Interview of Gordon Mitchell by Hank Baughman

Topic: Nuclear proliferation and preventive war

October 22, 2004, 9:10 a.m.

Pittsburgh Pennsylvania


Advance transcript

Interview to air October 24, 2004, 6:00 a.m. in simultaneous broadcast on

WISH Radio (99.7 FM); WJAS Radio (1320 AM); WPTT Radio (1360 AM)

with selected portions to air subsequently in news segments on each station.


Hank Baughman (HB): Good morning and welcome to another edition of Pittsburgh Focus on WISH 99.7, 1320 WJAS and 1360 WPTT. Hi, I'm Hank Baughman. This morning we are going to address a subject that we should have done before, nuclear weapons. I'm very delighted to be speaking with Professor Gordon R. Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh. He's an Associate Professor of Communication and also Director of Debate at Pitt, and he's also a faculty member of the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at Pitt. Dr. Mitchell, thanks so much for coming in.


Gordon Mitchell (GM): Thank you, Hank. Good to be here.


HB: Your book is titled Strategic Deception; you wrote it in 2000. It is well over 300 pages. Strategic deception, meaning there's a difference between what we are being told about strategic defense and the technological realities. Is that a fair way of setting up the book?


GM: More or less, Hank.


HB: So have we been lied to about Star Wars?


GM: If you go back to the early tests on the Star Wars missile defense system that Ronald Reagan was touting as the system that could make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," the actual record shows that we were never anywhere close to developing a space-based missile defense system that could have achieved that technical feat. That yawning chasm between the scientific data and the public statements regarding missile defense systems continued on through to the 1991 Gulf War with the Patriot missile defense system, then the Theater High Altitude Area Defense System, and now most recently, the Clinton-era Ground Based Defense system out in Alaska.


HB: So those computer animations of ray guns in the sky shooting down incoming missiles, that was all computer animation?


GM: It was more science fiction than scientific fact.


HB: How far away are they today from space-based defense?


GM: Space-based defense is still a long way away. The actual near-term option for missile defense is the Ground Based Defense concept. It's a ground-based interceptor that starts off on earth and then is fired into outer space. They are designed to smash into incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles when they are in outer space. The law requires operational tests under realistic combat conditions before the Pentagon can buy new weapons systems. That's the so-called "fly-before-you-buy" law. With missile defense, this law has been turned on its head. It's now "buy-before-you-fly." The early intercept tests before 2002 were highly scripted for this ground-based system, and the Missile Defense Agency has eliminated 9 of the 20 intercept tests. What the president is about to announce as being operationally deployed, this system in Alaska, has really not been tested, and has little, if any, capability to actually intercept incoming missiles.


HB: And is he scheduled to make an announcement that this thing is ready to go?


GM: He hasn't scheduled it, but there is speculation that he will before the election. They are moving the interceptors into place and assembling all the components so they can actually put this thing on alert and say that it is operational.


HB: Now this interceptor is actually a missile in itself.


GM: That's right.


HB: It is fired from the ground, and is to hit an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in orbit?


GM: Correct.


HB: Okay. And you say this is still a long way from actual capability?


GM: The problem with intercepting an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in outer space is that it's a weightless environment. In that vacuum it is possible for the incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile to confuse the interceptor with a variety of countermeasures, including decoys. So far, the tests that have been conducted to verify the effectiveness of this ground-based system have not been realistic, in the sense that the decoys that have been presented have been very simplistic and the trajectories of the target missiles have been very predictable. In fact, the tests seem to show that this ground-based defense system has more capability as an offensive anti-satellite weapon than a defensive, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile defense system. In other words, it can be used to knock out other countries' satellites out of outer space.


HB: How important is this is issue really, this issue of ballistic missile defense, with the Soviet Union supposedly gone, and Russia an ally?


GM: That's a good question. The question of missile defense's importance in the current day and age in part depends on where you come down on the issue of whether our focus in terms of foreign policy should be on states or non-state actors. Prior to 9/11, the Bush administration was touting missile defense as a centerpiece of its security policy. It makes less sense post-9/11, when we are dealing with non-state actors who can smuggle in weapons on ships or delivery mechanisms other than Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. We still have the looming threat of North Korea and Iran who have allegedly been pursuing long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that some say could be equipped with payloads of mass casualty warheads.


HB: Does anyone seriously think that North Korea and Iran would think of launching a nuclear missile attack against the United States?


GM: Well Hank, the question about whether they would think of launching an attack is one issue. The actual technical reality of where they are in terms of this project is another. I've been doing some work on preventive warfare with the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies. We've got a working group there that is focusing on this issue. Part of our research goes back to 1998. We are finding that it is somewhat more instructive to focus on 1998 than 9/11, in terms of trying to understand current events. 1998 was the year that the so-called Rumsfeld Commission issued its findings on the North Korean and Iranian ballistic missile threats. The Rumsfeld Commission Report fostered a tilt in the intelligence community toward the warning function, emphasizing possible but highly unlikely outcomes. The commission stated that within five years, it might be possible that Iran and North Korea would have Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that could be outfitted with "weapons of mass destruction" that could hit the United States. The loose evidence standards, coupled with threat inflation from the interchangeability of chemical, biological and nuclear warheads that was made possible by the usage of the acronym "WMD" in that report, created an incendiary framework for public argument. It is an argument template that is like the gun in Chekhov's plays. The famous Russian playwright said that if there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire by the last. If you see 1998 as the first act, placing this gun on the wall, 2001 is the second act, with 9/11 loading the gun, which was then fired in 2003. The template of threat inflation coming from exaggerating the warning function of intelligence and also conflating chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons together, has created an almost inevitable march toward what we are seeing now in this doctrine of preventive warfare.


HB: What you call "strategic deception." Is Russia, in any way, still a nuclear threat to the United States?


GM: The major way that Russia is a nuclear threat is the fact that the vast majority of its nuclear facilities and fissile materials are unsecured, and can actually be sold or transferred out of the country, and fall into the wrong hands.


HB: That seems to be a big worry. Do you think it is justifiably a big worry?


GM: It is probably the major worry, I would say, in terms of security concerns, even more so than Iran and North Korea. Certainly they are threats, but when you actually look at the state of their delivery capabilities, whether they can fire long-range missiles that can reach the American homeland, the danger that nuclear materials could escape from Iraq and Russia, and fall into the hands of terrorists, seems much greater.


HB: Let's deal with Russia for a second. We are talking about the so-called "suitcase bomb." Is that the chief concern? The small nuclear weapons that are trunk-sized?


GM: That's one concern. It is more likely that the so-called "leakage" of nuclear materials would take place in the form of radioactive materials to make a radiological weapon, or "dirty bomb."


HB: The actual materials, the enriched uranium, et cetera.


GM: Correct.

Doesn't one have to have sophisticated technology to handle such material?


GM: In the case of the radiological "dirty bomb," not necessarily, because you can simply transport it in a container that limits radiation, then strap it to conventional explosives and blow up a bomb that scatters radioactive materials. It is not actually a mass casualty weapon, but it is certainly a weapon of mass panic in the sense that if it were to explode in the middle of an American city, there would be chaos and pandemonium.


HB: And there would be long-term radiation.


GM: Yes.


HB: On a scale of one to ten, where do you place this threat of a "dirty bomb" from missing Soviet, or Russian nuclear materials? On a scale of one to ten.


GM: It's difficult to place it on a rating system like that without putting it in context and comparing it to other threats. Certainly I would say it deserves more attention than the current state-centric focused threat in terms of so-called "rogue states." When you are dealing with "rogue states," if they are going to fire a Weapon of Mass Destruction at you, the possibility of retaliation is a strong dissuading factor that comes into play.


HB: But in the case of terrorists, of course, that's not their thinking.


GM: That's why controlling the supply of mass casualty weapons material becomes an extraordinary challenge and a very high priority for the United States.


HB: If the Russian security system with respect to nuclear materials is so porous, why haven't we seen a dirty bomb yet?


GM: One reason may be that it does take time to actually arrange for an attack. The planning for the 9/11 attacks was in the works for a number of years. It is not necessarily an instantaneous process, to expect that immediately after a theft there would be an actual attack.


HB: What sized device are we talking about, when we speak of a "dirty bomb" with a cylinder of enriched uranium stolen or bought from the Russians? What sized device are we looking at?


GM: My estimate would be that it would probably be something along the lines of a truck bomb. In the Oklahoma City bombing it was a rental truck packed with fertilizer, a conventional explosive that caused an extraordinary detonation. That sort of bomb, supplemented with radiological material, could do quite a bit of damage.


HB: That's not a very big device. It's easily concealed in a container, perhaps?


GM: It could be.


HB: That's really scary. Could we turn to Iraq? You mentioned WMDs, Weapons of Mass Destruction. Do you think that Saddam Hussein ever had a nuclear capability?


GM: Well Hank, the Duelfer Report was released earlier this month. That was the final conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group. They took more than a year and spent over a billion dollars looking for the so-called "Weapons of Mass Destruction" and they didn't find any. Just Thursday there was a very interesting poll that came out from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland. This poll was a nation-wide, random sample of 968 respondents taken from October 12-18. After the Duelfer Report, 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had WMD or a major program for developing them. But only 26% of Kerry supporters said so.


HB: Wow.


GM: 57% of Bush supporters assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded that Iraq had a major WMD program. Only 23% of the Kerry supporters said so. Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaida. 60% of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% conclude, incorrectly, that this was the finding of the 9/11 Commission.


HB: Yes.


GM: Large majorities of Kerry supporters have almost exactly opposite perceptions. We are seeing an extraordinary gulf in public opinion that splits almost evenly along Bush vs. Kerry supporter lines. I think it's fascinating.


HB: Bush supporters don't believe this report by the Bush administration, essentially, it seems! But still, it is logical to assume that Saddam, this madman, this mass murderer, was developing nuclear weapons. I think that's a reasonable assumption. Do you agree?


GM: No, I don't agree. Saddam Hussein was certainly attempting to develop nuclear weapons prior to the 1991 Gulf War. The Duelfer Report found that after the 1991 Gulf War, he dismantled virtually all of his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities. It is true that he had the intention of trying to revive his nuclear program if sanctions would have been lifted, but with sanctions in place and with IAEA inspectors in Iraq, his program was virtually halted. The reality on the ground was quite different from the reality that was painted for the world and the American public prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom.


HB: Could he have given nuclear material to al-Qaida or to terrorists elsewhere in the Middle East?


GM: The 9/11 Commission Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence looked at that question and found that Saddam Hussein did not have much of a desire to transfer the weapons in that fashion, knowing that certain retaliation would bring the destruction of his regime. Furthermore, instead of transferring, he had dismantled most of the material. The major risk came from the unguarded weapons depots following the U.S. invasion that exposed those materials to possible theft or terrorist transfer.


HB: Do we know that those materials have been recovered?


GM: We don't actually know where quite a few of the materials in the weapons depots ended up, unfortunately. One of the criticisms of the Bush administration's planning for post-war reconstruction and post-war security is that there were insufficient troops required to secure the weapons depots.


HB: What's your guess on where those materials might be?


GM: They might be hiding somewhere in Iraq. They could have been transferred somewhere else in the Middle East. Are there aliens living in Roswell, New Mexico? Is Elvis still alive? It's hard to tell.


HB: How much material do you think there might have been? When you are dealing with nuclear material, even a very small amount is exceedingly dangerous, but how much in Iraq?


GM: As I said, Saddam Hussein had pretty much dismantled the full-scale program for constructing a nuclear bomb after 1991. So there was a lot of radioactive material, but not a lot of things like high-strength aluminum tubes necessary for uranium enrichment.


HB: In the debates, President Bush and Senator Kerry made clear that nuclear proliferation is the big risk, the big worry in the world today. Who is next going to join the nuclear club? North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran coming along. We assume China has nuclear weapons.


GM: China definitely has nuclear weapons.


HB: You don't hear too much about them, though. Have they made clear? Have they simply admitted that they have nuclear weapons?


GM: Yes, they have about 10 warheads on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The actual range is unclear, in terms of where the warheads would be placed, but it is generally assumed that they could strike Alaska, for example.


HB: Who else might come along to join this nuclear club?


GM: The two countries that are obviously in the news these days are Iran and North Korea.


HB: And after that, is anybody else developing nuclear capability?


GM: I haven't heard speculation of another country that is seeking nuclear weapons aggressively. Israel is a difficult case. Most people assume it has nuclear weapons but it maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity, not disclosing that it has them.


HB: So you've got a new book in the works. Tell us about that.


GM: The Ridgway Center for International Security Studies houses a number of working groups. I'm chairing one on preemptive and preventive military intervention. We've got 12 scholars who have now met twice and are finishing up their research. We are going to be publishing two of those papers in the next week or so, as the first findings of our working group research. The first paper is by former State Department Director of the INR, the intelligence arm there, Greg Thielmann. He is writing on the role of intelligence in preventive warfare.


HB: You are talking about the Bush Doctrine here?


GM: That's right. The second paper is by Emory University political scientist Dan Reiter, who has put together an issue brief that is salient in terms of Iran. He looks at the 1981 Israeli strike against the nuclear reactor in Iraq. That is held up as Exhibit A by many advocates of preventive war as an effective strike. Reiter shows that in fact, what happened after that was that Saddam Hussein moved his nuclear program underground and discovered ways of dispersing the program to make it less vulnerable to that type of strike in the future. It appears that Iran has learned that lesson, and that the possibility of replicating the so-called "success" of this 1981 strike on the Osiraq reactor would be very difficult.


HB: We would have to go in on the ground?


GM: An air strike using Tomahawk missiles or airplanes would seem difficult to pull off. It seems the same with North Korea. The intelligence does not appear to be good enough to indicate exactly where these nuclear facilities are.


HB: Do you regard the War in Iraq as the classic example of the Bush Doctrine?


GM: It certainly was the first attempt to implement the preventive warfare part of the National Security Strategy of 2002, in other words striking first before there is an imminent threat. It is interesting to see how this election will play out, with Iraq being such a major focus of deliberation. To go back to this poll by the University of Maryland, people were asked whether the United States should have gone to war with Iraq if U.S. intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not making WMD or providing support for al-Qaida. 58% of Bush supporters said the United States should not have and 61% assumed that in this case, the president would not have gone to war. History may judge the American electorate quite harshly if, in fact, it ends up re-electing President Bush on the argument that the United States invaded Iraq in order to counter Weapons of Mass Destruction, as outlined in the prewar administration statements. In fact, the Duelfer Report and the 9/11 Commission Report show that Saddam Hussein did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction and there were no significant operational ties between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaida.


HB: What do you say to people who say, well okay, that's 20-20 hindsight? Intelligence before the war strongly suggested that he had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that there was some contact between Iraq and al-Qaida? And on that basis, of course, we went to war. But what about the possible response that it's 20-20 hindsight?


GM: Actually Hank, there is another report that came out on Thursday. It was an interim report by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, part of the second phase of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's investigation, which is focusing on the Bush administration's role in shaping intelligence. What we are finding from this report is that 20-20 hindsight shows that there were major disagreements within the intelligence community regarding the nature of the Iraqi threat. The Levin report singles out the number three man at the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, as playing a major role in manipulating the intelligence process in order to hype the threat, when the official intelligence community had serious doubts about ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, whether the aluminum tubes could have been used for uranium enrichment, and whether Saddam Hussein actually had Weapons of Mass Destruction programs. The 20-20 hindsight takes place on two levels. On one level we are finding out more about the reality on the ground, what Saddam Hussein actually possessed, in terms of weapons. But we are also finding out a lot about what the official U.S. intelligence community thought. That was basically suppressed and downplayed in a strategic attempt to try and legitimize the war.


HB: We are out of time, already. This has been fascinating and important. We want to thank Professor Gordon R. Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh. He is an Associate Professor of Communication, Director of Debate, and author of the book Strategic Deception. Very quickly, is this for the general public?


GM: If you can wade through the footnotes!


HB: Professor Mitchell is also on the faculty at the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Mitchell, thank you very much.


GM: Thank you, Hank.


HB: That's it for this edition of Pittsburgh Focus on WISH 99.7, 1320 WJAS, 1360 WPTT. I'm Hank Baughman. Have a nice day.


[Transcript editors' note: The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland poll referenced by Gordon Mitchell was conducted by The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). The University of Maryland's Steven Kull directs the Center on Policy Attitudes at PIPA, which occasionally partners with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. More information on PIPA can be found at]