Originally Published in USA TODAY
I’m worried that we’re about to make the same mistake we made a decade ago.
In August of 1991, when a coup by Soviet hard-liners fell apart, then-president Mikhail Gorbachev gave credit to live global television for keeping world attention on the action, and Time magazine wrote: ”Momentous things happened precisely because they were being seen as they happened.”
But if good things can happen because a lot of people are watching, bad things can happen when few people are watching. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the media moved off the story of the nuclear threat — and we moved into the new world order without undoing the danger of the old world order.
In the wake of Sept. 11, people are realizing that the nuclear threat didn’t end with the Cold War. Soviet weapons, materials and know-how are still there, more dangerous than ever. Russia’s economic troubles weakened controls on them, and global terrorists are trying harder to get them.
When President Bush (news – web sites) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (news – web sites) meet in Moscow next week, they will sign a treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on each side. They need to reduce a lot more than that. Some of the poisonous byproducts of the two powers’ arms race are piled high in poorly guarded facilities across 11 time zones. They offer mad fools the power to kill millions.
At a Bush-Putin news conference two months after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared: ”Our highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.” He also has told his national security staff to give nuclear terrorism top priority.
Where’s the money?
But it’s hard to see this priority in the budget and policies of the administration. Not a dollar of the $38 billion the administration requested in new spending for homeland defense will address loose weapons, materials and know-how in Russia. The total spending on these programs — even after Sept. 11 — has remained flat at about a billion dollars a year, even though, at this rate, we will still not have secured all loose nuclear materials in Russia for years to come.
But what worries me most is not the lack of new spending, but the lack of new thinking. Where are the new ideas for preventing nuclear terrorism?
We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing, and we can’t just copy old plans; we’ve got to innovate. If we are hit with one of these weapons because we slept through this wake-up call from hell, it will be the most shameful failure of national defense in the history of the United States.
Waning public interest
Unfortunately, public pressure for action is weak, partly because media attention on nuclear terrorism has begun to fade. And it’s fading not because the threat has been addressed or reduced, but because the media cover what changes, and threats don’t change much day to day. They just keep on ticking.
The media need to stay on this story because it’s harder to get government action when there’s not much media coverage. If something’s not in the media, it’s not in the public mind. If it’s not in the public mind, there’s little political pressure to act. If public attention moves off this nuclear threat before the government has moved to reduce it, we will be making the same mistake we made after 1991.
Leadership, however, means being out in front even if no one’s pushing from behind. Bush and Putin need to think bigger and do more. They need to reduce the chance that terrorists can steal nuclear weapons or materials or hire away weapons scientists. They need to work together as partners in fighting terror and encourage others to join. They need to launch a worldwide plan to identify weapons, materials and know-how and secure all of it, everywhere, now — if we are to avoid Armageddon.
*CNN founder Ted Turner last year established the Nuclear Threat Initiative, dedicated to reducing the threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. He has pledged to provide $250 million to fund its activities.