Cliff May

The next time Islamist terrorists attack us it could be with a nuclear weapon. By saying that, am I “fear mongering”? If so, I’m in good company. Graham Allison is a Harvard professor who served with distinction in the Defense Department under both Reagan and Clinton. He wrote a book in 2004 arguing that “on the current course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable.”

There has been no change of course since – on the contrary. Ashton B. Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard, said recently that the threat of nuclear terrorism has been increasing due to Iranian and North Korean proliferation and the failure to secure Russia's nuclear arsenal following the Cold War. The probability of a nuclear attack on an American city, he believes, is now “almost surely larger than it was five years ago.”

Gary Anthony Ackerman, Research Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, also recently told Congress that “the prospect of terrorists detonating a nuclear device on American soil sometime within the next quarter-century is real and growing.”

And Cham D. Dallas, who directs the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia, says flatly: “It’s inevitable.” Testifying before a Senate hearing this month, he added: “I think it's wistful to think that it won't happen by 20 years."

Should a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb explode near the White House, Dallas estimates that 100,000 people would be killed. A radioactive plume would lethally contaminate thousands more. In a densely populated city such as New York or Chicago, a similar blast would result in a death toll perhaps eight times that high.

Charles Allen, Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, has said there is no question that Islamist terrorist groups are seeking nuclear materials. But the intelligence community, he added, is “less certain about terrorists' capability to acquire or develop a nuclear device.”

Could the intelligence community be more certain? Yes, our spies could do more to increase our chances of detecting - -- and preventing – terrorist attacks of all varieties. But they are being denied the tools. The most notable example: The law that gave America’s intelligence agencies the authority to freely monitor the communications of foreign terrorists abroad expired in February.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.