge that the great power the ability to
destroy both opponents of the moment and probably all of human society and one
comes quickly to the few alternatives that exist to resolve conflict.
A main alternative is terrorism. Formerly, terrorism was
the prerogative of the powerless; it was a technique whereby a few determined
men and women could affect the destinies of large empires. This has changed.
Now we see examples of the technique being used by virtually all elements of
Terrorism, in this global setting, has become a predominant
form of confrontation between differing subcategories of societies which seek to
overcome each other, regardless of size.
This essay concentrates on nuclear terrorism throughout the
world – a form of terrorism potentially so devastating that it must be
considered meticulously. Even though many might treat is as a very low
probability event, the margin for error is thin.
Borrowing from Willrich (1975; 12), terrorism is defined as
“threats or acts of violence planned, attempted, or carried out by an individual
or group with a specific political intent in mind.” In the case of
international terrorism, the definition is modified; such acts must fall
“outside the accepted norms of international diplomacy and rules of war.”
(Jenkins, 1975: 11)
This definition is broadly construed, and it includes the
covert orchestration of surrogate warfare by nations. In other words, terrorism
may be conducted by individuals or groups acting solely on their own accord to
achieve self-determined political objectives; terrorism may be secretly
sponsored by other groups, organizations, or nations; or terrorism may be
jointly undertaken by several parties pursuing overlapping objectives. Later
implications of nation-state-inspired and – financed terrorism, an important but
neglected dimension of the terrorist threat, are outlined.
Of the various forms that nuclear terrorism could take in
the future, governmental policy and research have focused almost exclusively on
the problem of terrorists manufacturing nuclear weapons from stolen fissionable
materials. There are understandable reasons why this definition of the
terrorist problem has evolved.
So stated, however, the terrorist problem is narrowly
misspecified. The central objective of a safeguards policy should not be solely
to prevent the illicit manufacture of nuclear bombs. Rather, it should aim at
preventing terrorists from acquiring a real or apparent nuclear weapon
This improved specification enables us to identify several
sorely deficient aspects of present safeguards policy and research. In
particular, only modest policy attention and no publicly available research
address the prospect of terrorists stealing assembled nuclear weapons from
military regimes. Also, the public record suggests that virtually no
consideration has been given to the possibility of unauthorized individuals
acquiring an apparent or real capability to detonate nuclear weapons at their
storage location, to arm and launch tactical or strategic nuclear weapons, or to
direct armed forces personnel to execute nuclear strikes against other nations.
(Our concern extends to all nuclear powers, not just the United States.)
The possibility of any of these events has seldom been
raised. Only a handful of skeptics has questioned he adequacy of military
nuclear safeguards, and seldom has any hard evidence been advanced in their
Krieger (1975: 28) expounds the prevailing view:
“stealing an assembled nuclear weapon
from a nuclear weapon nation would be the most difficult and the least likely
route for terrorists to achieve a nuclear weapon capability … Additionally,
there are reportedly sophisticated lock systems on the weapons themselves to
prevent military weapons from being utilized by other than authorized
The view that military nuclear weapons are today immune
from theft or misuse contrasts sharply with views held, at least in the United
States, in the 19650s and early 1960s. The security and safety of nuclear
weapons were controversial issues during that period, although earlier debate
centered on the question whether safeguards were adequate to prevent the
accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons by armed forces personnel
rather than nongovernmental terrorists. Such concern all but disappeared by the
mid-1960s, and attention shifted to the development of safeguards for commercial
nuclear power plants in the United States. Several factors contributed to the
First, policy makers and the public received repeated
assurances from military quarters that highly reliable weapons safeguards had
been implemented – measures that in fact were so reliable and effective as to be
Defense Department officials maintained that the chances of a U.S. nuclear
weapon exploding were “so remote as to be negligible.” (Phelps, 1961) The
development of supposedly “fail-safe” designs doubtless bolstered the public
credibility of the military’s risk assessment, but confirmation came from other
observers as well. After completing a comprehensive study of military
safeguards, Larus (1967: 42) was able to report:
“Today there is only a very slim
possibility that a faulty communications signal, a mentally deranged airman, or
any other mishap could trigger a Russo-American nuclear exchange.”
Simultaneously, the issue lost much public visibility as
Soviet allegations that U.S. military practices risked major nuclear accident or
Second, a series of dramatic shaped the reorientation. An
incident that attracted great attention, and which resulted in an abrupt
awakening among policy makers to the threat of nuclear theft, was the loss in
1965 of over 200 pounds of weapons-grade materials from a Pennsylvania Atomic
Energy Commission (AEC) fuel fabrication plant.
As a direct result of this discovery, a new AEC Office of Safeguards and
Materials Management was established in 1967 and was charged with responsibility
for formulating nuclear industry safeguard policy. In addition, the event led
to the creation of an independent study group to assess the vulnerability of
power facilities and marked the beginning of systematic research devoted to
investigating terrorist threats to nonmilitary nuclear programs.
The literature since 1967 is not voluminous, but several
excellent studies exist. Unfortunately, the important but rather narrow range
of issues on which these studies focus has helped foster the belief that theft
of raw fissionable material is the nuclear threat posed by terrorism.
A third influence contributing to the shift in U.S.
safeguards policy was, and is, the rapid proliferation of nuclear technology.
In 1965, the nuclear power industry was nascent.
Today there are scores of nuclear plants in operation in the United States
alone, and several hundred are planned or under construction (Gapay, 1975). As
of December 1976, 229 reactors were operational or under construction outside
the United States and 240 more were planned or on order (Walske, 1977). The
diffusion of nuclear technology throughout the world is accelerating, with the
result that industrial safeguards are absorbing most of the public and official
attention and resources.
The changing nature of nuclear technology is arousing even
greater fears. If the new generation of fast breeder reactors becomes
operational, the number of plutonium shipments between processing plants and
reactors will increase dramatically, vastly complicating the task of transport
security, which is already considered the weakest link in the present safeguards
systems. According to one projection, assuming fast breeder reactors become a
commercial reality, the amount of nuclear material in international transit each
year will be enough to make 20,000 nuclear bombs (Gapay, 1975).
Finally, the upsurge in worldwide terrorism during the past
decade affects perceptions of the threat of nuclear terror. More than the
absolute level of terrorism incidents, the historical trend and the realization
that terrorism is unchecked are alarming. A recent study made for the Energy
Research and Development Administration (ERDA) found a sevenfold increase in
terrorist incidents between 1969-1973 over the previous 1964-1968 period (HERO,
1974). A recent downturn in this trend is heartening, but one cannot feel
comfortable about a situation in which the ebb and flow of terrorist activity
have less to do with governmental control than with the self-restraint exercised
by terrorists themselves.
Contrary to popular belief, terrorism is not confined
mainly to Middle Eastern and Latin American settings. Indeed, according to
ongoing work by Mickolus (1976), the Atlantic community has experienced more
terrorism in terms of both incident location and nationality of victims than any
other region of the world. Latin America is second, followed by the Middle
East, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Although differing operational
definitions of terrorism produce different results, the message is clear.
Terrorism is an international phenomenon that has eluded effective governmental
Security problems posed by a burgeoning nuclear power
industry are cause for genuine societal concern. However, as policy makers
intensify the search for solutions with a view to shaping safeguards policy
around a single prospect – terrorist theft of fissionable materials and
construction of home-made nuclear devices – concern for safeguarding a large and
ever-growing stockpile of the world’s nuclear weapons continues to fade.
In our view, a thorough reexamination of the security of those weapons is long
This recommendation stems in part from an evaluation we
made of the technical and pr0cedural safeguards for what may be the Western
world’s most well-protected nuclear weapons program – the Minuteman
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force in the United States. After
presenting a brief overview of the Minuteman security program, major findings
are summarized, and several recommendations are advanced. These findings are
based on conditions which existed in the very recent past and which have
recently undergone review by the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense.
We have been apprised that appropriate action has been taken to correct any
safeguard weaknesses. Although it is our position that general assertions of
safeguards effectiveness are not sufficient, and that the burden of proof must
be on those who assert the adequacy of remedial steps, the reader is cautioned
against drawing specific inferences about the present situation from the
evidence presented. In developing a case which underscores the need for a
policy of continuous and thorough safeguards evaluation, we make no claims
concerning the workings of weaknesses of current Minuteman safeguards. However,
we do share the grave concern evidenced in the following remarks made in March
1976 by Congressman Ottinger:
“From classified material I have seen,
as well as from unclassified briefings I have received from former high-ranking
Defense Department personnel, all of which I hope this committee will take the
time and trouble to explore thoroughly, I have every reason to believe that the
protections are inadequate against catastrophe by way of theft, sabotage,
unclear and overextensive delegation of authority, incompetence or incapacity of
authorized personnel, unauthorized use, weakness of communications and command
and control. [U.S. Congress, House, 1976; 13].”
From what was publicly known as late as March 1976, it
appeared quite possible that strategic nuclear weapons could be compromised in
MILITARY SAFEGUARDS: MINUTEMAN
The Minuteman is a three-stage, solid-fuel missile with an
intercontinental range, capable of carrying a one-megaton payload, and housed in
a protected, concrete and steel underground silo.
A silo is also protected by an elaborate security system, consisting primarily
of a fence surrounding the perimeter of the silo, combination locks to gain
access to the underground silo, and sensitive electronic instruments. Under
normal conditions, when all security systems are functioning properly, physical
intrusion that “breaks” the silo perimeter wither above or below ground is
registered by instruments and transmitted via cable to a computer visual display
and readout located in an underground Launch Control Center (LCC) several miles
In this manner, two-man LCC crews monitor the security status of a ten-missile
flight simultaneously. Security violations reported by the crew result in the
dispatch of armed security police who inspect the site and silo for intruders
and evidence of unlawful entry.
There are five flights, hence five two-man LCCs, in a
50-missile squadron. Since all missiles and LCCs are electronically
interconnected, the “normal” launch of any or all missiles in a squadron
requires the cooperation of only two crews – no more, no less. One LCC crew can
launch any or all of a squadron, but in this “abnormal” situation the launch is
delayed substantially, i.e. the missile lift-of reaction time is increased from
about eight seconds to a matter of hours.
The primary reason for this built-in delay is to allow adequate time to
“inhibit” an illicit launch command generated by a single aberrant LCC.
Indications of such an attempt are automatically relayed via cable and computer
to each LCC in the squadron, and each LCC crew is trained and responsible for
instructing the squadron’s missiles, through a computer command, to disregard
the unauthorized command.
Located in each LCC are two launch keys, one for each
member of the crew, and the codes needed to authenticate presidential launch
directives. Only the launch keys, not the codes, are physical
prerequisites for generating valid launch commands, the purpose of the codes
being exclusively that of authenticating an execution directive.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no mechanical “Permissive Action Links”
(PAL) installed at LCCs to prevent cooperating crews from launching missiles
without presidential authority. The implementation of a version of PAL (called
the “Permissive Enable System”) is underway, but there is only a meager store of
evidence on which to define the program’s scope and purpose and to base an
appraisal of its quality.
Other sensitive information found in each LCC includes lock
combinations to missile sites which are passed to authorized personnel on site
for silo maintenance, targeting information for missile sorties in the squadron,
and code and message formats used to validate directives of various kinds,
including war termination orders.
Carefully selected and highly trained crew members are the
only personnel authorized to perform various ICBM system operations, and the
security of the operation depends heavily on their professional integrity.
Technically, crew members can launch a nuclear attack with or without approval
from higher authority. Unless PAL or its equivalent forecloses this option, as
many as 50 missiles could be illicitly fired. Moreover, unless adequate
precautions were instituted, an even more drastic option would be available.
Crew members could conspire in the formatting and transmittal of strategic
strike directives, deceiving the full contingent of Strategic Air Command (SAC)
LCCs, as well as higher authorities, into reacting to a spurious launch
directive as if it were valid and authentic. Or they could render the U.S.
strategic force virtually impotent by formatting and transmitting messages
invalidating the active inventory of presidential execution codes. Finally,
crew members could aid accomplices in stealing thermonuclear warheads from
missiles on active alert. Such weapons are many times more destructive than any
atomic bomb that might be constructed from stolen fissionable materials.
The public’s abiding confidence in the probity of the
professional officer corps assigned LCC responsibilities is well
deserved; however, the margin for error for the proper functioning of the launch
network is not as great as one might believe. Without stringent safeguards, a
single aberrant individual could “unsafe” the arming mechanisms of an entire
Minuteman squadron, or facilitate the theft or sabotage of nuclear warheads.
Other acts of terror, except for the physical launch of ICBMs, would require the
collaboration of only two individuals (one person in each of two separate
SACLCCs). Four individuals (two persons in each of two separate LCCs in the
same squadron) acting in concert could succeed in mechanically launching one or
If these nontrivial risks were ignored or inadequately
addressed, the terrorist problem would be compounded in the case where access to
the launch network is not stringently controlled. Given the enormous
discretionary power held by whoever has LCC control, effective measures
for denying LCC access to individuals or groups bent on carrying out an act of
nuclear terror are self-evident security requirements.
In the recent past, such safeguards were poor or
nonexistent. Military personnel, e.g. maintenance airmen, and civilian
contractors who possessed minimal security credentials were granted LCC access,
and annually thousands of visitors holding no clearance whatsoever were
permitted access to operational LCCs. In the interest of public relations, the
Air Force permitted ready access to the Minuteman launch network by practically
anyone desiring it.
Requests for visitor access were routinely processed and
approved. The requesting party had only to provide a name and social security
number, and authentication checks were not usually made. As a matter of course,
checks of individual backgrounds or motives for requesting LCC access were not
made either. Furthermore, within wide bounds, the number of individuals in a
party was limited only by the capacity of an LCC – about eight persons.
Once military personnel and civilians are allowed inside an
LCC, responsibility for them falls squarely on the shoulders of the on-duty crew
members. The present situation parallels that which existed several years ago
in the area of airline security. Aircraft flight personnel are manifestly
incapable of curbing hijacking incidents, and not until major changes in airport
security were implemented was the incident rate reduced to tolerable levels.
LCC crews are no more capable of thwarting launch network seizures than
unassisted flight personnel are capable of foiling hijack attempts. Added to
all this are the facts that no acknowledged procedures or rules exist to prevent
or prohibit groups of military personnel and/or civilians from gaining
simultaneous access to LCCs in the same squadron, and procedures, i.e. technical
orders for arming and launching missiles are unclassified and can be readily
performed, especially if rehearsed in advance.
One must also recite the obvious point that silos and
launch control centers are loated in desolate reaches of the heartland.
Reaction times to mount a counterterror offensive pinpointed at one or a few of
these facilities would be measured in hours, not minutes or seconds.
Although the unfolding scenario contains all the
ingredients of a nuclear disaster, the seizure of one or more LCCs would not
necessarily lead to nuclear violence. Even if the most serious loopholes were
not closed by newly implemented changes in security, terrorists might be unable
or unwilling to consummate the nuclear options potentially at their disposal.
But the mere seizure of control and the acquisition of a possible nuclear weapon
capability would greatly enhance the credibility of any threats they might
make. In responding to threats of terrorists whose nuclear capability is even
remotely plausible, authorities may feel compelled to accede to their demands as
if the alleged capability were real.
Elaborate lock systems, personnel screening, e.g. crew
security clearance and human reliability programs, and “no-lone-zones,”
not-withstanding, there is little reason to have confidence that Minuteman
safeguards are inviolable. If this component of America’s nuclear force, so
often hailed as epitomizing reliable command and control, has been or continues
to be far less than “fail-safe,” then America’s nuclear force as a whole is
implicated. As noted earlier, it was just March 1976 when Congressman Ottinger
was able to voice serious concern about the safeguards for all nuclear weapons
programs – both strategic and tactical:
“Let us now turn to tactical weapons.
The situation with respect to safeguards against theft, sabotage, seizure,
dangerous delegation of authority, unauthorized use, incapacity or incompetence
of those authorized and ineffective communications, command and control is many
times worse with tactical than with strategic weapons – and we should bear in
mind that the differentiation between tactical and strategic weapons today is
mostly a matter of mission – many weapons classified as tactical have
destructive power many times that of the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki.” [U.S. Congress, House, 1976: 13]
TERRORIST OBJECTIVES AND
Corrective action is required to shore up commercial and
military nuclear safeguards. But the question remains, what programs should
have priority and how much improvement is needed? The answers lie not only in
identifying security defects, but in understanding terrorist objectives and
Not much is known about these subjects, and even less is
known about them in relation to the commission of nuclear terror, since
the terrorist manufacture or detonation of nuclear weapons has never occurred.
Given the present state of knowledge and the potential consequences of failure,
once could assume that some fraction of the terrorist population, however
minute, will seek a nuclear capability. On purely assumptive grounds, upgrading
ill-protected or ineffectual security programs is justifiable.
The type of safeguards systems most appropriate for
deterring or subduing terrorists should be designed with the following factors
- Likely tactical objective, e.g., achieving a credible
nuclear launch capability, weapons theft, force degradation.
- Likely strategic objectives, e.g., punishment,
concessions, fear and alarm, publicity.
- Terrorist capabilities.
- Pervasiveness of groups disposed to committing nuclear
With respect to historical precedents relevant to the
latter two categories, researchers are finding that: terrorists and terrorist
groups are growing in number and widening the scope of their activities, they
are well-financed and well-educated, there is an unprecedented extent of
international cooperation, attacks against targets of wider variety and
complexity are being mounted, more ingenious means of gaining access to and
escape from these targets are being devised and used, and more sophisticated
conventional weapons than ever before are being relied on.
Actual Use of
• Punish the U.S. or other nations
• Destroy détente
• Elevate the military or economic
power of other nations
• Eliminate opposing armed forces
• Destroy morale; create fear and alarm
• Initiate a catalytic wara
Threatened Use of Nuclear Weapons
• Create fear and alarm
Actual Use of
• Punish the U.S. or other nations
• Destroy morale; create fear and alarm
Threatened Use of Nuclear Weapons
• Create fear and alarm
• Gain concessions
• Provoke repression
• Build morale within terrorist movement
By the mid-1960s, the catalytic war thesis was no longer seriously
entertained because it was believed that the nuclear superpowers would be able
to identify accurately the source of nuclear attack, or at least would restrain
from retaliating until determining the source. This thesis requires close
reexamination in an era of accelerating proliferation and possible nuclear
The relevance of
these trends for nuclear terrorism is speculative. While terrorists may not
cross the nuclear threshold in the near future, that eventuality is difficult to
assess. Whatever the motive or unforeseen circumstances, little stands in the
way of terrorists acquiring a nuclear capability should they choose to do so.
Certainly in the case of surrogate warfare, the benefit of a national resource
base would expand terrorist capabilities to high and unprecedented levels.
If gaining nuclear
capability is possible, what political ends might be served? Bearing in mind the
speculative nature f this question, some preliminary “scenario sketching” might
prove useful and insightful. If, for example, terrorists could surreptitiously
acquire control of part of the Minuteman launch network, the strategic
objectives listed in Table 1 might hold.
Of course, this list is not
exhaustive. Furthermore, some of these objectives may be achieved through other
means, including nonnuclear ones. For example, the theft of the warhead or
guidance system of an ICBM might enhance the military status of another nation
or some political faction, but it would do so at the risk of severe military or
economic repercussions. It would not affect détente (unless the Soviet Union
were believed responsible), and it certainly would not trigger a catalytic war
or eliminate opposing armed forces. Finally, accomplishing a tactical objective
may advance several strategic objectives simultaneously, and in other instances
it may conflict with others.
Even this rough sketch or
objectives reveals some important distinction. First, with respect to the
example scenario, the achievement of surrogate warfare objectives is facilitated
by the actual use of nuclear weapons.
Threatened use of nuclear violence appears to produce few if any advantages.
In contrast, other forms of
terrorism can be symbolically meaningful or produce instrumental benefits
without recourse to actual detonation of nuclear weapons; in fact, the latter
appears counter-productive. Actual use of nuclear force may serve as a
punishment of fear-inducing objective, but it would not promote terrorist aims
if social structures of potential value to them were destroyed. Unless the
indigenous terrorist is a complete nihilist:
“total indiscrimination is not
desirable, for the insurgents will wish to concentrate their attacks on specific
targets of intent, social structures, and symbols, to achieve economy of effort
and ensure the maintenance of those structures that are of potential value to
them. They must therefore determine which structures are to be preserved, which
structures are the most vulnerable to attack, and which are the most crucial in
holding together the fabric of society they wish to split, are clearly those
that show the highest symbolic value and are dominated by symbols that are most
vulnerable to attack.” [Thornton, 1964: 81]
This position is less
tenable in the case of international terrorism, where the destruction of social
structures of target nations may be irrelevant or perhaps even desirable.
Minuteman and Other
The deficiencies identified
indicate that basic changes in Minuteman safeguards are required, changes that
may also pertain to other strategic and tactical weapons systems. The following
recommendations do not exhaust the creative possibilities, but they appear to be
promising and deserving of further consideration and evaluation. They are
listed in what we believe to be an order of comprehensiveness and probable
effectiveness. Similar assessments are also needed of all nuclear
weapons systems, and these assessments would doubtless evince similar lists of
recommendations for improved security.
Install Permissive Action Links (PAL).
In 1953, the installation of an electro-mechanical system called Permissive
Action Link was proposed for Polaris submarines, but it was never implemented.
The time is now right to reconsider PAL’s use in all tactical and strategic
nuclear systems under U.S. control, including the Minuteman program (Panofsky,
1973). A U.S. initiative and demonstration of concern could set the pace for
safeguards reform among allies and adversaries alike. (We must stress again the
worldwide implications of the latent terrorist threat to such weapons)
A PAL-type system would
prevent the generation of execution commands unless a set of codes are
previously inserted. These releasing codes would be known only at some level of
command that is positive and secure, e.g., the National Command Authority (NCA)
level, would constitute a physical prerequisite to weapon use, and would
be transmitted along with presidential execution directives should a nuclear war
Although it would not
reduce the risk of LC seizures, in the Minuteman case, PAL would eliminate the
possibility of unauthorized weapons launch and detonation by terrorists or
aberrant military personnel, including crew members. PAL would also obviate the
necessity for developing safeguards against the illicit formatting and
transmittal of deceptive and spurious, but authentic-appearing, execution
The risks of nuclear
theft, possible unauthorized weapons arming, or strategic degradation would not
be affected, however. Other more modest disadvantages of the proposed design
include the cost of developing and installing mechanical devices and revising
command and control procedures, and the limitations it might impose on the
attainment of maximum readiness and reliability of the weapon system.
The limitations appear minor. However, inasmuch as “military personnel and
weapons engineers are reluctant to accept complicated and elaborate systems of
safety control” (Laurus, 1967: 31), the suggested system will encounter strong
resistance from defense quarters unless high standards of readiness and
reliability are met. Meeting such standards demands elaborate testing of both
the mechanism itself and its human factors effects.
A potentially major
problem with the proposed system is the effect it might have on the reliability
of the command system which links higher authority with dispersed
elements of the strategic force. If the authority to order a order a nuclear
attack were vested only at the NCA level, a well-executed Soviet strike could
possibly neutralize the NCA and, with it, all retaliatory capability. Clearly,
an optimal balance must be struck between weapons safeguards and weapons
usability. If existing organizational and physical safeguards reflect the
degree to which nuclear authority is decentralized or ambiguous, then policy has
leaned too far in the direction of priming weapons for ready use.
The locus of nuclear
authority ought to be vested as high up the chain of command as possible without
placing the command system itself in jeopardy. Having fixed the level of
command at which discretion with respect to nuclear weapons is sanctioned, all
subordinate levels of command should be fully protected against any risk of
nuclear terrorism. Finally, since the vesting of authority at any level below
the NNCA would blur the distinction between political and military control of
nuclear operations, the public should be made aware of this fact and encouraged
to debate whether a compromise of constitutional authority is permissible and,
if so, under what circumstances.
Expand preaccess screening of military
personnel and extend the principle to nonmilitary personnel.
Preaccess screening might incorporate more rigid clearance standards, improved
physical and procedural identification techniques, physical or electronic search
procedures to prevent concealment of arms, and so forth. The obvious model is
the airport security program. Among these possibilities, the expansion of
investigatory requirements will be the most expensive in the long run. Also,
any form of preaccess screening of civilians, especially involving information
storage systems like databanks, has potential for abuse and warrants close
Suspend visitor access.
This measure could be easily and inexpensively implemented and would reduce
defense outlays. However, its impact on civil-military relations could be
judged to be detrimental. The military is interested in enhancing public
relations programs, not cutting them back. Likewise, the public generally wants
information about military operations to remain as unfettered as possible.
Since no classified information is compromised during civilian visits, a
curtailment of visitor access might be interpreted as undue secrecy and
suppression of the public’s right to be informed.
The dilemma clearly
reveals a distinction between categories of information dissemination. Sole
reliance on classification is an exhausted form of protection, and the need
exists to develop better methods for safely disseminating unclassified
Create and improve procedures for damage limitation resulting from
nuclear terrorism. One such procedure might be the creation of an international
forum for sharing knowledge and presenting proposals concerned with war
This concern certainly falls under the purview of the U.S. Arms Control and
Disarmament Agency (ACDA), which would logically represent the United States in
communicating and negotiating substantive issues such as war termination. At
the national level, a “no-first-use” declaratory policy might assist in
rendering suspect any terrorist-originated launch directive.
The Citizen’s Role
Secrecy has probably
engendered more public ignorance of the risk of illicit nuclear weapons
detonation than of security problems arising in connection with the growth of
commercial nuclear power. In either case, public input in the development of
nuclear safeguards policy is effectively limited by classification’s ubiquitous
Improve public debate about nuclear
safeguards. We need to generate and
evaluate alternative ways of structuring public debate so that safeguards issues
are revealed as matters of political choice open to democratic control. What
constitutes an acceptable safeguards posture is a political as well as an
empirical question “that should not be decided in our society by any group of
experts, no matter how well informed or intentioned” (Willrich, 1975: 15).
Naturally, we must take into account the possible effects that a changed public
role might have on the nature of the threat itself.
Facilitate a variety of policy
research initiatives from concerned but independent analysis.
In addition to creating public unawareness of the need for safeguards reform and
contributing to distorted priorities,
secrecy hinders independent research and evaluation by nongovernmental
institutions and scholars. A major premise of this report is that
classification and technical complications do not constitute an insuperable
impediment to either analysts or terrorists; otherwise there would be little
cause for concern over the purported terrorist threat. Ironically, the analyst
who is not privy to classified information is often more sophisticated and
almost always less bound by ethics and law, i.e., the terrorist perhaps can and
will penetrate the classification barrier. This might be especially true in the
case of surrogate warfare, where state-sponsored terrorists possess certain
classified information about the target country which is denied the
Secrecy also discourages
the well-informed outsider from attempting to effect changes in safeguards
procedures. The Committee for Economic Development (CED, 1974: 42) observes
[the outsider] is subject to being
intimidated, if not discredited, by the allegation that there exists decisive
information that contradicts him but to which he may not have access.
Perhaps more common, but
equally effective, are refusals to confirm or deny assessments made by
outsiders. This, at least, has been our experience. Although repeatedly
assured that “appropriate actions” have been initiated as a result of our
critique of Minuteman security, no substantive and comforting response on
ameliorative procedures implemented has been forthcoming because of “the
sensitivity of the information.”
The Need for Institutional Focus
Because nuclear terrorism
is rapidly becoming more practical and legitimate, we need to go beyond
examining the efficacy of safeguards in the context of terrorist capabilities
and objectives. We also need to look closely at the organizational, political,
and economic factors that determine the shape of terrorist prevention policy
responsibility for safeguards. U.S.
nuclear program possessing the problem dimensions defined in the beginning of
this report include (1) nuclear weapons program, including research and
development, under Department of Defense and Energy Research and Development (ERDA)
jurisdiction and to a lesser extent monitored by several committees of Congress,
and (2) nuclear power programs under the primary direction and
supervision of private industry but regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC), ERDA, and the Congress.
Other significant but less
comprehensive responsibilities which overlap both categories of nuclear programs
belong to the Department of State, FBI, CIA, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
(ACDA), and the Government Accounting Office (GAO).
But, so far, no agency has been formed to deal exclusively with the terrorist
threat to U.S. nuclear program, although several recommendations have been made
to this effect.
The only government body whose sole responsibility is terrorist crime prevention
is the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism established by President Nixon in
1972. In the words of Hoffacker (1974), who chaired the Working Group under the
committee: “This body is directed to coordinate interagency activity for the
prevention of terrorism, and, should acts of terrorism occur, to devise
procedures for reacting swiftly and effectively.”
Despite the considerable
overlap of oversight responsibilities and the plethora of agencies involved to
some extent in developing safeguards policy, terrorism remains “a major policy
problem without an institutional focus anywhere in the U.S. government” (Willrich
and Taylor, 1974: 100). This condition stems in part from the bureaucratic
disorganization and lack of resolve that characterize nuclear energy policy
generally (Symington, 1977).
responsibility is also not well assigned. Since the United States has offered
to subject its nuclear industry to International Atomic Energy
Agency-administered regulations, IAEA may eventually become involved in domestic
safeguards programs. To date they have not. Indeed, the IAEA had but 67
inspectors in 1976 to cover the entire stock of the world’s nuclear power
plants; less than one-third of its budget, or about $37 million in 1975, went
for inspections and other regulation efforts (Brewer, 1977: 353).
Part of the problem has to
do with incentives. Insofar as traditional concerns of the military, weapons
invention and acquisitions, vie with terrorist prevention programs for attention
and resources, then one should expect the latter to be slighted. Similarly, to
the extent that the traditional concern of the nuclear power industry,
production of energy, vies with terrorist prevention (and safety) program for
attention and resources, then once should also expect the latter to be slighted.
Both cases characterize the current state of affairs.
Therefore, we should
identify and remove conflicts of interest within and among agencies presently
charged with safeguards responsibilities and, if necessary, establish an
independent and capable locus of supervision and decision for all nuclear
activities bearing on terrorism.
The terrorist threat to
world nuclear programs is not obviated simply by eliminating military
vulnerabilities, because the threat to commercial nuclear programs may persist,
and vice-versa. Moreover, solutions directed exclusively at correcting
deficiencies in one area may actually increase the threat to the other. Other
things being equal, terrorists would likely challenge the least effective or
reliable security network, and improvements made in one network might simply
reorient, rather than reduce, terrorist activity. This complex
interrelationship, if it exists at all, is best dealt with through central
direction and coordination. At the present inchoate stage of terrorism
scholarship, not much light has been shed on the relative attractiveness of
military versus commercial nuclear targets. But it is important to register the
likely existence of a complex relationship and to begin to think about what
organizational arrangements would most sensitively balance military and
commercial safeguards priorities.
Stimulate general scholarship on
terrorism in all its aspects. We know
less about all of this than we should. Basic research is needed to better
understand the causes and functional forms that terrorism has taken historically
and will likely take in the future. We need, for instance, to consider the
common structural features of the act of terrorism: audience, terrorist,
sponsor, victim, media, spectator, authorities, allies, and sanctuaries. We
should also examine the separate phases of the terrorist act, which include the
play of the game, preparation, execution, climax, and denouement. Such a
structural framework, or its equivalent, could serve the very useful purposes of
organizing much of the existing, fragmented case study literature on terrorism
and of understanding terrorism’s many forms and processes so that appropriate
effective preventative and ameliorative policies and procedures might be
Although concern is
mounting over the increasing vulnerability of every society to terrorism, public
policy in this field is emerging piecemeal and in some respects not at all.
Unfortunately, unlike some other policy problems, there is no latitude for
experimentation and little comfort in the hope that effective safeguards policy
can be developed through a process of trial and error or by “muddling through.”
In the case of nuclear terrorism, the consequences of policy failure are
Admittedly, the probability
that various agents, foreign or domestic, will soon resort to tactics of nuclear
terror is low. Even though the likelihood of nuclear war erupting between the
United States and its adversaries is also low, we continue to devote a
substantial share of our national income to minimizing that risk. The logic of
our strategic nuclear policy is clear. The prevailing view is that the risk of
nuclear war is low because the United States responds vigilantly to nuclear
threats posed by other nations.
The same logic does not
appear in our policy response to possible nuclear terrorism. There is no
terrorist prevention doctrine in effect comparable to strategic deterrence
doctrine, nor is there an institutional focus for preventing terrorism that is
in any respect commensurate with that which exists for deterring nuclear war.
If the likelihood of nuclear terrorism is remote, it is not because anyone has
made a comprehensive effort to prevent it.
As smaller and smaller
groups of extremists and disaffecteds acquire more and more power to disrupt and
destroy, governments are becoming harder pressed to counter them without
resorting to numerous oppressive restrictions and affronts to the general
citizenry. The emerging world is an unstable collection of nations, ministates,
autonomous ethnic substates, governments in exile, national liberation fronts,
guerrillas, and shadowy but destructive terrorist organization. We have not, on
a national or international scale, come to realize this basic fact.
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Bruce G. Blair is
presently completing his graduate studies in Yale University’s School of
Organization and Management and is, during the academic year 1977-1978, a
Brookings Institution Fellow in national security policy. Formerly an air force
officer attached to the Strategic Air Command, he is deeply involved in
understanding and improving analytic methods and theoretical perspectives used
in national security studies and decision-making.
Garry D. Brewer is an
Associate Professor of Administrative Sciences and Political Science in Yale
University’s School of Organization and Management and Department of Political
Science. His interests are varied, and include continuing efforts to develop
and apply operational modeling and gaming techniques in the urban,
developmental, and national security areas. He edits the journal Simulation
& Games and was the former editor of the journal Policy Sciences.
Among other publications, The War Game: A Critique of Military Problem
Solving (with Martin Shubik, forthcoming) is most directly related to the
issues addressed in the article.