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Context of 'November 10, 2007: ’Suitcase Nukes’ Unlikely to Exist, Says FBI Official'

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Vice President Dick Cheney on television, May 8, 2001.Vice President Dick Cheney on television, May 8, 2001. [Source: CNN]In a brief statement, President Bush announces that Vice President Dick Cheney will oversee a “coordinated national effort” aimed at integrating the government’s plans for responding to the use of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapon within the United States. Bush declares, “Should our efforts to reduce the threat to our country from weapons of mass destruction be less than fully successful, prudence dictates that the United States be fully prepared to deal effectively with the consequences of such a weapon being used here on our soil.” Bush says a new agency within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), known as the Office of National Preparedness, will be “responsible for implementing the results of those parts of the national effort overseen by Vice President Cheney that deal with consequence management.” The Office of National Preparedness appears to be a reincarnation of FEMA’s old National Preparedness Directorate (NPD), which was disbanded by the Clinton administration in 1993 (see January 1993-October 1994). During the 1980s and early 1990s, the NPD secretly spent billions of dollars preparing for nuclear war and other national emergencies as part of the highly classified Continuity of Government (COG) program (see February 1993, 1982-1991, and April 1, 1979-Present). [Cox News Service, 2/22/1993] Under the Bush administration, the Office of National Preparedness (ONP) will apparently take over where the National Preparedness Directorate left off. According to Bush, the ONP “will coordinate all Federal programs dealing with weapons of mass destruction consequence management within the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Justice, and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies.” Cheney, who played a central role in the COG program during the Reagan administration (see 1981-1992 and 1980s), informs CNN, “[O]ne of our biggest threats as a nation” could be “domestic terrorism, but it may also be a terrorist organization overseas or even another state using weapons of mass destruction against the US.… [W]e need to look at this whole area, oftentimes referred to as homeland defense.” According to FEMA, the ONP will be up and running as early as the summer of 2001. President Bush says he “will periodically chair a meeting of the National Security Council to review these efforts.” [CNN, 5/8/2001; White House, 5/8/2001; New York Times, 7/8/2002] Cheney is meant to head a group that will draft a national terrorism response plan by October 1. [Chicago Sun-Times, 5/5/2001; Insight on the News, 6/18/2001] But, according to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, “Neither Cheney’s review nor Bush’s took place.” [Washington Post, 1/20/2002] Former Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) later implies that Bush assigned this specific role to Cheney in order to prevent Congress from enacting counterterrorism legislation proposed by a bipartisan commission he had co-chaired in January (see January 31, 2001). [Salon, 4/2/2004; Salon, 4/6/2004] In July, two senators will send draft counterterrorism legislation to Cheney’s office, but a day before 9/11, they are told it might be another six months before he gets to it (see September 10, 2001). [Newsweek, 5/27/2002] Cheney’s “National Preparedness Review” is just beginning to hire staff a few days before 9/11 (see September 10, 2001). [Congressional Quarterly, 4/15/2004]

Entity Tags: Gary Hart, George W. Bush, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Office of National Preparedness, National Security Council, National Preparedness Directorate, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The Federal Emergency Management Agency posts a warning from the White House on its Web site about “dirty bombs” and radiological “suitcase bombs.” The warning says that a terrorist’s nuclear weapon would “probably be limited to a single smaller ‘suitcase’ weapon.” It adds: “The strength of such a weapon would be in the range of the bombs used during World War II. The nature of the effects would be the same as a weapon delivered by an intercontinental missile, but the area and severity of the effects would be significantly more limited.” [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 5/2006] In late 2007, a senior FBI agent will say that such “suitcase nukes” are unlikely to exist outside of fiction (see November 10, 2007).

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

“Suitcase nukes”—nuclear weapons that can fit inside a suitcase or duffel bag and be planted in buildings or football stadiums with relative ease—may be a staple of Hollywood movies, television shows such as Fox’s 24, and thriller novels, but in reality do not exist, says Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. Nevertheless, the idea is so prevalent in the American conscious that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued warnings about “threats” from such devices, warnings repeated on the White House’s Web site (see May 2006). Officials such as Majidi say that any such device would be highly complex to produce, require significant upkeep and cost a small fortune. Majidi and other counterproliferation officials do not believe such a threat remains today. “The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies,” Majidi says, but “No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices.” The real threat, say Majidi and other officials, is from less deadly and sophisticated devices assembled from stolen or black-market nuclear material. But governmental sources have played up the threat. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) once said in a hearing, “Perhaps the most likely threat is from a suitcase nuclear weapon in a rusty car on a dock in New York City.” And former representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) was known for carrying around a mock-up of a suitcase nuke made out of a briefcase, foil, and a pipe.
Origin of story - The story took hold in the public mind in the 1960s, based on information from Soviet defectors. The information leaked to the media, but no US officials ever actually saw such a Soviet-made suitcase device. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US constructed a “backpack nuke,” called a Special Atomic Demolition Munition, to be used by two-man teams to destroy dams, tunnels, or bridges. These devices now only exist in museums. In 1997, retired general Alexander Lebed, the former national security chief of Russia, told reporters that Chechen rebels had portable nuclear devices. However, his story changed radically over time and Russian government officials said it was inaccurate, and he may have been misled by training mock-ups. Russian defector and former intelligence officer Stanislav Lunev wrote in 1998 that Russian agents had suitcase nukes inside the US in preparation for some future conflict. He testified before Congress, but never gave any specific information about such devices.
Technical problems - Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, former head of the Russian strategic rocket troops, said in 2004 that such suitcase nukes would be too expensive for most countries to produce and would not last more than several months because the nuclear core would decompose quickly. Laura Holgate of the Nuclear Threat Initiative says the biggest threat is from a terrorist cell that uses stolen nuclear material to improvise a device. Such a device would be, at its smallest, “[l]ike SUV-sized. Way bigger than a suitcase.” [Associated Press, 11/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Curt Weldon, Byron L. Dorgan, Alexander Lebed, Viktor Yesin, Vahid Majidi, Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Bush administration (43), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Stanislav Lunev, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Laura Holgate

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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