How Likely Is Nuclear Terrorism? Part One
This post is going to be in two parts. In the first, I make a substantive point about nuclear terrorism, an issue I’ve wanted to address for some time. In part two, I build off my views on nuclear terrorism to make a meta-level point about what experts have to offer a general policy audience and how that audience should receive what we have to say.
Back in 2008, in a New York Times Op-Ed, the national security journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote the following about the prospects for a nuclear detonation by terrorists in the US:
“Many proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent. Only technical complications prevent Al Qaeda from executing a nuclear attack today.”
Goldberg doesn’t name these proliferation experts, but he’s a careful reporter with an excellent reputation, so I think we should presume he faithfully reported what he heard. Goldberg’s Op-Ed appeared about 2 months before the final report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, which came to similarly alarming conclusions. The Commission was led by Graham Allison, the former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and one of America’s most influential experts on international affairs. Allison worked with a team of governmental and non-governmental experts on nuclear proliferation; he had a large budget to work with; the Commission staff traveled all over the country and the world interviewing top experts in the field. So, here we have an example of security experts giving advice on policy, in this case through a journalist and a government commission rather than directly to the public, on issues of fundamental importance to national security. As critical consumers of policy pronouncements, what should we make of these claims?
I am not an expert in nuclear terrorism or proliferation, and I have done no significant research on the topic. Thus, in this particular case, I’m in the same boat as the general consumer of policy expertise. Yet, even knowing very little, I think we have good reason to assign essentially zero credibility to these claims. The reason is simple: to the present time, no terrorist group has ever used a nuclear weapon; indeed, no terrorist group has ever possessed a nuclear weapon. Therefore, it is not possible to form reliable beliefs about the conditions under which such a thing might come to pass. Where we have no data, as in this case, there is nothing to extrapolate from. In cases like this one, the best thing to do is to accept that we are overwhelmed by uncertainty, and accept that the real policy problem is to figure out what to do when we know very little. In other words, the real policy problem is a philosophical one, not an empirical one.
The Goldberg/Allison perspective on nuclear terrorism has been ably criticized by, among others, John Mueller and Michael Levi. My gut reaction is that the critics are right and the odds of nuclear terrorism are really (really, really) low. Still, I think these critics are missing the more important point I make here: at the end of the day, what we know about nuclear terrorism amounts to very little, especially relative to the many assumptions we have to make to generate meaningful policy recommendations.