What better occasion than Christmas to ponder nuclear terrorism?

According to a Dec. 19 story by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt in the New York Times, the forthcoming Nuclear Posture review will be just as much about preventing nuclear terrorism as about nuclear deterrence.

It’s a good idea, and — in hindsight — a perfectly natural one after the last decade’s worth of discussions of the role of “non-state actors.” But there’s a difficulty in the mismatch between counterterrorism and the notions that ordinarily fall under the rubric of nuclear posture: weapons systems, platforms, bases, stockpiles, alert rates, infrastructure, and so forth. So, the Times reports, the idea will translate to more support for intelligence and forensics.

Oddly, though, the story doesn’t mention the one “core” area of nuclear posture that does relate directly to the threat of terrorism, and always has: the security of U.S. nuclear weapons.

To get a sense of how much a chestnut this is — there’s the holiday, again! — look no further than the latest release in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, Documents on Global Issues, 1973–1976. Steven Aftergood of FAS Secrecy News helpfully points out the most interesting item — at least for readers of this blog — an Intelligence Community report from 1976 on the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The authors concluded that terrorist groups were unlikely to try to acquire nuclear weapons in the near future, mainly for reasons that no longer apply in 2009 — most importantly, the “internally generated limits to the level of violence they are willing to inflict.” Apparently for the same reason, the authors saw the residual nuclear terrorist threat mainly through the lens of Thunderball-type blackmail scenarios, a view that most terrorism experts probably don’t share today:

By the nature of terrorist behavior patterns, we believe that some form of indirect use of nuclear explosives is more probable than direct use. Specifically, a major motivation for terrorist seizure of a nuclear weapon would be to acquire a credible threat for blackmail and/or publicity. It is judged that most terrorist groups attempting to seize a weapon would do so without the specific intention of detonating it. In an extreme situation, however, some might attempt a detonation.

But never mind. Just where would the terrorists get their nefarious device, assuming they were to try to seize a complete weapon? After consulting a playbook found in the stateroom of the Disco Volante, why, the answer is “NATO,” of course:

If an attempt at seizure of a weapon was made, the one targeted would probably be a US weapon deployed abroad…. This is true not only because of the wide deployment of such weapons but, more importantly, because of the great political importance assigned by terrorists to targets involving the US presence abroad…. We note that all US weapons deployed abroad have control devices of varying degrees of sophistication that are designed to insure weapon safety or to preclude unauthorized use and that would require time and effort to overcome.

PALs are your friends, but not a panacea. And as Bob van der Zwaan and Tom Sauer recently reminded us in the Bulletin, security at some NATO facilities that store nuclear weapons isn’t up to snuff.

The precise implications of this concern for a Nuclear Posture Review focused on preventing nuclear terrorism are left as an exercise for the reader.

In the meantime, happy holidays! Here’s a little something for your enjoyment.