Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

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