Why then does Obama call nuclear terrorism "the single most important national security threat that we face" and "a threat that rises above all others in urgency?" Why the unanimity among those who have shouldered responsibility for U.S. national security in recent years that this is a grave and present danger? In former CIA Director George Tenet's assessment, "the main threat is the nuclear one. I am convinced that this is where [Osama bin Laden] and his operatives desperately want to go." When asked recently what keeps him awake at night, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answered: "It's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."
Leaders who have reached this conclusion about the genuine urgency of the nuclear terrorist threat are not unaware of their skeptics' presumptions. Rather, they have examined the evidence, much of which has been painstakingly compiled here by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former head of the CIA's terrorism and weapons-of-mass-destruction efforts, and much of which remains classified. Specifically, who is seriously motivated to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans? Osama bin Laden, who has declared his intention to kill "4 million Americans -- including 2 million children." The deeply held belief that even if they wanted to, "men in caves can't do this" was then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's view when Tenet flew to Islamabad to see him after 9/11. As Tenet (assisted by Mowatt-Larssen) took him step by step through the evidence, he discovered that indeed they could. Terrorists' opportunities to bring a bomb into the United States follow the same trails along which 275 tons of drugs and 3 million people crossed U.S. borders illegally last year.
In 2007, Congress established a successor to the 9/11 Commission to focus on terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. This bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism issued its report to Congress and the Obama administration in December 2008. In the commission's unanimous judgment: "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."
Faced with the possibility of an American Hiroshima, many Americans are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism. Either it hasn't happened, so it's not going to happen; or, if it is going to happen, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Both propositions are wrong. The countdown to a nuclear 9/11 can be stopped, but only by realistic recognition of the threat, a clear agenda for action, and relentless determination to pursue it.