Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Misguided Cassini Furor

by Alexander Cockburn

Why all the fuss about Cassini when the nuclear powers have missile silos, submarines and planes on alert, ready at an instant to hurl mass destruction at each other?
For the time being, at least, the Cassini probe with its load of plutonium is off the radar screen of National Alarm. True, it will be looping back past Earth before heading off to Saturn, but that's not for a couple of years, so we can stop worrying -- at least about Cassini.

And that's the odd thing. Why all the immense uproar over the Cassini probe and its 70 pounds of plutonium when the ocean floor is littered with sunken submarines leaking lethal material from hundreds of tons of deadly nuclear cargo? Why all the fuss about Cassini when the nuclear powers have missile silos, submarines and planes on alert, ready at an instant to hurl mass destruction at each other?

Even as he stands poised to sanction Westinghouse nuclear power plant exports to China, President Clinton is always ready to boast that his 1994 agreement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin decreed that the big missiles are no longer trained on their targets. But that means nothing. The missiles can be reprogrammed in a matter of seconds.

Part of the problem stems from the determination of the Clinton administration to portray Russia as trundling forward in an orderly manner under the auspices of Yeltsin and "reform." Take the recent disclosure by General Alexander Lebed, formerly secretary of Yeltsin's National Security Council, that he had found no less than 100 1-kiloton nuclear weapons missing from the Russian stockpile.

Lebed first revealed this chilling tale in a private meeting with a visiting group of congressmen back in May this year. During his four-month tenure at the national security post in 1996, most of which was devoted to settling the Chechen war, he had ordered a check on the inventory of "suitcase bombs." These are bombs -- technically known as Special Atomic Demolitions Munitions -- designed for sabotage by special forces behind enemy lines in the event of nuclear war and handily packaged in suitcases for convenient transportation. Despite an intensive search by Lebed's men, 100 could not be found. The general did not reveal this news to make headlines. The meeting was behind closed doors, and there was no press briefing. He seemed solely interested in alerting the U.S. government to the fact that these weapons are on the loose, somewhere.

Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), the leader of delegation, duly briefed the White House, the CIA, the DIA and the Department of Energy immediately on his return from Moscow. There was no reaction. Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, brother and sister-in-law of the present writer, however, discovered what Lebed had said and reported it in their recently published book, "One Point Safe," which deals with the state of the Russian stockpile.

The Clinton administration has repeatedly invoked the menace of terrorism in the course of its efforts to shred constitutional liberties over the last few years. It is hard to conceive of a more perfect terrorist weapon than a nuclear bomb that comes readily disguised as a suitcase.

Nevertheless, when asked whether there had been any attempt to follow up on Lebed's report, the National Security Council's senior director for non-proliferation, Gary Samore, stated that the Russian government had denied the story, which seemed good enough for him. Samore even appeared ignorant that such weapons exist, despite the fact that the Russian SADM has been common knowledge among American intelligence specialists for years and that Gorbachev even pledged publicly to destroy them all -- one of the many promises the former darling of the western press failed to keep. Had anyone from the White House tried to contact Lebed directly to ask him for more details? Samore admitted they had not, nor were there any plans to do so.

Official complacency remained undisturbed even when Lebed's deputy at the security council, Vladimir Denisov, although less forthright than Lebed, told a reporter for the Russian news agency Interfax that the suitcase search had indeed taken place -- he had been in charge. Though the bombs stored in Russia were accounted for, they had no idea where the weapons deployed outside Russia itself, in the days of the Soviet Union, might have ended up.

Concealing or ignoring bad news from Russia on such topics is nothing new for the Clintonites. For example, then Russian Minister of Defense Igor Rodionov stated publicly in February this year that there was a grave danger of a loss of command and control of Russia's nuclear missiles. This was an ominous admission, since it means that Vladimir in the silo, irked by penury and hunger, might just be able to take the rest of the world with him. It was also eminently credible, given incidents such as the SS-25 ICBM, complete with warhead, found abandoned in a field by a hungry crew who had gone to search for food. Washington officials passed the word that Rodionov was simply trying to boost his budget.

One of the more chilling episodes in "One Point Safe" concerns a horrifying half-hour on Jan. 25, 1995, when the Russians mistook a Norwegian scientific missile launched toward the north pole for an incoming U.S. nuclear attack. Yeltsin, his defense minister and chief of his military general staff were 15 minutes from launching a retaliatory strike when the radar operators figured out the missile was headed in a different direction. As Col. Robert Bykov, a veteran of the Russian missile high command, puts it, "We could launch an accidental nuclear strike on the United States in the matter of seconds it takes you to read these lines."

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Albion Monitor October 29, 1997 (

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