The greatest threat

President Bush has stated often that the greatest threat to the United States is a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon. He’s absolutely right. A 10-kiloton suitcase bomb set off in Manhattan would instantly vaporize much of the island, killing about 500,000 people immediately and many hundreds of thousands more in the following hours and days. It’s unimaginable but all too possible.

And yet, for all his straight talk about the danger, Bush has done precious little about it. His administration’s policy toward North Korea, the most dangerous country on earth and a known purveyor of nuclear materiel, has been a stubborn refusal to talk with its leaders unless they stop their nuclear program. And its stance toward Iran is a welter of confusion, in part because it now needs Iran’s help in keeping al Qaeda operatives out of Iraq and forestalling a Shiite uprising there. The Iranians march ahead with their nuclear program, and the U.S. and its European allies do little about it.

Meanwhile, Russia is littered with thousands of old nuclear weapons vulnerable to theft by determined criminals, who could sell them to terrorists. And in Pakistan, which has a history of selling nuclear know-how to others, the intelligence agencies have strong ties to Islamist terrorist groups.

How to justify, then, the Bush administration’s torpedoing earlier this month of a new United Nations-sponsored global treaty banning the production and supply of materials essential to the building of nuclear weapons? The administration’s objection? That it would have opened American facilities—military bases and industrial plants—to inspection and monitoring.

When it comes to nukes, this administration has a “do as I tell you, not as I do” mentality. Not only has it set aside the long-successful comprehensive test ban treaty, but it also is pressing ahead, in secret and in defiance of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the development of a new generation of “bunker-busting” nuclear weapons.

This is the wrong way to go about making the world, and the United States, safe from nuclear terrorism. The right way is embrace international treaties, focus like a laser on doing everything possible to stop the spread of fissile materials and nuclear equipment and, working with our allies, engage such countries as Iran and North Korea in intensive negotiations. Time is running out.