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WASHINGTON — Long before the war against Iraq and its now-disputed weapons of mass destruction, the world's superpowers were waging a successful campaign to draw down the planet's nuclear, biological and chemical arsenals.

Weapons terms

Weapons of mass destruction have a vocabulary all their own. Some common terms:

WMD: Stands for weapons of mass destruction, which include biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Chemical weapons: These cause death or injury either by burning and blistering the skin and lungs or by attacking the nervous system. Some of the most common include the nerve agents VX and GB, and the blister agent mustard gas.

Biological weapons: These use microbes or proteins to kill. They include Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, the smallpox virus and the naturally occurring vegetable protein ricin.

Nuclear weapons: There are two types: atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs. Nuclear weapons kill people near the blast by vaporizing tissue with searing heat. The shock wave created in the explosion can destroy buildings and kill people several miles away. Bombs can also kill people miles away with radiation, which can take days.

Atomic bombs: Bombs like the ones dropped in Japan in 1945 split the nuclei of heavy elements — uranium and plutonium — to release energy through a process called fission, which means division. The uranium and plutonium used must be isotopes, naturally or artificially altered forms of an element that can sometimes be highly volatile.

Hydrogen bombs: Bombs like the ones tested in the Pacific Ocean during the Cold War fuse, or bind, the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes to release energy much like the sun releases energy by fusing helium. Hydrogen bombs yield explosions thousands of times more powerful than fission bombs, and require atomic bombs as triggers to initiate the fusion. This makes them far more complex to make than atom bombs.

Nations with nuclear weapons: The United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, China and Israel have nuclear weapons. Israel is strongly believed to have an arsenal of close to 200 warheads, but it will not admit or deny that it has them. North Korea claims it has nuclear weapons, but that has not been verified.

Over the past 12 years, the United States and Russia, which control more than 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, have defused some 7,000 nuclear warheads, decommissioned 1,400 ballistic missiles, destroyed 180 tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, and re-employed 50,000 weapons scientists in peaceful work.

The former adversaries also are eliminating their chemical and biological weapons. As a result, human beings have far fewer WMD now than during the Cold War.

Why then would CIA Director George Tenet come to Capitol Hill and deliver one of the most unnerving threat briefings in recent years based largely on the dangers Americans face from WMD?

Because numbers don't tell the story.

The problem isn't raw proliferation but, rather, the spread of existing technologies and loosely guarded arsenals.

A Gannett News Service analysis of CIA and military intelligence reports and interviews with dozens of experts, military commanders and diplomats bears out the details of Tenet's broad-brush assessment.

Tenet's conclusions are based largely on undisputed intelligence, unlike the information on Iraq's weapons program that has been questioned.

Tenet's assessment comes from the United Nations, eyewitness accounts and consensus. In some cases, intelligence about weapons of mass destruction is backed by admissions from nations developing the weapons — such as North Korea — that borders on braggadocio.

The evidence all points to the very real danger that weapons of mass destruction are spilling into some of the world's most dangerous places through black markets U.S. intelligence knows little about. Weapons filter through legal conduits where deadly technology can be broken down into equipment that appears legitimate, then transported and reassembled.

Production and procurement are rising fastest along fault lines of conflict and instability, often aggravated by religious zealotry.

Almost two dozen countries — as advanced as Russia and as poor as Cuba — make or harbor chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Many are either hostile to the United States, barely stable enough to control their arsenals or both.

Consider the chilling example of South Africa, which amassed huge amounts of biological and chemical weapons to use against its black population during the 1970s. The weapons programs were shut down, but many of the weapons and scientists remain unaccounted for. Last year, one of the government's chief scientists, Daan Goosen, flew to the United States peddling a genetically engineered bioweapon smuggled into the country in a toothpaste tube.

Anecdotal evidence like that and a body of electronic and human intelligence has produced near-consensus among experts that the United States at some point will be the target of a terrorist attack involving chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

“It's going to happen at some point, and then you're going to have a lot of people saying, 'I'm surprised it didn't happen before,' ” said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace.

The lure of WMD

Most worrisome, according to CIA reports, is the burgeoning desire for nuclear weapons among small countries, confronting the world with the likelihood of new regional arms races.

Over the past year, North Korea, Iran and Libya all have tried to obtain equipment to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials. This sends tremors of instability worldwide as additional countries may conclude they have no option but to seek nuclear, chemical or biological weapons as a deterrent.

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Chemical and biological weapons are already commonplace in the Middle East, where they are viewed as the best available defense against Israel's formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Israel refuses to confirm or deny having nuclear weapons, but U.S. intelligence sources believe the country has close to 200 warheads.

Syria and Iran, which support Hezbollah and other groups, both have chemical arsenals. Highly reliable intelligence indicates Iran is seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a rapidly advancing nuclear energy program it does not intend to give up. Iran's foreign minister recently said his country intends to push ahead with a nuclear program and will not submit to the aggressive international inspections that the United States and European allies have requested.

“The example of new nuclear states that seem able to deter threats from more powerful countries simply by brandishing nuclear weaponry will resonate deeply among other countries eager to enter the nuclear weapons club,” Tenet said.

Admission into the WMD club is rapidly becoming easier.

The black market for WMD technology is thriving, and U.S. intelligence in this netherworld is murky at best. A paucity of spies in Arab countries has left U.S. intelligence agencies desperate for the kind of human information necessary to at least keep track of stealthy weapons shipments.

“There's no evidence we understand how these transnational networks function,” said Carnegie's Cirincione.

In the mid-1990s, unknown to U.S. intelligence at the time, Pakistani scientists provided North Korea access to a network of companies selling nuclear equipment. In return, Pakistan was sold Korean-made Nodong missiles, many of which are now aimed at India, an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Further complicating the problem are dual-use technologies, which can be used to make either weapons or legitimate products such as agricultural chemicals. Taiwan recently seized 158 barrels of phosphorus pentasulfide, which can be used to make pesticides and nerve gas, from a North Korean freighter.

“The globalization of R&D intensive technologies is according smaller countries, groups and individuals access to capabilities previously limited to major powers,” said Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Loose nukes

Nowhere is Jacoby's assessment more evident now than in Iran.

The Islamic state that allegedly funds terrorists and sits atop massive oil reserves is building the infrastructure for what it claims is a civilian nuclear energy program.

The problem is a uranium enrichment facility that will be able to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. Tehran insists the fuel is for its energy reactors. But Russia has agreed to supply all of Iran's fuel, so why the need to make it domestically? Because that would enable Iran to produce weapons without any help.

Iran has said it doesn't want to be reliant on a foreign source of atomic fuel, but U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials are convinced this is an attempt to make bomb-grade material.

“We're looking very closely to see whether or not Iran is committed to creating an indigenous fuel cycle so that they would not need outside help,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said.

Just a Middle Eastern problem? Not if Israel is drawn in.

Israel considers a nuclear Iran an immediate threat and might respond as it did to the prospect of a nuclear Iraq in 1981, when it demolished a reactor at Osirak in a pre-emptive air strike. Such a strike against Iran now likely would send the entire region reeling.

That said, an Iranian nuclear weapons program constructed under the guise of a civilian power program would establish a dangerous model for other countries.

In Pakistan, if President Pervez Musharraf's tenuous hold on power collapses, 50 to 80 nuclear warheads could fall into the hands of Islamic radicals with possible links to al-Qaida.

Perhaps the greatest threat comes from one of the United States' closest allies in the war on terrorism, Russia.

More than half of Russia's nuclear material — and many of its chemical and biological weapons labs — is inadequately protected, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Russian authorities say they have broken up hundreds of nuclear smuggling plots.

Also, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is desperate for cash and has shown he will peddle advanced weapons, heroin and counterfeit currency to raise it. Would he go so far as to sell technology or weapons from his fledgling nuclear program?

“North Korea has sold drugs and missiles,” said Ambassador John Holzman, foreign policy adviser to the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. “So, yes, there is a real concern Kim would pass along fissile material.”

War or diplomacy

Combating such a diffuse threat has become the most daunting and pressing priority for the Bush administration's foreign policy.

The options are war, diplomacy or policing the most dangerous players, and the Bush administration is trying all three.

Thus far, the administration has chosen diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, both of which have been trying to use talks to buy time.

Interdiction has been easy to elude.

When U.S. forces stopped a North Korean freighter with Scud missiles bound for Arab ports, they had to let the vessel go because the cargo was legal. Those missiles could easily be tipped with chemical or biological weapons.

The use of pre-emptive war to eliminate a WMD threat in Iraq might well turn out to be a failure.

As U.S. forces look in vain for chemical and biological weapons, the inspectors who found them in Iraq in the 1990s fear the war might actually have flushed the weapons out of Iraq and into the very hands the Bush administration was hoping to deny.

“It may be a sad irony that what started out as an attempt to stop the spread of WMD actually caused it to spread,” said Jonathan Tucker, a biological weapons inspector in Iraq in the mid-1990s.