Twelve days ago, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans introduced a report on national security harshly critical of President Obama. "America," they warned, "faces the highest terror threat level since 9/11."
Let's take them at their word. And so, a question. Of all the threats we face, what fear most haunts our national security community?
It is not massacres like those in Orlando or San Bernardino, as monstrous as they are. It is a threat which, while more remote, would be infinitely more devastating: a nuclear attack -- including by terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
This existential danger drives America's efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, and to keep our country safe from a nuclear holocaust. And here lies the irony in the Republicans' warning. For it is yet another compelling reason that a man as ignorant, irresponsible, unstable and unprepared as Donald Trump should never become president.
True, Trump's nativist scapegoating of all Muslims -- including millions of loyal Americans, many of whom have served our military -- increases the danger of more mass slaughters like Orlando, breeding alienation while attacking those whose vigilance could help prevent such horrors. But his xenophobia and lack of basic knowledge also enhances the most terrible prospect of all -- nuclear terrorism.
While the nuclear threat is horrifying to contemplate, its greatest dangers are little understood, or even discussed in public. In recent years, the public's worry about nuclear proliferation has focused most particularly on Iran -- a frequent subject of Trump's crude and self-preening attacks on Obama's supposed "weakness" in confronting threats to America. But it is unlikely that Iran would start a nuclear war: however aggressive, its regime has a return address, and a reprisal could annihilate Tehran.
That is why nuclear terrorism by non-state actors is America's ultimate nuclear nightmare.
As debilitating as the mass slaughters we have suffered can be, only terrorism by nuclear means has the potential to destroy our economy, our security, our system of civil liberties, our commitment to democratic ideals, and our very trust in each other. In short those things which, at our best, make us who we are.
This is why countries which could spawn nuclear terrorism are the greatest threats to our way of life. It is why Pakistan -- not Iran -- is the most dangerous place on earth. It is why our next president must have sound judgment, a stable temperament, and a sophisticated understanding of the of nuclear threat posed by Al Qaeda and, more recently, ISIS. It is why that president cannot -- must not -- be Donald Trump.
The facts which make this so are as little-known as they are sobering.
To start, Al Qaeda has long been obsessed with acquiring nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has always been its focus. Just before 9/11, bin Laden met in Afghanistan with a Pakistani nuclear scientist and an engineer, drawing up specifications for an Al Qaeda bomb. And after 9/11, bin Laden announced Al Qaeda's intention to kill 4 million Americans in reprisal for the Muslim deaths he attributed to the United States and Israel, and issued a fatwa calling for the use of nuclear arms against the West.
Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is not. And a new force has emerged with the same apocalyptic desires -- ISIS.
Granted, perpetuating nuclear terrorism would require a high degree of organizational and logistical sophistication. But intelligence officials believe that ISIS is scouring Iraq for nuclear and radioactive materials for use outside the country. Indeed, it is known that they have already seized lower-grade nuclear materials from Mosul University. And the tragic attacks in France and Belgium have a disturbing nuclear coda.
The terrorist cell which executed these attacks previously monitored an official at Belgian nuclear research sites housing highly enriched uranium -- HEU -- which could be used to fabricate a nuclear weapon. How do we know? Because Belgian authorities captured a surveillance tape taken by members of the cell.
Why track the official? One theory is that the terrorists intended to kidnap a member of his family, meaning to coerce him to transfer nuclear materials. Another is that ISIS meant to precipitate a Fukushima type disaster by attacking a Belgian nuclear facility -- a strike which could spew large amounts of radiation, rendering the surroundings uninhabitable and causing thousands of early deaths from cancer.
This last ambition did not originate with ISIS -- the planners of the 9/11 attacks considered crashing a plane into a nuclear facility near New York City. As for the mass slaughter executed by ISIS in Brussels, experts believe that this may have been a fallback operation, chosen over a nuclear-based scheme only because authorities were closing in.
Whatever the case, terrorists have several potential openings to carry out such a plan -- acquiring or fabricating a nuclear weapon; building a dirty bomb; or attacking a nuclear reactor.
To obtain a bomb, they can steal nuclear weapons or materials; buy them on the black market; or recruit nuclear scientists to supply materials or expertise. There is, of course, precedent for nuclear trafficking on a massive scale -- until 2004, A Q Khan, the director of Pakistan's nuclear program, ran a black market through which he sold nuclear materials and technology to such nations as Iran, Libya, and North Korea.
As for theft, the International Atomic Energy Agency -- IAEA -- has documented 18 incidents where highly enriched uranium and plutonium were lost or stolen. The threat persists -- nuclear materials are stored at hundreds of research facilities in over 30 countries where security may be grossly inadequate. Thus, in relative terms, nuclear materials are even less secure than nuclear weapons.
Constructing a nuclear bomb does not require extraordinary expertise, or knowledge of classified information. As for smuggling nuclear materials, Matthew Bunn of Harvard puts the matter starkly: "The immense length of national borders, the huge scale of legitimate traffic, the myriad potential pathways across these borders, and the small size and weak radiation signal of the materials needed to make a nuclear bomb make nuclear smuggling extraordinarily difficult to stop."
Three countries are the most likely sources -- North Korea, Russia and Pakistan.
North Korea exists outside political and moral norms, even as it aggressively expands its nuclear capacity. One of our leading experts on nuclear terrorism, Graham Allison, gave me this sober assessment: based on its past history as a nuclear purveyor, "there is no reason to believe that North Korea would not sell bombs or material to another state -- or to ISIS." Moreover, Dr. Allison adds, the sole potential deterrent on its conduct is the fear of retaliation, and North Korea's young leader is inexperienced and unpredictable.
Russia, at least, is not a rogue state. But it has the world's largest nuclear stockpile and is vulnerable to corrupt insiders. Between 2010 and 2015 the FBI stopped four attempts by criminal gangs in Russia to sell nuclear materials to ISIS. There are links between home-grown Russian terrorists and ISIS. And there is no end of smuggling routes and smugglers to facilitate the movement of nuclear materials from Russia through the Middle East.
But perhaps the biggest threat is Pakistan. Its arsenal of roughly 130 nuclear warheads is growing without restraint, and its chief motivation -- fear and hatred of India -- has yet to abate. The Pakistani government has declined to increase compliance with international rules for stopping the spread of nuclear materials. Even its denial of knowledge regarding A Q Khan's activities is open to considerable doubt.
Moreover, its nuclear arsenal is subject to extraordinary threats -- both from corrupt insiders and armed extremists, whether inside or outside the military. There is no country with more active terrorists than Pakistan -- it is the epicenter of Al Qaeda and related groups, most with close ties to the Pakistani security apparatus. In some combination, these allies could well cooperate in acquiring a nuclear weapon or materials.
This concern is far from academic. Experts believe that terrorists have attacked Pakistani nuclear facilities at least three times in the last 10 years. So serious is the risk that the U.S. Army has trained specialized units to grab back Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event that they are stolen. In turn, this has led to further lack of cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Add to all this the risk of a jihadist take over of the Pakistani government, or the total collapse of the state -- dangers exacerbated by serious concerns about the security of its nuclear arsenal.
We don't know where all the weapons are stored. The people who do -- the military and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, include highly-placed jihadist sympathizers. This is captured by a chilling remark from a former head of the ISI: "The same nuclear capacity that can destroy Madras, India can destroy Tel Aviv."
The scenario in which terrorists link with the ISI to steal a nuclear weapon is far from a Bondian fantasy. Indeed, the ISI itself is at the heart of Pakistani jihadism.
It helped create the Taliban to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and introduced its leaders to bin Laden. It created the terrorist group LET to carry out attacks against India, such as the bloody massacre in Mumbai. The military, the ISI and LET all recruit from the Punjabi, Pakistan's dominant ethnic group, creating familial ties among all three. With the ISI's protection, LET trains hundreds of jihadists every year.
As for Al Qaeda, it is highly implausible that the ISI did not know of bin Laden's whereabouts before he died. Moreover, Al Qaeda helped fund LET, and after 9/11 some of its leaders took refuge in LET safe houses. And some Al Qaeda soldiers and strategists have transferred their allegiance to ISIS -- which emanated directly from Al Qaeda in Iraq.
All three groups are Sunni, and share an implacable hostility toward the United States. And so their affinity enhances the already grave concerns of our national defense community about the possibility of nuclear terrorism in America.
Whatever the potential sources of such a threat, we are surely vulnerable.
To start, nuclear weapons or materials can be smuggled through the ports in Long Beach or New York, where we inspect a fraction of all cargo containers. Dr. Allison notes that there is greater cooperation between the FBI, local police and federal counter-terrorism personnel, and that our screening at ports has become more sophisticated and rooted in better intelligence. But he admonishes that there are many other means of smuggling nuclear materials, such as fishing boats and private planes.
The risk is exacerbated by 1100 miles of seacoast and lengthy and unguarded borders, leaving us extremely vulnerable. Equally worrisome is that Americans fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq have been able to return with relative ease. And in the post-Snowden world, Dr. Allison observes, those bent on doing us harm know more about our counter-terrorism measures.
A nuclear event in a major U.S. city could kill more than a half a million people, cost trillions of dollars, and trigger an exodus by residents of other major cities. Such an event would be economically, politically and psychologically devastating. It is all too easy to imagine Americans waiting for the next city to be destroyed, shattering our belief in our government, our system of civil liberties, or even our future as a democracy.
We cannot let this happen.
Enter Donald Trump.
On the eve of the recent Nuclear Security Summit -- initiated by President Obama to encourage nuclear countries to secure materials which can be used by terrorists -- Trump unburdened himself on the subject of nuclear proliferation. Reversing decades of American foreign policy, he welcomed the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea, arguing that it would save America the expense and trouble of defending Asian allies in an area shadowed by nuclear North Korea. He then topped this off by refusing to rule out using nuclear weapons in a European military conflict.
To say the least, Trump displays a dangerous ignorance of the risks of nuclear proliferation, not to mention a shocking failure of imagination regarding the horrors of nuclear warfare. For 70 years, American presidents have worked to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Trump's supposed hero, Ronald Reagan, said it well: "A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought."
Since then, the bipolar world of the Cold War has evolved into something far more lethal: a multi- polar world in which the danger of nuclear warfare increases exponentially with the spread of nuclear weapons -- including the risk that they will fall into the hands of terrorists. Only America's influence and the assiduous work of its presidents has limited the number of nuclear-armed nations. That Trump seems not to know this, and even less to care, defines the dangers posed by his boundless ignorance, ego and instability.
This required Obama to suggest that someone who failed to grasp the need for constraints on nuclear weapons should not be president. For Obama, cleaning up after this frightening ignoramus has become a cottage industry, starting with Trump's counter-terrorism program -- surveillance of Muslims at home, barring all Muslims from abroad, and labeling 1.6 billion Muslims around the world as incipient jihadists.
His odious response to the tragedy in Orlando only increased the danger. He doubled down on his ban on Muslims, asserted that American Muslims at large "know what's going on" with respect to terrorist threats" and congratulated himself on his foresight in scapegoating all Muslims at home and abroad. In doing so, he cemented his position as the single person in America who does the most to further the goals of ISIS.
There is no better fuel for alienation than for our president to disparage loyal Americans -- let alone those who could be indispensable in identifying potential terrorists. Nor could there be a greater gift to ISIS than to indiscriminately scorn every Muslim on the globe.
Beyond the fact that it serves ISIS's anti-Western narrative, as counter-terrorism Trump's blanket ban on refugees from the terrible slaughter in Syria is misdirected. The best way to carry out terrorist operations in America is through home-grown terrorists or those who enter the country surreptitiously.
No terrorist leader who wants to penetrate America would look to our slow, onerous and -- despite Trump's lies -- extremely thorough process of vetting Syrian refugees as a promising pathway to success. Once again, Trump's ignorance leads him -- and any intelligent discussion of counter-terrorism -- down a dangerous blind alley.
All this enhances the terrorist threat to the United States -- a self-inflicted wound reflective of a remarkable degree of thoughtlessness, irresponsibility, demagoguery and sheer stupidity by a candidate who has no business anywhere near the White House.
Add to this Trump's "program" for defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, combining torture with mass bombings which would decimate civilians -- not to mention his musings about using nuclear weapons against ISIS or in a European ground war. The net effect is a mushroom cloud of radioactive ignorance from a man incapable of better.
Given the gravity of nuclear proliferation and the menace of nuclear terrorism, this dangerous posturing underscores the seriousness of the job he seeks. In any area, but particularly this one, the presidency must be reserved for those who are knowledgeable and stable.
This captures the fatal contradiction between the Republicans' report on national security and their nominee.
To introduce the report, Paul Ryan and Congressmen Mike McFaul and Rob Goodlatte appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations. Conveniently, they treated Trump like a dead mouse on their kitchen floor -- if they did not mention it, perhaps no one else would notice it was there. But while there was also little mention of weapons of mass destruction, the congressmen allowed that America should combat terrorism by offering people in more volatile areas of the world- specifying the Middle East- an example of openness and freedom.
Moderating, Andrea Mitchell asked the obvious question: does Trump's proposal of a ban on Muslims further the national security interests of the United States?
Congressmen McFaul and Goodlatte had the grace to look bemused. Eventually, they disowned the idea of a Muslim ban in favor of thorough vetting. But their comments on Trump himself were excruciating -- and revealing.
Their only recourse was to ask us to live with them in "hope." They "hope" that Trump will reflect on his proposed ban. They "hope" that he will read their report and other relevant sources of knowledge. They "hope" that he would surround himself with good people. They" hope" that he would exercise "good leadership."
In such a dangerous area as this, America deserves more than hoping that a hopeless narcissist will awaken to the grave responsibilities Republicans have given him.
However one feels about his foreign policy as a whole, Barack Obama has met his responsibilities to confront the nuclear threat with seriousness and resolve.
His initiative in establishing regular Nuclear Security Summits has improved security and strengthened international cooperation. As a result, some states have given up weapons material altogether. For example, in 2010 the Ukraine had weapons for 8 to 10 bombs; by 2012, they had agreed to ship all nuclear materials back to Russia, lessening the danger of proliferation. At least in these terms, Obama has made the world safer.
The next president must have the same qualities: a deep awareness of the nuanced problem of nuclear terrorism, a knowledge of the countries and circumstances which pose the greatest risk, and an absolute dedication to ensuring that we -- and, to the extent possible, others -- are never victimized by such a horror.
This gritty work will require constant focus. We must fight the spread of nuclear weapons. We must build intelligence cooperation with other countries to identify and thwart terrorist groups with nuclear ambitions. We must work collectively to interdict nuclear theft and smuggling.
We must strengthen law-enforcement units trained to frustrate nuclear terrorism -- including in the United States. We must work around the globe to ensure, as best we can, that nuclear weapons and materials are secure. We must ensure ironclad security for nuclear materials in America, wherever they may be.
We must make it clear that any country who provides nuclear material to terrorists will pay a prohibitive price. And, as has Obama, we must pursue the leadership of ISIS and Al Qaeda, limiting their operational capacity to carry out nuclear threats.
This includes intelligent and measured actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- not "carpet bombing" or the mass slaughter of civilians, but a careful strategy on the ground to diminish the territory held by ISIS and, therefore, its aura of success. To advance a nuclear threat, ISIS requires leadership and logistical capacity. As we decimate their leadership and shrink their territory, we reduce that capacity.
This requires us to work at building the military within those countries, including among Sunnis; embedding combat advisors instead of committing U.S. troops; and enhancing American influence to help promote conditions which frustrate ISIS by giving local citizens the hope of a better life. This is precisely what Obama has started doing, and what Hillary Clinton proposes to further. And it is yet another fundamental of counter-terrorism which Donald Trump fails to comprehend.
These priorities rank high among the hardest work and toughest decisions demanded by the presidency. And, in the end, that work starts with us.
Our vote must be more than an expression of what makes us feel good in the moment, without a thought to all the responsibilities the president must bear. It cannot license vapid posturing or phony toughness more dangerous to us than our enemies.
Nor can we abet the election of a candidate incapable of giving the dangers of the world we live in the most serious and considered thought -- most particularly, the existential dangers posed by nuclear weapons. For we are choosing, above all, a president who can help ensure that we stay safe while maintaining our national character. Without this, nothing else may matter very much.
2016 is, indeed, no time for Trump. Whatever one's disagreements with her may be, Hillary Clinton is the only sane choice we have in a world where, all too often, insanity reigns. To quote a long-ago ad when another candidate, Barry Goldwater, spoke carelessly of using nuclear weapons: "The stakes are too high for you to stay home."