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Experts Predict a Possible Terrorist Strike with a Nuke in the US by 2013 -- What Can We Do to Stop It?

There’s no way around it: nuclear weapons are scary. Will fear drive Americans away from Obama’s arms control agenda?

"Megaterror Attack Likely By 2013, Say Experts." It's a good bet this headline caused thousands of Americans to stop in the tracks of their morning routines.

Even by the tough post-9/11 standards of a.m. bummers, it was a gulper. On Dec. 4, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism convened a press conference to declare that our margin of safety against an act of megaterror is shrinking at a disturbing clip. The commission also issued a book-length study, World at Risk , which concluded, "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

Depending on whom you ask, this is the good news. The WMD commission's conclusion is actually a little sunnier than some previous warnings of the same ilk. In 2004, one of the commission's ranking members, Harvard's Graham Allison, published a book called Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, in which he estimated that there was an even chance that a nuclear weapon -- not a "dirty bomb," but an actual Hiroshima-style fission bomb -- would destroy an American city within a decade unless swift action was taken to lock down the world's sprawling stocks of fissile material, concentrated in, but not limited to, Russia.

Too dark a forecast? Maybe. The truth is nobody knows. But if people are skeptical of, or inured to, this kind of warning after eight years of Bush/Cheney, it's understandable. Bogus mushroom-cloud visions, after all, were used to sell the Iraq war. Later, nuclear terror fears were stoked with gusto by a Bush administration fighting dirty in defense of every aspect of its war on terror. In the run-up to the 2004 election, Vice President Dick Cheney took a one-man, nuke-terror traveling roadshow through Midwestern swing states, at one point famously suggesting that the Democrats simply did not grasp the dangers of nuclear terrorism. "You have to get your mind around [the] concept," said the vice president, seething with condescension.

What made Cheney's fearmongering especially infuriating is that Democrats have always had their minds more firmly around the concept than Republicans. In 2004, it was Sen. John Kerry, not President Bush, who pledged to create a cabinet-level position to coordinate the battle against loose nukes and the black market in nuclear materials. And it was Kerry, not Bush, who proposed boosting funding for nuclear-threat-reduction programs. Kerry had even discussed nuclear terrorism in his 1998 book The New War: The Web of Crime That Threatens America's Security, written when Cheney was busy saddling Halliburton with asbestos class-action suits.

Four years later, the Democrats are finally in a position to show the country, and the world, what real leadership on the threat of nuclear terrorism looks like. The bipartisan WMD commission, created by Congress in 2007, has written a report that's both useful resource and timely reality check. Nuclear terrorism is not just the stuff of manipulative neoconservative fantasy. A consensus is hardening around the world that the threat is real and growing. While America's actions on the world stage can mitigate this threat, a more benign foreign policy alone will not eliminate it. The United States is not the only potential target, and U.S. foreign policy is not the only inspiration for groups seeking these weapons.

Luckily, the incoming president grasps the issue in all of its complexity. Barack Obama has produced a layered and ambitious agenda to confront the interlocking threats of nuclear terrorism, proliferation and the lingering arsenals of the world's two biggest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, which maintain thousands of missiles on hair-triggers. Everything is in place to begin to put the hydra-headed nuclear genie into an internationally controlled bottle. As with other planks on the incoming administration's agenda, the question is whether Democrats will be able to force its arms control program past the opposition of conservative critics and entrenched interests in Washington, which will be at least as hard as persuading the world's other nuclear powers to meet us half way.

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