If you think about it, there was something positively medieval about the security at last month’s G20 summit—turning Toronto’s core into a walled city, surrounded by a steel-mesh fence and guarded by helmeted warriors armed with shields and sticks. What’s sobering is that the authorities’ $900-million show of force would have been powerless to protect the G20 leaders, or the city, if one terrorist had showed up packing the ultimate weapon of opportunity—a nuclear device. Forget the fence; it could be set off from the Toronto Islands.
That may seem like a paranoid fantasy ripped from some spy movie or conspiracy thriller. But the prospect of such a scenario seems all too plausible in light of a terrifying new documentary called Countdown to Zero. The film makes a compelling case that the danger of nuclear catastrophe—something we tend to associate with the bygone era of the Cold War—is more dire today than ever before. Although the era of superpower stand-offs may be over, the nuclear club now includes nine countries, including unstable regimes such as Pakistan and North Korea, with Iran on the threshold. But what’s most alarming is that terrorist organizations are actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons in a world where both the materials and the technology are proliferating as never before.
The film’s message is that building a bomb is easy; what’s hard is obtaining the material— either plutonium or highly enriched uranium. But with shocking scenarios of thieves pilfering Russia’s poorly guarded nuclear stockpiles, the documentary presents the distinct possibility that a group like al-Qaeda could eventually build a nuclear weapon.
One of the film’s subjects, Harvard fellow Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, spent 23 years as a high-ranking CIA intelligence officer—a career that included running the CIA’s spies in Europe and serving as chief of the weapons of mass destruction department. “Of all the things I learned after 9/11 about terrorist intent,” he says in the film, “the most startling discovery was that they were trying to build a bomb.” Elaborating in an interview with Maclean’s last week, Mowatt-Larssen said, “The epiphany for me is that al-Qaeda was thinking of a nuclear bomb, not just a dirty bomb. They set their heights very high. And they were shrewd enough to know they were unlikely to be successful in stealing a bomb, so they need to go on a long-term effort to build one. We established this without any doubt—in stark contrast to the claims of Iraq’s WMDs.”
Written and directed by British filmmaker Lucy Walker, Countdown to Zero is shaping up to be the year’s most explosive documentary, and a likely Oscar contender. The movie, which opens in Canada on July 30, comes from the U.S. team behind rogue —Participant Media and Quentin Tarantino’s producer, Lawrence Bender. Call it An Inconceivable Truth. Instead of Al Gore lecturing on global warming, an arsenal of high-powered experts unleash chilling testimony about how close we’ve come to Armageddon on several occasions (not just the Cuban Missile Crisis), and how advances in technology have democratized proliferation.
Defrocked CIA spy Valerie Plame Wilson, who was tracking nuclear terrorism before her cover was blown, is one of the film’s strongest voices. “This is an issue that has not been in vogue since the Cold War,” she told Maclean’s. “We thought it went away. But we’ve moved from a bipolar world of mutually assured destruction to a place where nuclear technology can easily fall into the hands of terrorists.”
Aside from CIA veterans, the film’s subjects include five former political leaders—Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, F.W. de Klerk and Pervez Musharraf, along with former U.S. cabinet officials, various nuclear physicists and analysts—and a couple of Russian hustlers caught trying to sell weapons-grade uranium on the black market.
We meet a sad-sack Russian factory worker who smuggled small amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) out of a nuclear fuel factory each day, until he had 1.5 kg. No one noticed. He got caught by chance when he tried to sell it through a friend who was dealing stolen car batteries. “I just needed a new refrigerator and a new gas stove,” he sighs. “My salary couldn’t keep up with inflation.” Another Russian, a former mechanic named Oleg Khinsagov, got nabbed trying to sell 100 g of HEU to Muslim terrorists. Interviewed in jail, he explains he had an expensive taste in sports cars.
Going beyond talking heads, Countdown to Zero casts a mesmerizing spell with slick graphics and macabre archival footage of bomb blasts, arcane launch drills and missile misfires. We learn that a hunk of HEU the size of a grapefruit is all it would take to obliterate Manhattan. Animation shows how it could be slipped into a lead pipe, buried in a bin of kitty litter, and be undetectable in a cargo container. Cut to a freighter stacked with thousands of containers. Then to an aerial view of container ships dotting the ocean as far as the eye can see. Terrorists intent on destroying Manhattan, we are told, won’t even have to get the bomb past port monitoring scanners. It could be detonated in the port.
Countdown to Zero takes its mantra from a landmark speech by John F. Kennedy: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” With 23,000 nuclear warheads currently in existence, Kennedy’s prophecy still haunts us.
Director Lucy Walker, who won’t reveal her age, is too young to have lived through the early ’60s epoch of fallout shelters and school air-raid drills. But she remembers being spooked by nuclear fears as a teenager in London in the 1980s, during the last spasms of the Cold War. “I was very conscious of it as a kid, that possibility of Armageddon,” she told Maclean’s. “What’s extraordinary is that it’s more dangerous today by any measure. We have the Pakistan arsenal and the proximity of al-Qaeda. We have Iran representing a tipping point. And the Russian and U.S. missiles are still pointed at each other. The U.S. has [2,500] on alert, poised to go. And their technology looks pretty antiquated—dusty green coily wires. It doesn’t look foolproof. So there’s this litany of threats. Each one is very small, but they add up.”
Bruce Blair, now president of the World Security Institute, spent three years in a Montana bunker as a launch officer for Minuteman missiles. “The posture between the United States and Russia is exactly the same as it was during the Cold War,” he says in the film. “If the orders went down right now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would take about two minutes to launch all of the U.S. nuclear ballistic missiles out of their tubes in the Midwest.” And the danger of an accidental or misguided launch remains, he adds. “From the level of president on down, there are human weaknesses, technical problems, deficiencies, and vulnerabilities.”
The film documents half a dozen nuclear “near misses.” In 1995, the U.S. launched a missile from Norway to study the northern lights, and the warning to Moscow went astray. When Russian radar picked up the rocket’s four stages, they were interpreted as missiles from a U.S. submarine. For the first time ever, Moscow opened up the nuclear “football.” President Boris Yeltsin was told he had five minutes to retaliate. “Fortunately Yeltsin wasn’t drunk and he didn’t believe what they were telling him,” says Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund peace foundation. Had Yeltsin played it by the book, he would have launched an all-out nuclear attack on the U.S. The film also documents a string of false alarms that brought the U.S. to the brink of attack, from a flock of geese to a bum computer chip.
But the Dr. Strangelove scenario of a Third World War shooting match is now less worrisome than the spectre of a single terrorist strike. “It would plunge the world into this fear of not knowing what’s coming next,” Mowatt-Larsson told Maclean’s. “That’s what 9/11 did—the casualty numbers don’t really express what changed in the world.” Terrorism is psychological, he adds. “It’s the idea that a group can take control of events. They can’t win militarily. Even in the worst case scenario, if they destroy a metropolitan area, a country of hundreds of millions will survive those impacts. I’m not saying it’s acceptable. But how will it change our civil liberties and the kind of world we live in?”
Valerie Plame Wilson, Mowatt-Wilson’s ex-CIA colleague, predicts that such a terrorist strike is inevitable unless nuclear weapons are eliminated entirely—that’s what the “zero” in Countdown to Zero refers to. And the documentary ends on a positive note, urging viewers to join the Global Zero campaign. Whether the film can serve as a tipping point, the way An Inconvenient Truth did with global warming, remains to be seen. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has given it two thumbs up. President Barack Obama hasn’t blurbed it yet, but at his nuclear proliferation conference last April, “I swear he was quoting from the movie,” says Walker. Meanwhile, Wilson has been mining her CIA experience as a Hollywood consultant on spy dramas like Salt and TV’s Covert Affairs. She’s also just polished off a novel about a brainy female CIA agent specializing in nuclear counter-proliferation. The title? Blowback.