Former secretary of defense talks of war, terror

The United States' focus on cutting nuclear weapons — a priority in the 1990s — has, because of the war on terror, fallen by the wayside.

That has increased the risk that those terrorists will get and use nukes in U.S., said William Perry, who served as the secretaryt of defense under President Clinton, from 1994-97.

"The dangers of nuclear terrorism are very real and the results would be catastrophic," he said. "The things we can do to mitigate this are not being done."

Perry, in a speech Monday to the local United Nations Association at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, said terrorists would like to use nuclear arms in U.S. cities, but it's difficult to get the plutonium or high-grade uranium needed to make the weapons — but warned the more nuclear weapons there are, the easier those supplies are to get.

A Stanford-educated physicist, Perry has spent his life studying nuclear weapons and delivery systems, successfully working after the collapse of the Soviet Union to make Ukraine, then the third-biggest nuclear nation, nuclear weapon-free. He is now a senior fellow at the Stanford-Harvard Preventive Defense Project, an arms control and national security think tank.

Perry also was a member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, and noted in an interview that while its recommendations for resolving the war were at first ignored, they are gradually being accepted.

All parties, he said, now accept the study group's assessment that the Iraq situation is "grave and deteriorating," and that enlarged diplomatic efforts must be made. Regarding the most difficult recommendation, bringing troops home in the first quarter of 2008, Perry said he expects a "re-exploration" of that in September, when the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, briefs Congress on the war.

"It's not driven by the (2008) election. I take him (President George W. Bush) at his word," said Perry. "He's wrong, but he's doing what he thinks is right."

Perry said that during his time in government, he saw the military, through human error or technological malfunction, stare global annihilation in the face three times, including once, woken from sleep, hearing a NORAD general tell him, with 15 minutes to make a decision, that they see 200 Soviet missiles headed for the U.S. It was an error.

"How close we came to catastrophe. Accidental nuclear war was avoided as much by luck as good management and, with the end of the Cold War "¦ such dangers have been reduced almost to no risk at all," said Perry.

However, the Bush administration is focused on a buildup of tactical nuclear weapons and Russia is working on another generation of intercontinental nuclear missiles, he said.

"If the U.S. and Russia stay on their present course, we're headed for unprecedented disaster," he said.

Warning that his subject for the evening was "grim and foreboding," Perry cited opinions of experts in the field that there is a "real probability in the next few years," that if a nuclear weapon were detonated in a major U.S. city, particularly Washington, D.C., that it would kill 100,000 people, wipe out hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth, collapse the world economy and be "the worst catastrophe ever in the U.S."

He said that although terrorists don't currently have the ability to develop advanced nuclear technology, the skills and fissable materials have passed from Pakistan to North Korea, then to Libya and other countries, bringing them that much closer to terrorists.

He called Bush's plans to install nuclear missiles in Poland "hugely ineffective and expensive and it doesn't have anything to do with terrorism. It also aggravates our relations with Russia."

Nuclear weapons, if they are delivered by terrorists against U.S. cities, will not come by air, but rather by truck or docked ship, said Perry — and the steps the U.S. should be taking are old ones — economic sanctions, weapons inspections, increased cooperation among nations and strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties.

"The Bush administration has a pretty good idea of what needs to be done, but they're not carrying it out. Putin in Russia has also dropped the ball and is focused on other things."

John Darling is a freelance writer. Reach him at

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