WASHINGTON -- a few weeks ago I was in a Fox News television studio with my favorite spymaster, former CIA Director Stansfield Turner. He's always come across as a decent sort: contemplative, modest, gentle-mannered. During his stint at the Company -- during the Jimmy Carter years -- there were relatively few embarrassments or misdeeds. So, just before we went on the air to discuss the 50th anniversary of the CIA, I asked Turner what was on his mind these days.
"Nuclear weapons," he replied. "We have a pretty scary situation today." Now when a former CIA chief tells you he's frightened by nukes -- which most of us thought were relics of a recently bygone era -- it seems prudent to wonder why.
"There are far too many out there," Turner explained. Indeed, despite the post-Cold War thaw, the United States and Russia still have about 34,000 nuclear weapons combined, 20,000 of which are operational. SALT II would have cut the number of strategic weapons in half, but the agreement is stalled in the Russian Duma. Moreover, the Russian military keeps crumbling, and that does not inspire confidence in Moscow's ability to maintain control of its thousands of warheads. Only Hollywood filmmakers can be gladdened by the rise in plausible "loose-nukes" scenarios. "Air Force One," for example, conjures up the specter of Russian fanatics taking over the weapons-filled republic of Kazakhstan with the express purpose of bringing America to its knees. And the Russians could hardly have been reassured by the report Monday in the New York Times that U.S. bomb makers may be developing more powerful warheads.
In fact, Turner says, he's more worried now about nuclear weapons than he was when he was an admiral in the Navy at the height of the Cold War. Even though he commanded a nuclear-equipped Naval task group in the Mediterranean, he says he never really had to think much about nuclear war. Then he arrived at the CIA, where, in order to brief Congress, he ordered a study of the nuclear balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The result shocked him. Even if the Soviets struck first, the study found, the U.S. could level the entire urban area of the Soviet Union between one and two times over. In other words, the U.S. possessed more nuclear weapons than it needed. The Pentagon, which was lobbying for the new MX missile at the time, predictably objected to the report's conclusion. "The Defense Department wanted more weapons, even though there was a tremendous surplus," Turner recalls. "There was no way to get people to be rational about it. That was very revealing to me."
Ever since, Turner has been pondering what to do about these immense nuclear stockpiles, a mental exercise that took on more urgency as Russia became less dependable as a nuclear steward. Now Turner may have come up with an exquisitely simple solution, which he has set down in a slim book, "Caging the Nuclear Genie," to be published by Westview Press.
Turner proposes that the president of the United States order the removal of nuclear warheads from 1,000 missiles and direct that they be stored near the missiles. The president then would invite Russia to place observers at the storage sites in order to count the number of warheads being stored and make sure they are not moved. The observers also would be allowed to inspect the missiles to ascertain that other warheads have not been placed on them. He would then invite the Russians to reciprocate.
Given that the U.S. has over 8,000 strategic nuclear warheads, temporarily decommissioning 1,000 of them would not put the nation at risk. And the warheads could always be restored to the missiles if some world crisis requiring preparedness for massive nuclear retaliation developed. The beauty of the plan is that it requires no painstaking negotiations -- nor the approval of pesky national legislatures.
If Moscow accepts the challenge, Washington would respond by removing more warheads and invite the Kremlin again to match it. A few rounds like this and there could be deep cuts in the number of active strategic missiles. Perhaps eventually close to zero. It's reverse poker, with the point being to bid downward. And there is precedent for such we-go-first action. In 1991, President Bush ordered almost all tactical nuclear weapons withdrawn from forward bases and Naval ships. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev followed suit with a similar order.
Sure, the number of warheads would not change. But there would be fewer in a position to do harm. And if the warheads remain detached from the missiles for a while, it should be easier to negotiate their destruction. An immediate benefit of the arrangement would be to tighten security over Russian warheads. If the Russians knew the Americans were coming to inspect, they would make damn sure that their storage sites were properly maintained. ("Hey, Dmitri, fix the locks on those doors, the Americans are on their way!")
There are plenty of potential crises out there: the Ebola virus, war in the Mideast, global warming, practically anything having to do with China. But nuclear weapons remain the paramount threat to our untrustworthy species. A legacy-obsessed President Clinton could do worse than following Turner's suggestion for easing our fears of instant obliteration. Such daring -- not school uniforms -- is the stuff that history is made of.