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Operation Mighty Derringer And the Justification for a Nuclear Drill

June 4, 2012

Twenty square blocks of downtown Indianapolis are destroyed in the Mighty Derringer Exercise

A terrorist organization led by a man named “Gooch” has planted two improvised nuclear devices—one in a foreign country and one in the city of Indianapolis. While the device outside the US has been secured, the one located in Indianapolis has exploded, decimating twenty square blocks downtown. This nightmare scenario was the premise for the nuclear terror response exercise that occurred in 1986—an exercise called Mighty Derringer.

A recently posted National Security Archive electronic briefing book (EBB) entitled Mighty Derringer: U.S. Nuclear Terrorism Exercise Leaves Indianapolis in “Ruins” details the exercise that took place. This EBB, written by Archive fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson, contains sixty-nine different documents on the exercise, preparations for the exercise, criticisms of the exercise, and background information pertaining to the exercise.

All of the documents reveal new information regarding the exercise. The most interesting document that I read was an interagency intelligence memorandum on the necessity of the exercise—The Likelihood of the Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons by Foreign Terrorist Groups for Use Against the United States. This previously-secret CIA document addressed whether or not there were enough incentives at the time for terrorists to attempt to acquire nuclear devices.

The memorandum began by listing some constraints that terrorists face when deciding to pursue a nuclear weapon. First, they do not want to alienate their supporters by creating too much violence. Terrorist organizations want to maintain a balance of violence, gathering support from the domestic population while achieving their goals. According to the memorandum, if terrorist groups were to acquire nuclear weapons, they would most likely just use it as a bargaining chip and for publicity. Second, terrorists realize that the acquisition and use of a nuclear weapon might unite the international community against them. And finally, terrorists tend to look for “the greatest quick result for the least investment”—a nuclear weapon would be too much of an investment.

Another topic that the memorandum touched upon was whether or not terrorists would go after nuclear material or the weapons themselves, since the nuclear material itself is not as tightly guarded as the fully developed weapons. This document, however, maintained that while the individual steps of acquiring the nuclear material and creating a bomb were within reach of certain terrorist groups, the complexity would prove to be a great enough disincentive for the terrorists to not create one. After all, the memo explained, terrorists were interested in quick and easy results, and time spent on the bomb would be time detracted from other terrorist activities. Yet, the document never lost sight of the worst-case scenario, maintaining that the creation of a nuclear bomb is highly unlikely but not impossible.

Furthermore, while this intelligence memorandum laid out some reasons why terrorists would not attempt to gain nuclear weapons, it did state that there has been an influx in terrorist attacks, both in scale and efficiency. The document warned that if the pattern continued, terrorists might begin to crave the bomb.

Another CIA document, The Likelihood of Nuclear Acts by Terrorist Groups, gave estimates on the likelihood of nuclear terrorism. However, this intelligence estimate stated that the changes in trends of operational terrorist capabilities and practices did not raise the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.

One point of agreement between the two documents was that if there was an instance of nuclear terrorism, it would most likely be from a different type of terrorist group. The intelligence estimate described the likely nuclear terror suspect as “a kind of terrorist not subject to current inhibitions,” while the earlier memorandum stated that some smaller, more radical groups do not have any internally generated limits to levels of violence.”

Was the Mighty Derringer exercise a wholly unnecessary one? Although the documents concluded that nuclear terrorist attacks on the US homeland were unlikely, they were created too late to make much of an impact on the exercise—the CIA memorandum was created months after the planning of the exercise began and a few weeks before the exercise started, while the intelligence estimate was created several months after the exercise ended. However, my guess is that the agencies already knew that nuclear terrorist attacks were highly unlikely. For them, the worst-case scenario was bad enough to warrant the Mighty Derringer exercise.

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