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Alexander Lebed and Suitcase Nukes

By Carey Sublette

Last changed 18 May 2002

For discussion of the technical feasibility of Lebed's suitcase bombs see Are Suitcase Bombs Possible?.

See The Death of Alexander Lebed.

The Claim

On 7 September 1997, the CBS newsmagazine Sixty Minutes broadcast an alarming story in which former Russian National Security Adviser Aleksandr Lebed claimed that the Russian military had lost track of more than 100 suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, any one of which could kill up to 100,000 people.

"I'm saying that more than a hundred weapons out of the supposed number of 250 are not under the control of the armed forces of Russia," Lebed said in the interview. "I don't know their location. I don't know whether they have been destroyed or whether they are stored or whether they've been sold or stolen, I don't know."

Asked if it were possible that the authorities did know where all the weapons were and simply did not want to tell Lebed, he said, "No."

During May 1997 Lebed said at a private briefing to a delegation of U.S. congressmen that he believed 84 of the one-kiloton bombs were unaccounted for. In the interview with 60 Minutes, conducted in late August, Lebed said he now believed the figure to be more than 100.

Lebed stated that these devices were made to look like suitcases, and could be detonated by one person within half an hour. According to Lebed, he learned of the existence of these weapons developed for special operations only a few years before. While national security adviser to Yeltsin he commissioned a study to report on the whereabouts of these devices. Lebed was fired as national security adviser 17 October 1996 amid intense political jostling while President Boris Yeltsin was awaiting heart surgery. He admits that he had only preliminary results of his investigation at that time, and these results are the basis of his subsequent claims.

The bombs, measuring 60 x 40 x 20 centimeters (24 x 16 x 8 inches), had been distributed among special Soviet military intelligence units belonging to the GRU, Lebed said.

The Reaction

The official response of the US government was given by State Department spokesman James Foley on 5 September (based on CBS' pre-release of the interview transcript).

The government of Russia has assured (us) that it retains adequate command and control of its nuclear arsenal and that appropriate physical security arrangements exist for these weapons and facilities.

We have been assured by the Russian authorities that there is no cause for concern. We believe the assurances we have received,

Foley said.

Russia's atomic energy ministry further rejected Lebed's claims on 10 September.

"We don't know what General Lebed is talking about. No such weapons exist," a ministry spokesman told AFP. "Perhaps he meant old Soviet nuclear artillery shells, which are all being safely guarded."

Interfax news agency quoted a ministry statement as saying Russia's nuclear security system "keeps nuclear warheads under tight control and makes any unauthorized transportation of them impossible."

Lebed has been warning of poor security over nuclear weapons in Russia since at least late 1996, when he met with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana (28 November 1996). At the time Lebed had called controls over nuclear material in the former Soviet Union "unsatisfactory," making Russia vulnerable at nuclear plants and facilities. Lugar and Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn sponsored a law in 1991 that provides American technical aid to Russia to eliminate nuclear warheads made redundant by arms control pacts, and account for and control nuclear material.

Questions about Lebed's credibility were immediately raised. Abruptly cast out of power, presumably leaving him with grudges, he was likely to be a leading contender in the next presidential election. In elections in June 1996 he placed third, behind Yeltsin.

State Department spokesman Foley said Lebed's allegations carried "not a lot of credibility."

He said US officials have often raised the matter of nuclear security with their Russian counterparts and that "we've been assured by the Russian authorities that there's no cause for concern."

Another stream of criticism about the Sixty Minutes report was directed at the producers of the story. A good account of this was given (perhaps surprisingly) in the Sept. 27 - October 3 issue of TV Guide (pg. 49). The situation was that the producer of the story, Leslie Cockburn, was currently promoting a book she co-wrote with her husband Andrew on the dangers of nuclear terrorism called One Point Safe. In addition the Cockburns were co-producers of a just released, Dreamworks SKG film The Peacemaker. The star commentator of the Sixty Minutes report, ex-National Security Council staffer Jessica Stern, was a paid consultant to The Peacemaker, and allegedly was the model for the character played by Nicole Kidman. Stern was also working on her own book on nuclear terrorism.

While the interlocking self-interests involving the various participants in the preparation of the Sixty Minutes report certainly do not prove any disingenuousness on the part of any of them, it did nothing to bolster the credibility of the claims.

Subsequent Reports

Lebed later testified before the Congressional Military Research and Development Subcommittee at a hearing on 1 October 1997 where he stated that the bombs were made to look like suitcases and could be detonated by one person with less than 30 minutes preparation. Lebed's claim that such devices had been manufactured were corroborated on 3 October by testimony from Russian scientist Alexei Yablokov, former environmental advisor to President Yeltsin while serving on the Russian National Security Council (see www.house.gov/curtweldon/pr_100397.htm). According to the press release from Rep. Curt Weldon's office (R-Pa):

Yablokov stated that he personally knows individuals who produced these suitcase-size nuclear devices under orders from the KGB in the 1970s specifically for terrorist purposes. As a result of their being produced for the KGB, Yablokov has stated that they may not have been taken into account in the Soviet general nuclear arsenal and may not be under the control of the Russian Defense Ministry.
For Yablokov's comments on suitcase nukes and Lebed given on WGBH/Frontline see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/russia/suitcase/comments.html.

Weldon has further said that the Russian government eventually acknowledged that such weapons had been produced.

In a later floor speech (Security Issues Relating to Russia, 28 October 1999) Weldon asserted that a total of 132 devices had been built with yields from 1 to 10 kilotons, and that 48 were unaccounted for.

For discussion of the technical feasibility of Lebed's suitcase bombs see Are Suitcase Bombs Possible?.

The Burton-Lunev Hearing

A second chapter in the Soviet suitcase bomb affair began with a Congressional hearing on Russian espionage held by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) on 24 January 2000 in Washington, DC. Soviet ex-colonel and GRU operative Stanislav Lunev was the star witness at the sparsely attended Military Research and Development Subcommittee hearing, chaired by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Penn.).

Featured at the hearing was a mock-up of a notional briefcase bomb. In his opening comments Weldon described this exhibit:

The model is based on unclassified data on the components in an atomic artillery shell, to see if such a system could be reassembled in a suitcase. Indeed, as it turns out, the physics package, neutron generators, batteries, arming mechanism and other essentials of a small atomic weapon can fit, just barely, in an attache case. The result is a plutonium-fueled gun-type atomic weapon having a yield of one-to-ten kilotons, the same yield range attributed by General Lebed to the Russian "nuclear suitcase" weapon.

Presumably Weldon's reference to it being "gun-type" refers to it being fired from a gun, not its assembly method.

Mock-up of a hypothetical "suitcase" nuclear bomb, made by Congressional
staffer Peter Pry. It is basically a 105 mm artillery shell device packaged in a
large briefcase.

The key point of the hearing was Lunev's additional allegations that nuclear suitcase bombs may have been pre-positioned in NATO countries during the Cold War, in a manner similar to the way other espionage resources including conventional explosives were known to have been cached.

Weldon summarized Lunev's claims:

Lunev defected to the United States in 1992 after working for more than a decade in the U.S. as a GRU operative. Lunev participated in a GRU program collecting information on the President and senior U.S. political and military leaders so they may be targeted for assassination in the event of war. According to Lunev, small man-portable nuclear weapons "that could be disguised to look like a suitcase" would be employed in a decapitating Russian attack against U.S. leaders and key communications and military facilities. Colonel Lunev claimed that the Russian military and intelligence services still regard the United States as the enemy and consider war with the U.S. as "inevitable."

Colonel Lunev stated that man-portable nuclear weapons may already be located in the United States. Lunev's claim is based on his understanding of GRU doctrine for employing these weapons, which calls for pre-positioning nuclear weapons in the United States during peacetime, before a crisis or war makes penetration of the U.S. more difficult. Lunev testified that he actively supported the GRU program to pre-position man-portable nuclear weapons in the United States by identifying in the U.S. potential hiding places where such weapons could be stored and concealed until needed. Lunev was specially trained to disguise and camouflage such weapons.

One account of the hearing ran as follows:

Much of Lunev's testimony was a repeat of allegations made in his 1998 book in which he said Russia's post-Cold War leaders still see the United States as the enemy.

Lunev, who is in the federal witness protection program, said he masqueraded as a reporter for the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass for three years during which he scouted "drop sites" for weapons caches in the U.S. But he said he has no idea if they were ever planted.

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., suggested in November that the spy caches might include suitcase-sized nuclear weapons that can produce a 10-kiloton blast.

Weldon, who also testified Monday, stood at one point, holding up a large briefcase and announced: "I have a small atomic demolition device I'd like to bring up to you."

Burton quickly reassured the audience that it was "a mockup" created by the CIA.

Russian officials have confirmed their arsenal includes such devices, but investigators have said there is no evidence they are part of the purported hidden stockpiles.

"Ex-Spy Testifies in Hearing", Linda Deutsch, AP Special Correspondent, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2000; 3:59 a.m. EST

This hearing has most recently reached public attention when it was recounted in the October 2, 2001 edition of the National Enquirer, page 16.

Compiled from the House of Representatives on-line archive, news service releases, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Sixty Minutes program, and (yes) TV Guide and the National Enquirer!