How a handful of pacifists and nuns exposed the vulnerability of America’s nuclear-weapons sites.
BY ERIC SCHLOSSER The New Yorker March 9, 2015 Issue
CREDIT ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALEX WILLIAMSON; LEFT TO RIGHT: GETTY (DOROTHY DAY); BETTMAN / CORBIS (PHILIP BERRIGAN AND PROTEST MARCH)
The Y-12 National Security Complex sits in a narrow valley, surrounded by wooded hills, in the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Y-12 and Oak Ridge were built secretly, within about two years, as part of the Manhattan Project, and their existence wasn’t publicly acknowledged until the end of the Second World War. By then, the secret city had a population of seventy-five thousand. Few of its residents had been allowed to know what was being done at the military site, which included one of the largest buildings in the world. Y-12 processed the uranium used in Little Boy, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Seven decades later, Y-12 is the only industrial complex in the United States devoted to the fabrication and storage of weapons-grade uranium. Every nuclear warhead and bomb in the American arsenal contains uranium from Y-12.
Strict security measures have been adopted at the site to prevent the theft of its special nuclear materials. Y-12 has some five hundred security officers authorized to use lethal force within its Protected Area, five BearCat armored vehicles, Gatling guns that can fire up to fifty rounds per second and shoot down aircraft, video cameras, motion detectors, four perimeter fences, and rows of dragon’s teeth—low, pyramid-shaped blocks of concrete that can rip the axles off approaching vehicles and bring them to a dead stop. The management of Y-12 calls the place “the Fort Knox of Uranium.”
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After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility was built, at a cost of more than half a billion dollars, to safeguard Y-12’s uranium. Situated at the north end of the Protected Area, the storage facility is an imposing white structure, longer than a football field, with guard towers at all four corners. If the tops of the towers were crenellated, the building would look like an immense, windowless White Castle. Some nine hundred thousand pounds of weapons-grade uranium are stored inside it. Little Boy—a crude and highly inefficient atomic bomb, designed in the early nineteen-forties with slide rules—contained a hundred and forty-one pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and almost ninety-nine per cent of it harmlessly blew apart as the bomb detonated. Just a couple of pounds underwent nuclear fission—the splitting of atoms—above Hiroshima. And, when that happened, two-thirds of the buildings in the city were destroyed and perhaps eighty thousand civilians were killed. The amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a terrorist bomb with a similar explosive force could fit inside a small gym bag.
At about half past two in the morning on July 28, 2012, three people were dropped off at the Scarboro Church of Christ, a modest brick building with a single white spire in an African-American neighborhood of Oak Ridge. They walked through the church parking lot to a nearby dirt path, followed the path through a stand of trees, reached a meadow, and turned left. Up ahead, in the darkness, they could see the silhouette of a steep hill called Pine Ridge. On the other side of the hill was Y-12. All three had spent time in federal prison. They belonged to a loosely organized group whose members have been prosecuted by the Justice Department for violent crimes, sabotage, and threatening the national security. The three hoped to reach the uranium-storage facility before sunrise, having carefully planned the intrusion for more than a year. But they had no desire to steal anything or to make a bomb. They wanted to “heal” and “transform” the building with their own blood; to mark it as a symbol of evil, empire, and war; to protest against its role in maintaining America’s nuclear arsenal. Gregory Boertje-Obed was a Christian pacifist in his late fifties who painted houses for a living and worked with the homeless in Duluth, Minnesota. Michael Walli was a Catholic layman in his early sixties, inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi to live humbly and serve the poor. Megan Rice was an eighty-two-year-old nun, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Carrying flashlights and backpacks, they headed toward the hill.
Not so long ago, the threat of nuclear terrorism seemed imminent. In the fall of 2001, during an interview with a Pakistani journalist, Osama bin Laden claimed to possess nuclear weapons, and President George W. Bush’s Administration invoked the prospect of mushroom clouds rising above American cities to justify its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We judge that there is a high probability that Al Qaeda will attempt an attack using a CBRN”—chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear—“weapon within the next two years,” John Negroponte, Bush’s Ambassador to the United Nations, informed the Security Council in April, 2003. “There is little doubt that Al Qaeda intends to and can detonate a weapon of mass destruction on U.S. soil,” members of a bipartisan commission on national security wrote the following year.
More than a decade later, a nuclear-weapons catastrophe has not yet occurred. The threat has been dismissed as “alarmist” by some academics and no longer inspires much public concern. But since the early nineteen-eighties a small group of peace activists, devout supporters of the Plowshares movement, have been trying to break into nuclear-weapons sites throughout the United States. They’ve almost always succeeded. Plowshares actions have not only revealed serious vulnerabilities in the security of America’s nuclear enterprise; they’ve also shed light on the inherent risks faced by every nation that possesses weapons of mass destruction. Having these weapons creates endless opportunities for theft or misuse. At the moment, the probability of terrorists staging a successful nuclear attack may be low, but the consequences would be unimaginably high. And, as Plowshares activists have demonstrated again and again, improbable things happen all the time.
The origins of the Plowshares movement can be traced to the work of Dorothy Day. At the age of eighteen, Day dropped out of college in Illinois and moved to New York City. She was an aspiring writer, a free spirit drawn to the radical politics and bohemia of Greenwich Village in 1916. She soon had a job as a reporter with The Call, a socialist newspaper, covering protest marches, strikes, and the birth-control movement. Her family was conservative and Episcopalian, but Day rejected all the trappings of middle-class respectability. She lived in a communal apartment, took lovers, spent time with anarchists and Communists, with John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, and John Reed.
By the time Day was twenty-four, she’d been arrested outside the White House while demanding the vote for women and sent to jail for a month; worked as an assistant managing editor at The Masses, a left-wing monthly that was shut down after opposing the draft and the First World War; got arrested during the raid of an Industrial Workers of the World* flophouse and mistakenly been charged with prostitution; worked as a library clerk, a restaurant cashier, an artist’s model, a nurse; had an illegal abortion; got married and sought a divorce; moved to Europe and lived on the island of Capri for six months; interviewed Leon Trotsky; and decided to write a novel. After selling the film rights to her first book, she bought a beach house on Staten Island and had a daughter with a common-law husband. And then Dorothy Day did something so radical that few of her radical friends could comprehend it. She became a Catholic. She took a vow of poverty. And she devoted the rest of her life to the practice of a new kind of American Catholicism—one that was uncompromising in its service to the homeless, its opposition to state power, its resistance to all forms of violence and war.
Dorothy Day sought to emulate Jesus and live the Gospel, embracing a Christianity true to its historical roots. She regarded the Sermon on the Mount as her manifesto: Blessed are the meek and the peacemakers. Like Jesus, she’d decided to live with “the rejected ones, the scorned ones,” convinced, she told the author Robert Coles, that “the more luxurious our lives, the further we are from Him.” In 1933, she founded the Catholic Worker, a monthly newspaper that sold for a penny. It published the sort of advocacy journalism that Day had written for years, now imbued with a Biblical perspective. No longer content simply to advocate on behalf of the dispossessed, Day opened a “house of hospitality” on Charles Street, in the West Village. It fed and housed the poor, as well as Day and fellow Catholic Workers. About thirty hospitality houses soon opened nationwide, along with rural communes that embodied the growing movement’s ideal of decentralized power and self-sufficiency. Day had become an anarchist—but preferred the term libertarian, not wanting to offend. She opposed most of the New Deal, believed in changing the world through “direct action,” and never voted in an election.
When the United States entered the Second World War, Dorothy Day urged young men to oppose the war and avoid the draft. Day had little use for traditional Catholic teachings about the morality of armed conflict. She thought there was no such thing as a “just war.” A true Christian should be willing to shed one’s own blood before taking the life of another human being. Her pacifism alienated many close friends and supporters. At a time when Nazi Germany was massacring civilians, turning the other cheek seemed dangerous, immoral, and ludicrous. But Day would not budge. The Catholic Worker lost three-quarters of its circulation during the war, and more than half of the hospitality houses closed.
By the late nineteen-forties, America’s growing anxiety about nuclear weapons revived interest in Day’s pacifism. She had condemned the use of atomic bombs against Japan, calling it a “colossal slaughter of the innocents.” The possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union gave new urgency to a movement seeking to make war obsolete. Day admired Mahatma Gandhi and adopted his tactics of nonviolent resistance. In 1955, she refused to enter a fallout shelter during a civil-defense exercise in New York City, faced prosecution for breaking the law, pleaded guilty, and called the protest “an act of penance” for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her punishment was a suspended sentence. Over the next four years, Day was jailed three times for refusing to participate in the city’s annual air-raid drills. “BAN THE BOMB . . .God is our father, and all men are our brothers,” one of her handouts said. “We are willing to die for this belief.”
Members of the Catholic Worker movement were among the first Americans to protest the Vietnam War. On November 6, 1965, Day gave a speech at a rally in Union Square, urging young men to burn their draft cards and refuse to serve in Vietnam. The speech could barely be heard, as hecklers shouted at Day and called her “Moscow Mary.” The escalation of the war in Vietnam made Day’s form of nonviolent resistance seem increasingly quaint and irrelevant. Many of her young followers now thought that a stronger dose of direct action was necessary.
In the fall of 1967, Philip Berrigan, a priest who frequently wrote for the Catholic Worker, went to the Baltimore Custom House with three other protesters, walked into the draft board, pulled open file cabinets, and poured bottles of their blood over draft records. While awaiting the legal resolution of that case, he and his older brother, the poet Daniel Berrigan, who was also a Catholic priest, turned the level of nonviolent resistance up a few notches. On May 17, 1968, the Berrigans and seven other activists entered a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland. After a brief scuffle with two women clerks, the group grabbed hundreds of draft files from cabinets, carried them into a parking lot, and set them on fire with homemade napalm. Newspaper reporters and a television crew had been notified of the protest in advance. “We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men,” a handout given to reporters said, “but because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America.” The recipe for napalm—a mixture of gasoline and soap flakes—had been found in a Green Beret handbook.The actions of the Catonsville Nine elevated the Berrigan brothers to the pantheon of counterculture heroes, and their trial became an international media circus. Thousands of demonstrators marched through Baltimore to support the defendants, and hundreds of antiwar activists waited in line every morning for a seat in court. Philip Berrigan opposed the American-backed government of South Vietnam, and had even considered travelling there to fight alongside the Vietcong. Judge Roszel C. Thomsen allowed the Berrigans to discuss their motives on the witness stand, to tell the jury why the war in Vietnam was immoral, to explain why the foreign policy of the United States was illegal, not the burning of draft records. “We say: killing is disorder; life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize,” Daniel Berrigan said. He later adapted the court transcripts into a play, composed in free verse, that was widely performed.
Dorothy Day supported the Berrigans but felt uneasy about their form of direct action. It was one thing to burn your own draft card, quite another to burn someone else’s. In 1970, after being found guilty in the Catonsville Nine trial, the Berrigans strayed farther from her notions of nonviolent resistance by going on the run instead of reporting for prison. As a fugitive, Daniel arrived at Cornell University on a motorcycle, gave a speech before thousands of students, and left campus with his head hidden inside the head of a Bread and Puppet Theatre puppet. Philip went into hiding with help from Elizabeth McAlister, a nun whom he later married. The Berrigan brothers were soon captured and imprisoned. But their war with the government had not ended. While behind bars, Philip Berrigan was indicted, along with McAlister, for conspiring to blow up the steam tunnels beneath federal buildings in Washington, D.C.—and for plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s national-security adviser at the time. The case against Berrigan and McAlister ended in a mistrial.
When Philip Berrigan was released, in December, 1972, the national mood had changed. As the war in Vietnam wound down, so did the movement to oppose it. Once featured on the cover of Time, Berrigan found that his latest acts of resistance, such as depositing broken and bloody dolls on the White House lawn, attracted little media interest. Now excommunicated by the Church, Berrigan and McAlister helped to organize half a dozen “resistance communities” on the East Coast. Berrigan thought that “some of us would have to accept God’s Word as a handbook and try to embody it.” Only one of the communes—Jonah House, in inner-city Baltimore—lasted beyond the seventies. And it got off to a rough start. Determined to live outside the capitalist system, members of Jonah House often obtained food by dumpster diving and theft. Berrigan was arrested at a grocery store for shoplifting, McAlister at a Sears, Roebuck for trying to steal tools. Chastened and embarrassed by the arrests, Berrigan worked as a housepainter. He and McAlister eventually had three kids, dressing them in hand-me-downs, sending them to inner-city schools, bringing them to peace demonstrations. Berrigan also made the threat posed by nuclear weapons the focus of Jonah House’s activities.
The first Plowshares action occurred on September 9, 1980, when the Berrigan brothers, Father Carl Kabat, Sister Anne Montgomery, and four others walked into a nuclear-warhead plant operated by General Electric in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The activists had brought hammers, and when they found two missile nose cones designed to house nuclear warheads they set out to fulfill the Biblical injunction in Isaiah 2:4: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” When security officers arrived, the intruders stopped hammering the nose cones and didn’t resist arrest. Philip Berrigan emptied a vial of his blood on some nearby blueprints.The Plowshares Eight tried to use their trial to publicize the threat of nuclear weapons. But the crowds failed to materialize, and even the local religious community offered little help. Some of the defendants, housed at a Catholic women’s college during the first week of the trial, were forced to leave by outraged alumnae. All eight were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Although the first Plowshares had been a disappointment, a new template for direct action had been created—one that inspired more than a hundred similar break-ins.
Like American military operations, subsequent Plowshares actions were given names: Good News Plowshares, Prince of Peace Plowshares, Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares, Kairos Plowshares Two. During Trident Nein, in July, 1982, two nuns and five accomplices broke into the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard, in Groton, Connecticut. Four of them paddled by canoe to a Trident submarine, climbed on the sub, hammered its missile hatches, poured blood on it, and rechristened it the U.S.S. Auschwitz with spray paint. Philip Berrigan encouraged Plowshares supporters to use their own blood as part of the ritual, often carried in baby bottles, “to symbolize the death of innocent human beings.”
At about four in the morning on Thanksgiving Day in 1983, Liz McAlister took part in her first Plowshares. She and six other protesters sneaked into Griffiss Air Force Base, in Rome, New York. It was remarkably easy: they didn’t have to cut the barbed-wire fence; they just pulled the strands apart and climbed through. Someone who had spent time at the base—where the Strategic Air Command kept B-52 bombers on alert with nuclear weapons—told McAlister where to go. The activists opened the unlocked door of a hangar and said, “Hello, anybody home?” Nobody replied, so they walked in. They poured blood on the floor and on a B-52, pasted photographs of children onto the plane, hammered its bomb-bay doors, walked outside with an anti-nuclear banner, and awaited arrest. But nobody came to arrest them. After about half an hour, one of them picked up a phone in the hangar, called the base switchboard, and wished the operator a “Happy Thanksgiving.” Still nobody came. They wandered around outside for about an hour, singing songs and holding the banner, until security forces finally arrived.McAlister spent more than two years in prison for her role in the Griffiss Plowshares. It was a difficult period for her children; the youngest was still a toddler. Berrigan supported his wife wholeheartedly. Both were willing to risk their lives for their faith, and he later argued that the break-in was motivated by love “for all of the world’s children.” Imprisoned six hours by car from Jonah House, McAlister wrote letters to her children every day.
Other Plowshares followers received even harsher punishments for acts of nonviolent resistance. On November 12, 1984, Father Carl Kabat broke into an unmanned, unguarded Minuteman II intercontinental-ballistic-missile complex forty miles east of Kansas City. He was accompanied by his older brother, Father Paul Kabat; Helen Woodson, a mother of eleven children; and Larry Cloud-Morgan, a Native American activist and spiritual leader of the Ojibwa tribe. As part of an action called Silo Pruning Hooks, they cut the lock off the perimeter fence with a bolt cutter, drove a yellow van trailing an air compressor onto the Minuteman site, and removed their tools. Carl Kabat attached a jackhammer to the air compressor and started chipping away pieces of the concrete silo door, while the others attacked equipment at the site with sledgehammers and wire cutters. The air compressor and the jackhammer died after half an hour. When two Air Force security officers appeared, half an hour after that, they found the protesters kneeling on the silo door, singing, praying, and sharing bread. A banner draped over the fence said, “WHY DO YOU DO THIS EVIL THING?” The four activists were convicted in federal court. Larry Cloud-Morgan was sentenced to eight years in prison; Father Paul Kabat, to ten. Father Carl and Helen Woodson were given eighteen-year prison sentences.
Carl Kabat was released from prison after serving about seven years. He celebrated by breaking into the same Minuteman complex the following year, as part of an action called Good Friday Plowshares Missile Silo Witness. He was sentenced to six months in a halfway house—and broke into a Minuteman complex outside Grand Forks, North Dakota, two years later, on April Fool’s Day, wearing makeup, a wig, and a clown outfit. He was sentenced to prison for an additional five years. After gaining his freedom, having spent more than fifteen years in prison since his conviction as part of the original Plowshares Eight, Father Kabat broke into Minuteman complexes three more times, dressed as a clown. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” he explained, quoting St. Paul.The American anti-nuclear movement reached its peak during the early nineteen-eighties, with large demonstrations nationwide and a rally in Central Park that attracted almost a million people. But Plowshares activists played a marginal role in the new movement, which relied on mainstream tactics, like circulating petitions and seeking new legislation, not direct action. The “nuclear freeze” movement sought a halt to the arms race—not the abolition of nuclear weapons, the dismantling of a permanent war economy, world peace. Without much fanfare, Philip Berrigan kept getting arrested and going to prison. He still worked as a housepainter to pay bills. The Jesus whom he worshipped was “an outlaw,” “a non-violent revolutionary” who drove the money changers from the temple, challenged authority, and lived amid the poor. There was nothing meek or moderate about Him. Despite the end of the Cold War, the Plowshares actions continued, regardless of whether anyone noticed.
Jonah House now sits on the grounds of St. Peter’s Cemetery in Baltimore. The first burial at St. Peter’s occurred in 1851, but the cemetery was abandoned in the late nineteen-sixties. It soon disappeared from view, as trees, bushes, vines, and poison ivy grew over the graves. The Baltimore Archdiocese allowed members of Jonah House to live there for free starting in the late nineties. In return, they agreed to look after the cemetery. Most of its twenty-two acres have been cleared since then, at enormous effort, with some help from donkeys and goats. When I visited, last spring, the place felt bucolic—a well-tended stretch of green, surrounded by a tire-recycling plant, a National Guard depot, and a low-income housing project. The two little buildings occupied by Jonah House seemed peaceful and humble. Church services are held there every Sunday, the poor and the homeless are fed there every Tuesday, and the rest of the week is devoted to antiwar efforts, amid a landscape containing the remains of about fifteen thousand bodies.
At a table in the tidy kitchen of a house originally built for the cemetery caretaker, I had lunch with Liz McAlister, Sister Ardeth Platte, and Sister Carol Gilbert. Some of the food had been grown in their organic garden. All three women had short hair, and wore the kind of clothes usually seen on Plowshares activists: sneakers, bluejeans, and T-shirts bearing a political slogan. Sister Ardeth’s said, “NO WAR.” We talked about the history of the Plowshares movement, their involvement in direct action, the many places where they’d been jailed. Sister Carol, who’s sixty-seven, and Sister Ardeth, who’s seventy-eight, were both outraged and amused that their work on behalf of world peace had once landed them on a terrorist watch list. Their commitment to nonviolence was complete. Although deeply upset by the attacks on Christian communities in Syria and Iraq, they thought that any violent response—even in self-defense, even to halt the slaughter of women and children—would be wrong. They would rather die than have to kill. Like the other Plowshares activists I’ve encountered, there was nothing dour or severe about the two nuns and the former nun. They had an exuberant, often wry sense of humor. When asked how many times she’d been arrested, Liz McAlister, now seventy-five, replied, “Not enough.”
Although the inclusion of Sister Ardeth and Sister Carol on a terrorist watch list was ridiculed in the press and later rescinded, the organizational skills of the Plowshares movement would be the envy of groups hoping to commit spectacular acts of terror on American soil. Plowshares actions aren’t improvised or spontaneous; they’re planned as much as a year in advance. The first step, according to one veteran, involves “wearing away of the ego, disarming the self, forming community, doing an in-depth analysis of our times.” The volunteers pray together, read the Bible together, learn to trust one another without hesitation. They must be willing to risk their lives and sacrifice their freedom together. No one else can be harmed or endangered by the action—a fundamental rule. And everyone who plays a supporting role in it, often recruited from the more than a hundred and fifty Catholic Worker houses across the country, must be protected from arrest and conspiracy charges.Once a strong bond has been forged among the group, a target is selected and then “scoped” for months. While scoping it, Plowshares members observe the security at a site and also may test it, repeatedly. In preparation for one action, they secretly broke into an Air Force base three times before publicly “disarming” it with blood. Preparation for the ensuing trial is considered equally important. How the activists behave in court can establish the action’s broader meaning, draw public attention to the cause, and put the government’s behavior on trial. The final step of a Plowshares action—prison—may be the most difficult and yet, in some ways, the most rewarding.Sister Ardeth and Sister Carol have been arrested together more times than they can count, but they never seek to be incarcerated. They don’t enjoy being in prison. An action that ends without time behind bars is called a “freebie.” Instead of punishment or deterrence, however, they view prison as an opportunity. Tending the sick, the poor, and those in prison is the path to salvation, Jesus preached. Although prisons and jails are “horrible places,” Sister Carol told me, “it’s the closest as white, middle-class North Americans that we can really be with the poor.” She and Sister Ardeth have been shackled and chained, strip-searched in front of male guards, locked in filthy cells with clogged toilets and vermin. They’ve listened helplessly to a dying friend, another nun, cry for assistance from a nearby cell. The sisters look after the other inmates, trying to teach and empower them. But there have been lighter moments as well. Sister Carol got to know Martha Stewart behind bars. And Sister Ardeth practiced yoga with Piper Kerman, a convicted drug offender, who later wrote about her in “Orange Is the New Black.” Sister Ingalls, a character inspired by Sister Ardeth, appears in the television show based on the book.
Born and raised in central Michigan, Sister Ardeth had decided by the age of eleven that her life would be devoted to God and serving others. She entered a convent after her freshman year of college, got a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, became a teacher, then a high-school principal in a poor, largely African-American and Latino neighborhood of Saginaw, Michigan. Dorothy Day was her role model. As a teacher and a principal in Saginaw, Sister Ardeth found herself in the middle of fistfights, gunfights, and race riots. She was elected to the city council, served on it for twelve years, helped found the city’s first rape crisis center and a shelter for battered women. She became mayor pro tem of Saginaw and enjoyed being a public servant, but her political career ended after Pope John Paul II decreed that members of the clergy could no longer run for elected office. Sister Ardeth helped to gain passage of a 1982 state law expressing Michigan’s support for a nuclear freeze. The following year, nuclear weapons were deployed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, in Michigan. She decided to oppose that move and joined forces with Sister Carol, whom she’d taught in high school. They were both Dominicans, members of a Catholic order whose motto is “Veritas.” “We preach truth to power,” Sister Ardeth likes to say.
Before long, the former principal of a Catholic high school and one of her former pupils were dancing atop a nuclear-weapons bunker at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, singing, “Jesus Christ has risen today!” They later prayed at the gates of the base every day for three years. The fact that millions of people could be killed by nuclear weapons, at any moment, demanded that something radical be done. They broke into a Minuteman complex in eastern Colorado and, during Gods of Metal Plowshares, hurled blood onto the bomb-bay doors of a B-52 at Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland. Sister Ardeth and Sister Carol chose the protest’s name to convey the idolatry of nuclear weapons—the blind faith that they somehow keep us safe.
After lunch, we walked along the dirt paths of St. Peter’s. On the land that remains uncleared, toppled gravestones and cracked, ornate marble tombs could be glimpsed amid the bushes and trees. Some of the stones were so old and weathered that the names of the dead could no longer be seen. I asked the sisters if the lack of publicity about Plowshares actions, the lack of awareness about the nuclear threat, ever made their work seem unsuccessful, their years in prison futile. Sister Carol acknowledged that the public apathy about nuclear weapons was frustrating. But she offered a different measure of success: Are you truly living your faith?I questioned the morality of breaking into high-security nuclear sites: What if someone got shot? What about the trauma a young security guard might experience after realizing that he or she had killed a nun rather than a terrorist? Sister Ardeth replied that nobody had been harmed in the more than thirty years since the first Plowshares, and that the Lord should be thanked for that. She betrayed no doubts. “I will continue doing direct action for the rest of my life,” Sister Ardeth told me. “If I can walk, you’ll find me out there.”
The cleared section of St. Peter’s had a bright, cheery feel that day, more like a sculpture garden than like a graveyard. A handful of people have been buried there since the cemetery reopened, including Philip Berrigan. He died at the age of seventy-nine, in 2002, having spent much of the previous year in prison for a Plowshares action. The inscription on Berrigan’s gravestone expressed his view of Christ’s central message: “Love one another.”
Before I left Jonah House, Sister Ardeth handed me a brown paper bag. I looked inside and saw an apple, a power bar, and some nuts.
“It’s a snack for your train ride to New York,” she said.
A few weeks later, I drove through the missile fields of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska. Sister Ardeth and Sister Carol had urged me to see firsthand how lax the security still is at Minuteman launch complexes. The United States has four hundred and fifty Minuteman III missiles at sites in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The Air Force’s early intercontinental ballistic missiles—its Atlases, Titans, and Titan IIs—were overseen by launch crews that lived in underground control centers near the silos. When the Minuteman was being designed, in the late nineteen-fifties, the Air Force decided that the missiles should be remotely operated. The change would reduce the manpower necessary to operate them, enabling a single launch crew to command as many as fifty missiles. One of the new silos could be twelve miles away from its crew. The Air Force also chose to disperse Minuteman missiles throughout the Great Plains, so that a surprise attack by the Soviet Union couldn’t easily destroy them all. In Montana, the new launch sites were built in an area extending for some fourteen thousand square miles. Instead of being protected by armed guards, as in the Soviet Union, America’s ballistic-missile complexes were unmanned, and built on one-acre plots of land, amid ranches and farms. Decisions made for reasons of efficiency and military strategy in the twentieth century couldn’t anticipate the implications for nuclear terrorism in the twenty-first. Today, these missile sites are essentially unguarded nuclear-weapons storage facilities. Some are within a quarter mile of private homes.
Using a map created by anti-nuclear activists in the late nineteen-eighties, I had little trouble finding Minuteman complexes. They are often visible from public roads. Soon I could spot one without the map: a cluster of poles in the middle of a field, surrounded by chain-link fence. What seemed extraordinary at first—a ballistic-missile complex right off the highway, in the middle of the prairie, just an hour or so east of Greeley, Colorado—soon became routine. At one Minuteman site, I parked my rental car, got out, and walked over to the nearby fence. The padlock on the gate could be cut open in seconds. Beyond it, the site’s perimeter fence didn’t look the slightest bit intimidating, despite a sign that said, “WARNING . . . Use of Deadly Force Authorized,” in bright-red letters. Within a few minutes, you could remove a section of that fence big enough to drive a van, a backhoe, or a tractor-trailer onto the complex. After 9/11, Remote Visual Assessment Cameras were installed at Minuteman sites. While exploring the outskirts of the launch site, taking pictures, I kept expecting that someone would see me with the surveillance cameras and order me to stop. No one did.
It would be extremely difficult to break into a Minuteman launch facility and get anywhere near the missile—but not impossible. The complexes were designed to withstand the nearby detonation of a Soviet nuclear warhead. The silo door is a thick slab made from a hundred and ten tons of reinforced steel and concrete. A nearby Personnel Access Hatch leads to an underground entryway blocked by a seven-ton steel plug. You need one code to open the hatch, another to lower the plug out of the way. But the right explosives, properly employed, could eliminate the need for codes. A former member of a Minuteman security force told me that he could break into a complex, especially with help from an insider—a rogue launch officer, security officer, or maintenance technician. Once inside the silo, you would have to possess highly specialized skills and great ingenuity to launch a Minuteman missile or detonate its warhead. The missile would be easy to destroy, however, leaving behind a radioactive mess.
During the summer of 2013, a tactical-response force operating out of Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, failed a major security test. According to a classified Air Force report obtained by the Associated Press, the tactical force didn’t respond “effectively” to the simulated takeover of a Minuteman complex. The troops apparently couldn’t recapture the silo from terrorists and didn’t take “all lawful actions necessary to immediately regain control of nuclear weapons.” The report criticized the training and the leadership of the security force. Its commanding officer was removed from duty, and the entire strategic-missile wing at Malmstrom flunked its safety-and-security inspection. The Air Force now plans to deploy almost three hundred additional airmen for nuclear-security tasks, responding to complaints that the current force is overworked, undermanned, and suffering from poor morale.Even a well-trained and brilliantly led Air Force tactical-response force might find it hard to cope with a terrorist attack on a Minuteman site, owing to logistical problems and antiquated equipment. One of the missile complexes in Nebraska is about a hundred and twenty-five miles from the airbase in Wyoming where a full tactical-response force is stationed. With luck, it would take an hour or so for the force to reach that complex in an emergency. It could take a lot longer. And, ideally, it wouldn’t be raining heavily or the middle of the night. The UH-1N Huey helicopters that would carry the security force are, on average, forty-five years old. They are not properly equipped for nighttime or bad-weather operations. They lack offensive weapons, defensive measures, modern avionics. They sometimes cannot fly the entire length of a missile field without being refuelled. Their crews rely on paper maps to navigate. And the Hueys are too small to carry a pilot, a co-pilot, a flight engineer, and a full tactical-response team.Almost a decade ago, an Air Force study concluded that the Hueys were responsible for “missile field security vulnerabilities.” The same helicopters are also used to fly overhead and guard nuclear warheads being moved to and from missile sites. “I cannot get security forces to the right places at the right time without a fast, capable, all-weather airlift capability,” the commander in charge of all the Minuteman complexes said, seven years ago. During the summer of 2014, the Air Force announced a plan to obtain used Blackhawk helicopters from the Army for Minuteman security forces. But that plan remains unfunded, and the Vietnam-era Hueys may continue in service until 2020, if not longer.
For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security force with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, and dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go.
The climb up Pine Ridge was steep, and Gregory Boertje-Obed led the others through the dark woods without a map or a trail, guided only by flashlight.
Michael Walli worried about Sister Megan Rice. She was remarkably fit for an eighty-two-year-old, and she’d spent weeks training for this hike. But she had a mild heart condition. The two men had to stop every now and then so that she could catch her breath. When they resumed, Walli stayed behind her, keeping an eye on her, listening to her huff and puff. He was fierier than most Plowshares activists, a believer in miracles and prophecy, a bold “warrior for peace,” like Philip Berrigan. Walli grew up on a farm in northern Michigan, the youngest of eight boys in his family. He also had six sisters. After dropping out of high school, in 1967, at the age of eighteen, Walli enlisted in the Army. Until then, his travels outside Michigan hadn’t extended farther than Wisconsin. Soon he was in Vietnam.
Two tours of duty left Walli alienated and disillusioned. He’d flown over jungles defoliated by Agent Orange, listened to B-52s carpet bombing at night, and witnessed firefights. After his return to the United States, he was in and out of veterans’ hospitals for a while, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a spiritual crisis. He took a series of jobs, working at a Christmas-card factory in Chicago, serving as a deckhand on merchant ships that plied the Great Lakes. In 1979, he began to help at a Chicago soup kitchen run by a Franciscan priest. It was a transformative experience. Walli joined the Third Order of St. Francis, choosing to live in poverty and serve the poor. Eventually, he found his way to the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C., convinced that God had led him there. He stayed at various Catholic Worker houses along the East Coast and in the Midwest, gardening, doing manual labor, accumulating civil-disobedience arrests. He was strong and fit, with an intense look and a goatee. He helped clear the brush and cut down trees at St. Peter’s Cemetery.
Walli’s first Plowshares action occurred in 2006, when he and Boertje-Obed broke into a Minuteman complex in North Dakota. They were dressed as clowns to honor Father Carl Kabat, who also wore a clown outfit, and joined them. They found the Personnel Access Hatch unlocked, opened it, hammered on an inner lock, and spray-painted messages on the silo door, such as “God is not the author of confusion.” Walli got an eight-month sentence; Boertje-Obed, twelve months; and Father Kabat, fifteen.
A quarter of the way up Pine Ridge, Boertje-Obed saw a fence. It was chain link and not daunting, despite a “No Trespassing” sign. The fence marked the boundary of the Y-12 complex. A winding dirt road ran beside it, patrolled by security forces. With a pair of red-handled bolt cutters, Boertje-Obed cut a vertical section of the fence along the fencepost, pushed open a gap, and helped the two others climb through it. Once they were all on Y-12 property, he neatly reattached the chain link to the fencepost with twine. That way, a security patrol driving past might not notice, in the darkness, that Y-12’s security had been compromised.Although Sister Megan had been arrested between forty and fifty times, this was her first Plowshares action. And it was her idea. It had occurred to her a year and a half earlier, while she was sitting in a Tacoma courtroom, watching the trial of five activists who had broken into Kitsap Naval Base, the home port for more than half of America’s Trident ballistic-missile submarines. During perhaps the worst nuclear-security lapse in the history of the U.S. Navy, Father William (Bix) Bichsel, Father Stephen Kelly, Sister Anne Montgomery, and two others had managed to sneak into the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific—a storage area containing hundreds of nuclear warheads for Trident missiles. Those warheads don’t have locking mechanisms. If a terrorist group detonated one at Kitsap, it not only would destroy the base and the Trident submarines but could also deposit lethal radioactive fallout on Seattle, about thirty miles to the east. If the group set off conventional explosives close to the warheads, a toxic cloud of plutonium might blanket the city. The Plowshares activists easily cut through Kitsap’s perimeter fence, hiked around the huge base for four hours, ignored all the warning signs, cut through two more fences, and got to within about forty feet of the bunkers where the nuclear warheads are stored. Father Bix was eighty-one at the time. Sister Anne was eighty-three. Having survived two open-heart surgeries, Father Bix brought along his nitroglycerine tablets and paused to take some during the long hike. About twenty marines with automatic weapons stopped the activists, put hoods on them to prevent them from seeing any more of the top-secret facility, and made them lie on the ground for three and a half hours, while the base was searched for other intruders. When someone later said to Bichsel, Please, Father, don’t get into any more trouble, he laughed and replied, “We’re all in trouble.”
Listening to the testimony in court, Sister Megan thought she not only could do that; she had to do it. Her activism had been limited mainly to protests at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, in Georgia, and at the Nevada Test Site, where the country tested nuclear weapons. She’d spent time in prison for civil disobedience. Born in 1930 and raised for the most part in Manhattan, a block away from Barnard College, Megan Rice had been taught from an early age to oppose racism, to care for the weak and the dispossessed. Her father was a professor of obstetrics at N.Y.U., and he routinely treated indigent women at Bellevue Hospital. Her mother taught history at Hunter College. Rice’s parents were friends with Dorothy Day before the launch of the Catholic Worker. They supported her work throughout the Great Depression and discussed social problems at her hospitality house every Friday night.At the age of eighteen, Rice joined the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She wanted to teach at a girls’ school in Africa. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Fordham and a master’s in biology at Boston College, then moved to Nigeria in 1962. Sister Megan helped to build the school where she later taught, slept in a classroom while it was under construction, and lived in a rural village without electricity or running water. She remained in Africa for most of the next thirty years. One of Sister Megan’s uncles had spent time in Nagasaki, not long after its destruction by an atomic bomb, and his stories of the aftermath greatly disturbed her. When she moved back to the United States in the late eighties, to help look after her mother, she got involved in protests at the Nevada Test Site—and persuaded her eighty-four-year-old mother to get arrested there, too. Sister Megan’s time in Africa and the Nevada desert led her Catholic faith in a mystical, transcendental direction. She developed a profound love of nature, a belief in the interconnectedness of all things.
When Sister Megan raised the idea of a Plowshares action with Gregory Boertje-Obed, he agreed to join her. Boertje-Obed had already done five of them. His wife, Michele Naar-Obed, had done three, and they’d even done one together. They always tried to insure that their daughter, Rachel, had at least one parent at home, not in prison. Sister Megan had lived at Jonah House for a while, helping to take care of Rachel. Michael Walli heard Boertje-Obed and Sister Megan were going to do a Plowshares action and asked to join them. The three spent time together at spiritual retreats, prayed together, read the Bible together, enlisted more than half a dozen others for logistical support, and discussed potential targets. They considered a direct action at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons are designed, and at the Kansas City Plant, where weapon components are manufactured. But they chose the Y-12 complex to honor a late friend, Sister Jackie Hudson, who had been arrested at the site the previous year—and to oppose plans to construct a vast uranium-processing plant there. Although the building would be used for the disassembly of old weapons, its size suggested that new ones would also be produced there. The big, white, newly completed Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility seemed like a fine target for direct action. Sister Megan chose the name: Transform Now Plowshares. She hoped it would begin the process of shutting down Y-12 and transforming the American empire from a source of bloodshed into one of world peace.
Boertje-Obed did most of the planning. Using Google Earth and other satellite imagery, he looked for the best route to the uranium-storage facility. Two large white storage tanks on the northern edge of Y-12 promised to be a useful navigational aid. In addition to relying on the Internet, Boertje-Obed travelled to Oak Ridge and scoped the complex, taking notes on the security forces and their routines. He’d already broken into a missile complex and a naval air station, sneaked onto a submarine, and used a crowd of tourists as a diversion to get onto a battleship. The security at Y-12 was far more extensive than anything he’d ever confronted. Boertje-Obed wasn’t sure if they could even get near the Protected Area.More than an hour after leaving the church parking lot, the three activists reached the top of Pine Ridge. Y-12 lay below them, lit with floodlights, bright as day. They could see the fences and the barbed wire, the concrete barriers and the guard towers. Boertje-Obed had originally planned for them to zigzag down the thickly wooded hill. But Sister Megan seemed tired, and the fastest, most direct route now made more sense—straight down the hill. The uranium-storage facility was about a quarter of a mile away. They paused briefly and headed toward it
In the broad spectrum of nuclear-terrorist acts, the takeover of a Minuteman III complex or the theft of a nuclear warhead from a Trident base isn’t the most likely to occur. The detonation of a radiological dispersal device, a “dirty bomb,” is one of the easiest to pull off. All you need are some conventional explosives and a small amount of radioactive material. About half a dozen radioisotopes routinely used for medical, scientific, and commercial purposes—including a radioactive element found in household smoke detectors—could be utilized to make a dirty bomb. But the easiest forms of terrorism are also the least consequential. The conventional explosives in a dirty bomb would pose the greatest immediate risk to anyone near the detonation. Even in a densely populated city, the radioactive dust produced by a dirty bomb would cause serious, long-term harm to perhaps a few hundred people. Cleaning up after such a bomb, however, could cost billions of dollars. It would provoke a great deal of anxiety. And real estate in the contaminated area would lose much of its value.
Terrorists seeking to cause a radiological disaster, like the one at Fukushima or Chernobyl, would find it much harder to accomplish than making a dirty bomb. They might have to hack the control systems at a nuclear power plant, use explosives to rupture the plant’s containment vessel, or drain the water from a pool storing its spent fuel rods. Without the water, the fuel rods could spontaneously ignite, releasing as much as five times the amount of harmful radioactivity contained in the reactor’s core.
The detonation of a nuclear weapon would be the most difficult type of nuclear terrorism to achieve. It would also be the most lethal and dramatic. A nuclear explosion with one-fifteenth the force of the Hiroshima bomb, set off at a certain time, at a certain urban location in the United States, could kill about two hundred thousand people. But stealing a weapon from a military base would be a real challenge. Even if you somehow obtained the weapon, you’d have to figure out how to detonate it. You’d need help from someone who knew a thing or two about nuclear weapons. Creating an “improvised nuclear device,” a homemade atomic bomb, presents its own set of challenges. Only a couple of fissile materials can readily be used to produce the extraordinary destructive force of a nuclear weapon. Those materials are not widely found in nature. Plutonium-239 is produced in a nuclear reactor, and a thousand pounds of natural uranium contains just seven pounds of uranium-235, the isotope used in nuclear weapons. Although the physicists at Los Alamos gained acclaim for designing the first atomic bombs, the chemists and engineers at the Hanford Site, in Washington, and at Oak Ridge—who figured out how to produce fissile material—made those weapons possible. Seventy years later, hundreds of millions of dollars and great technical ability are still necessary to make plutonium-239 or to enrich uranium until it’s weapons-grade (about ninety per cent uranium-235). Instead of dealing with all that hassle and expense, terrorists would be far more likely to steal fissile materials or buy them on the black market.
Plutonium is more efficient than uranium at creating a nuclear explosion. But plutonium is far more toxic, dangerous to handle, difficult to fabricate. And nuclear-weapon designs that use plutonium tend to be more complex. The design of Little Boy, the uranium weapon used to destroy Hiroshima, was so simple that the bomb didn’t need to be fully tested before it was dropped. Acquiring the weapons-grade uranium was the hard part; detonating it was relatively easy. Luis Alvarez, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who played a crucial role in the Manhattan Project, later warned that if terrorists obtained weapons-grade uranium they wouldn’t need to be experts in nuclear-weapon design. In fact, Alvarez wrote, they’d have “a good chance of setting off a high-yield explosion simply by dropping one half of the material onto the other half.” Terrorists hoping to survive the nuclear blast would have to design and build a complicated machine—a weapon that could be safely transported, armed near the target, and remotely detonated from miles away. Those willing to be vaporized and die for the cause would have fewer technical worries.
The threat of nuclear terrorism has been a concern since the early days of the atomic era. During a closed Senate hearing in 1946, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, was asked whether three or four people could smuggle into New York City the parts necessary to build a nuclear weapon. “Of course it could be done,” he said, and it would be almost impossible to prevent. “The only instrument that would enable an inspector to find out if a packing crate contained an atomic bomb is a screwdriver.” For most of the Cold War, however, nuclear threats from outside the United States seemed more pressing than those which might emerge within it. According to Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-security expert and a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, during the nineteen-fifties and sixties “the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) literally imposed no rules at all concerning how private companies with weapons-usable nuclear material had to secure such stocks.” The A.E.C. assumed that the financial value of the fissile material would encourage companies to safeguard it carefully. That wasn’t the case. For decades, plutonium was shipped across the United States without armed guards. In 1972, the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics prompted much tougher federal oversight of fissile materials. The subsequent rise of international terrorism and the 9/11 attacks tightened the security even further. And yet, until the opening of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, in 2010, tons of weapons-grade uranium were still being stored at Y-12 in a wooden building constructed during the Manhattan Project.
The traditional reliance on “guns, gates, and guards” for nuclear security may overlook a serious vulnerability at nuclear sites: the insider threat. Scott D. Sagan, a nuclear-weapons expert and a professor of political science at Stanford University, thinks that the security culture at a facility is as important as its security equipment. Those who work at a nuclear site are the most familiar with its security weaknesses. Managers too often become complacent about longtime employees and don’t consider the possibility that someone may be blackmailed or coerced into helping terrorists. As one security expert notes, “Any vulnerability assessment which finds no vulnerabilities or only a few is worthless and wrong.”
The designs of the first atomic bombs were stolen by insiders at Los Alamos and shared with the Soviet Union. Insiders at Oak Ridge provided the Soviets with the details of how to make weapons-grade uranium. More recently, Edward Snowden, a private contractor working for the National Security Agency, gained access to some of its most highly classified secrets. The N.S.A. is responsible not only for generating the launch codes for America’s nuclear weapons but also for designing the equipment that decrypts the codes. In 2013, two high-level nuclear commanders were removed from duty for behavior that could have exposed them to blackmail: illegal gambling, in one case; excessive alcohol consumption with young Russian women, in the other. A group of hackers known as Team Digi7al and Team Hav0k managed to hack Web sites belonging to the U.S. Navy, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the United States National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Library of Congress. One of the group’s members turned out to be Nicholas Knight, a sailor deployed on the U.S.S. Harry S Truman. Knight was a systems administrator for the computers running the aircraft carrier’s nuclear reactor.
During the nineteen-sixties, when the Atomic Energy Commission trusted that private companies would effectively secure their own fissile material, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade uranium went missing from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania. There is strong evidence that the uranium was shipped to Israel, with help from insiders at the plant. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, President Gerald Ford discussed the theft with James Connor, an aide who’d been an official at the A.E.C. “The good news is that Israel definitely has the Bomb and can take care of itself,” Connor told the President. “The bad news is that the stuff came from Pennsylvania.”
The Y-12 complex had layered security. The closer you got to the Protected Area, the more intense the security became. The barriers, fences, cameras, and motion detectors weren’t designed to prevent an intrusion. They were supposed to delay it, reveal it, and draw the necessary security forces to stop it.
The woods ended at the bottom of the hill. Once the three Plowshares activists emerged from the shadow of the last trees, they’d have to walk into a flat, clear, brightly lit area, cross Bear Creek Road, and cut through three more fences to reach the Protected Area. The uranium-storage facility loomed ahead, the great white castle, with guards bearing automatic weapons in its towers.
The three hid in tall grass as patrol cars passed. And then Boertje-Obed led the others across the road, over a low concrete barrier, to a chain-link fence, roughly eight feet high. It was the first line of the high-tech Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System. As Boertje-Obed began to cut the fence, he expected sirens and alarms to go off. But none did, and while he continued to cut the fence Walli draped a banner on it. The banner had a drawing of a nuclear weapon and the words “Never again.”
The next fence looked more formidable. A thick cable was interlaced with chain link. Beyond the fence was a gravel area, a clear zone, and then another fence.
Boertje-Obed had a moment of doubt. He wondered if this fence was electrified. Maybe they should turn around, he thought. We’re not going to be able to cut through this one without being detected.
None of them had spoken since leaving the woods. Walli and Sister Megan had been silently following Boertje-Obed, assuming that he knew what to do and where to go.
“Well, it’s worth a try,” Boertje-Obed told himself.
The bolt cutters snipped the fence, and no klaxons sounded.
Sister Megan had felt all along that they were being guided by the Holy Spirit.
As Boertje-Obed cut through the last fence, he was feeling focussed and amazed. It was as bright as daylight, and yet nobody had spotted them. The uranium-storage facility was about four hundred feet away, across a stretch of asphalt.
The walls of the building were soon being decorated with spray paint and blood. It was Tom Lewis’s blood, drawn from his arm four years earlier, not long before he died. Lewis had been one of the Catonsville Nine, an artist and a Plowshares activist arrested numerous times. From his deathbed, Lewis had asked that his blood be used in one last direct action. The blood was frozen, saved, thawed, and poured into six baby bottles carried in backpacks to Y-12. Now it dripped down the white walls.
“WORK FOR PEACE NOT WAR” was spray-painted onto the building in large black letters, along with “PLOWSHARES PLEASE ISAIAH” and “THE FRUIT OF JUSTICE IS PEACE.” In red letters, “WOE TO THE EMPIRE OF BLOOD” was scrawled across another wall.
Boertje-Obed removed a small sledgehammer from Walli’s backpack, hit a corner of the building, and knocked off a piece of concrete about a foot long. The others hammered the building lightly, and Sister Megan draped crime-scene tape across it. They placed Bibles and white roses on the ground to commemorate the White Rose, a German student group that had opposed Hitler and promoted nonviolent resistance. As they waited, they sang religious songs for half an hour. A patrol car appeared, at about four-thirty in the morning, as they were singing “This little light of mine, let it shine all around Y-12.”
A security officer, Kirk Garland, had been asked to check the fences near the north side of the uranium-storage building, where an alarm had been triggered. When he got there, three people approached his S.U.V., and Garland saw the slogans sprayed on the walls. He’d worked at federal nuclear facilities for almost thirty years and immediately assumed these people were protesters, not members of Al Qaeda. As he sat in the parked S.U.V., his supervisor called, and Garland asked for backup. The three stood beside his car door, said they’d been sent by God, offered him some bread, and read a statement.
“Today, through our nonviolent action, we, Transform Now Plowshares, indict the U.S. government nuclear modernization program,” it began.
Garland told them not to make any sudden movements or remove anything from their backpacks. But the situation became chaotic. After the statement was done, someone started reading passages from the Bible to him. The elderly woman told Garland she had a heart condition. The two men ignored his instructions and reached into their bags. They pulled out candles, lit them, and offered him one.
Sergeant Chad Riggs was sitting in his office when a supervisor called and said that something was going on at the uranium-storage facility. Garland needed backup. As Riggs drove his Chevy Tahoe around the corner of the building, he saw Garland’s vehicle, three people standing near it, and spray paint and blood on the walls.
Riggs jumped out of the Tahoe, drew his sidearm, ordered the three suspects to lie on the ground, and demanded to see their hands. At the same time, he got on the radio and called for additional officers. Once the suspects were on the ground, he told them to crawl away from the backpacks and gear. There appear to be intruders in the Protected Area, he said over the radio.
Concerned that a sniper might be hiding in the hills, Sergeant Riggs asked Garland to provide cover. Riggs put on body armor and retrieved his M4 assault rifle from the Tahoe. Then he ordered Garland to put on body armor, too.
Riggs thought that one of the men, the older one, the one with the goatee, might be dangerous. He ordered Garland to handcuff him.
When backup units arrived, the other man and the elderly woman were cuffed. For the next five hours, the suspects had to sit on the ground, hands secured behind their backs. At about ten in the morning, they were provided with plastic chairs.
After spending the weekend in the Blount County Jail, Walli, Boertje-Obed, and Sister Megan were brought to federal court in shackles. They were charged with trespassing on government property, a misdemeanor. More serious charges were likely to be filed soon. Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby asked the judge not to release them from jail. They were repeat offenders. They lived in other parts of the country, presented a flight risk, and could pose a “danger to the community.”
A few days later, Judge C. Clifford Shirley ignored the prosecutor’s objections and ruled that the defendants should be freed once they entered a plea. Sister Megan and Walli pleaded not guilty.
“I plead justified, because the building of nuclear weapons is a war crime,” Boertje-Obed said in court. “I plead for the downtrodden around the world who suffer the consequences of our nuclear weapons.” Judge Shirley entered a plea of not guilty for him.
Walli and Sister Megan later walked free. Boertje-Obed chose to remain in jail.
The Plowshares action at Y-12 attracted international attention. The fact that an eighty-two-year-old nun had broken into a high-security nuclear-weapons complex seemed unbelievable. But to some people familiar with the security arrangements at Y-12 the intrusion was the logical result of mismanagement that had plagued the facility for years. Although the federal government owned the land and most of the buildings, the equipment, and the fissile material at the Y-12 complex, private contractors now ran the facility for profit. During the Cold War, the weapons laboratories had been managed through an unusual arrangement of public and private oversight. The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, for example, was operated by the University of California. Sandia Laboratory was run by subsidiaries of A.T. & T. at no charge to the government. The weapons labs and manufacturing plants were run like nonprofits: they were supposed to serve the national interest. A decade ago, the management of America’s nuclear enterprise was largely privatized—a change that was justified with promises of greater efficiency. A new federal agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, was created to oversee the private contractors. And the management of nuclear-security forces was increasingly privatized as well.
During the summer of 2012, when the break-in occurred at Y-12, Wackenhut Services, Inc., was responsible for the security officers at the site. The company had been founded in the early nineteen-fifties by George Wackenhut, a former F.B.I. agent who pioneered the private security industry, gaining contracts from corporations and federal agencies, establishing close ties with the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. But in 2012 Wackenhut Services was no longer an American company. It had been acquired by Group 4 Falck, once a Danish company, now a British one, known as G4S. In addition to protecting the weapons-grade uranium at Y-12 through a subsidiary, G4S provided security at rock concerts and banks and malls, operated private prisons, employed armed guards to defend embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company operated in more than a hundred and twenty-five countries. Through mergers and acquisitions, it had rapidly become the third-largest private employer in the world, after Walmart and Foxconn. Most people had never heard of G4S until a few weeks before the Y-12 intrusion, when the company mishandled the security arrangements for the London Olympic Games. G4S trainees were allegedly caught cheating on bomb-detection tests. (The company says that training was conducted according to industry standards.) G4S failed to hire the number of security guards it had promised, and the British military had to send thirty-five hundred troops to the Olympics at the last minute.
Wackenhut’s performance at Y-12 was not much better. A 2004 report by the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General found that security officers at Y-12 had been cheating on performance tests for years. Before responding to mock attacks, Wackenhut officers were told in advance which building at Y-12 would be targeted, which wall of the building would be attacked, and whether their adversaries would use diversionary tactics. In at least one case, the information allowed officers to prepare an effective response weeks in advance. And, before the tests, members of the security force allegedly disabled their Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System gear—removing the batteries, inserting the batteries backward, covering the laser sensors with tape or Vaseline—so that during a simulated gunfight they could not be “shot.” Failing a performance test might reduce Wackenhut’s fee from the government. Wackenhut employees not only cheated on the tests; they came up with the tests. (The company disputed the Inspector General’s report.)
On the night of the Y-12 break-in, a camera that would have enabled security personnel to spot the intruders was out of commission. According to a document obtained by Frank Munger, a reporter at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, about a fifth of the cameras on the fences surrounding the Protected Area were not working that night. One camera did capture someone climbing through a fence. But the security officer who might have seen the image was talking to another officer, not looking at his screen. Cameras and motion detectors at the site had been broken for months. The security equipment was maintained by Babcock & Wilcox, a private contractor that managed Y-12, while the officers who relied on the equipment worked for Wackenhut. Poor communication between the two companies contributed to long delays whenever something needed to be fixed. And it wasn’t always clear who was responsible for getting it fixed. The Plowshares activists did set off an alarm. But security officers ignored it, because hundreds of false alarms occurred at Y-12 every month. Officers stationed inside the uranium-storage facility heard the hammering on the wall. But they assumed that the sounds were being made by workmen doing maintenance.
A few months before the break-in, the National Nuclear Security Administration had given Wackenhut high scores in a review of its security performance at Y-12, granting the company a large fee. Wackenhut was planning to eliminate the jobs of seventy guards at Y-12, in order to cut costs. Not long after the break-in, an investigation by the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General found that, once again, Wackenhut security guards at Y-12 had been caught cheating on their performance tests. (The guards later testified that they had “no intent to cheat,” according to a follow-up report by the Inspector General.)
Asked by the Secretary of Energy to evaluate the multiple security failures at Y-12, Norman R. Augustine, a former Under-secretary of the Army and former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, concluded that the root of the problem was clear: “a pervasive culture of tolerating the intolerable and accepting the unacceptable.” Of all the failure analyses that Augustine had conducted in his long career, “none had been more difficult for me to comprehend than this one.” He considered himself a strong defender of the free-enterprise system but thought that the protection of nuclear weapons and fissile materials was so important that it should be handled by the federal government, not by private contractors.
During the second week of September, 2012, congressional hearings were held to discuss the security at Y-12. Representative Michael Turner, a Republican from Ohio, opened one of the hearings by saying, “It is outrageous to think that the greatest threat to the American public from weapons of mass destruction may be the incompetence of D.O.E. security. . . . This must never happen again.” Sister Megan and Michael Walli attended the hearings but were not asked to testify. Nevertheless, Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, acknowledged that Sister Megan was in the audience. “Would you please stand up, Ma’am?” he asked. “We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security.” Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, addressed Sister Megan directly: “Thank you for your actions. Thank you for your willingness to focus attention on this nuclear weapons buildup. . . . We thank you for your courage. . . . You should be praised because that’s ultimately what the Sermon on the Mount is all about.”
A federal grand jury had already handed down further indictments. In addition to the misdemeanor trespassing charge, the protesters now faced two felony counts. The first was for “willfully and maliciously” destroying property at Y-12. The second was for committing a “depredation against property of the United States and of the United States Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Y-12 National Security Complex . . . in an amount exceeding $1,000.” To “depredate” means “to lay waste: plunder, ravage,” according to Webster’s. The felony counts could lead to a prison sentence of fifteen years. And, as lawyers representing the activists discussed a possible plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Knoxville, the government threatened to file an even more serious charge: sabotage.
Although the Sabotage Act was passed in 1918, at the height of the First World War, when America was gripped with the fear of German spies, the law has rarely been used against people who’ve actually committed sabotage. Instead, it has been used against labor organizers, opponents of the Vietnam War, and anti-nuclear activists. The statute’s broad definition of sabotage—attempting or committing an act with the “intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States”—has made the law a useful tool for punishing acts of civil disobedience.
Walli, Sister Megan, and Boertje-Obed refused to accept a plea bargain, and insisted on a trial by jury. The prosecution quickly dropped the trespassing charge and added sabotage to the indictment.
William P. Quigley, the attorney representing Walli, asked the judge to throw out the sabotage charge. A professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, Quigley argued that the sabotage law was being selectively applied in this case. Plowshares activists who had committed similar nonviolent acts generally weren’t accused of sabotage. Father Bix had been given a three-month prison sentence after breaking into the nuclear-weapons storage area at Kitsap in 2009. Sister Megan and the others now faced a possible thirty-five years behind bars.
Quigley was an expert on the “necessity defense” and hoped to use it in the Y-12 case. Dating back centuries to English common law, the defense enabled someone to be found innocent if a crime had been committed to avoid a greater harm. Crimes of necessity might include tossing valuable cargo overboard to prevent a ship from sinking, breaking into a drugstore to obtain life-saving medicine for someone in an emergency, shattering a store window to escape a fire. Sir Walter Scott, who was a judge as well as a novelist, believed that “necessity creates the law, it supersedes rules; and whatever is reasonable and just in such cases, is likewise legal.”
The three activists had broken into Y-12, Quigley planned to argue, in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust. He had defended peace activists since the early nineteen-eighties and sympathized with many of their views. The necessity defense was occasionally successful in state courts, where anti-nuclear protesters had walked free after explaining their actions to a jury. But since the early nineties federal judges have rarely permitted claims of necessity to be used in civil-disobedience cases.
At a pre-trial hearing, Boertje-Obed, representing himself, asked the court to permit the use of the necessity defense. The government had already submitted a brief seeking to preclude that defense. It would keep the jury from hearing evidence about the morality of nuclear weapons, international law, or the defendants’ political and religious beliefs. The preparation for war crimes is a crime, Boertje-Obed argued, citing one of the Nuremberg principles used to prosecute the leadership of Nazi Germany. “So, when you build a nuclear weapon, you are planning and preparing to commit mass murder,” he said. “You are giving your assent to the killing of civilians.”
In response to those arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey E. Theodore, citing Justice John Paul Stevens, portrayed all civil disobedience as anti-democratic. It was “a form of arrogance which organized society cannot tolerate.” Theodore suggested that allowing the necessity defense in this case might justify its use by activists who had blown up an abortion clinic. “These defendants, they know,” he told the court. “They’re all recidivists when it comes to this. . . . They want to present their anti-nuclear agenda and they want the biggest forum they can get in order to do that. And the more they can espouse their views about operations at Y-12, or the horrors of nuclear weapons and things like that . . . the happier they are.”
Judge Shirley forbade the use of the necessity defense and let the sabotage charge stand.
Walli, Boertje-Obed, and Sister Megan didn’t deny breaking into Y-12, cutting the fences, and spraying graffiti. At their trial, in May, 2013, they described those actions matter-of-factly. The charge of damaging government property would be hard to beat. To obtain a guilty verdict on the two other charges, the government had to prove that repairing the damage at Y-12 cost more than a thousand dollars and that the three activists willfully set out to harm the national defense of the United States.
Before the trial, the government had claimed that the damage at Y-12 had cost an estimated seventy thousand dollars to repair. During the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirby said, “It was probably closer to the ballpark of $8,000 worth of damage.” According to subsequent testimony, more than seven thousand dollars of that amount was labor costs, and the labor was performed by Y-12 employees. The cost of the materials purchased to mend the broken fences and scrub the white walls clean was less impressive. It came to about seven hundred and sixty dollars.
As for the sabotage charge, Kirby asserted that harming the national defense of the United States had been the central aim of the protesters: “their whole purpose was to interfere with or obstruct Y-12 operations.” The facility had to be shut down for two weeks; a delivery of special nuclear materials had been delayed; the reputation of Y-12, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the United States had been hurt. The defense attorneys countered that all those consequences were impossible to foresee, since the three protesters were surprised that they could even get into the facility, let alone disrupt it. Far from endangering the country, the break-in had improved the security at Y-12. And, if calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons threatened the national defense of the United States, then people like Henry Kissinger were saboteurs, too.
The trial was notable mostly for what it revealed about the participants. Boertje-Obed asked the jury to consider the philosophical difference between “real security” and “false security.” Walli called his service in Vietnam “employment as a terrorist for the United States government.” He compared the morality of cutting the fences at Y-12 to that of cutting fences at Auschwitz. When asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore whether he had protested at nuclear-weapons facilities in other countries, Walli said that he had not, adding, “I’m an indigent person. . . . It’s pretty pricey going to Russia or North Korea.” Theodore later compared the break-in at Y-12 to the attacks on 9/11. Since both had led to tighter security, he asked the jury, “Does that mean 9/11 was a good thing?”
From the witness stand, Sister Megan described her mystical, nature-loving form of Catholicism. All living things were miraculous, she believed. “I was aware of every moment being an imminent threat to the life and harmony of the planet,” Sister Megan said under cross-examination. “Every moment, as we sit here now, is an imminent threat to the life of the planet, which is sacred.”
A few moments earlier, Kirby had asked, “What do you think about what they do at Y-12?”
“I think with sadness that they are making a huge amount of money,” Sister Megan said.
Walli, Boertje-Obed, and Sister Megan were convicted by the jury on all counts. The three were now classified as violent offenders, because of the conviction for attacking government property. They were handcuffed, shackled, and led from the courtroom to jail.
The United States is far more open about its nuclear-weapons programs than any other nation. But that openness, and the many security problems it has revealed, should not imply that the greatest threat of nuclear terrorism comes from sites in the United States. On the contrary, America may have the best nuclear-security systems in the world. The management challenges that the United States has faced are now being encountered by every other country that possesses nuclear weapons.
Pakistan tops the list of nations that cause terrorism experts the greatest concern. It has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. It has dispersed nuclear weapons to multiple locations, making them less vulnerable to attack by a foreign nation but more vulnerable to theft by terrorists. It has extremist groups seeking to infiltrate the military. And few people outside Pakistan know how its nuclear enterprise is really being run. One of the top-secret documents obtained by Edward Snowden in 2013 says that American intelligence agencies have little “knowledge of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and associated material.” The question deeply concerns Russia as well. A classified State Department document released by WikiLeaks describes a meeting between Russian and American diplomats in Washington. “Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials,” an official at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. Perhaps a hundred and twenty-five thousand people were directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs. The Russian official warned that “regardless of the clearance process for these people, there is no way to guarantee that all are 100% loyal.”
Remarkably little is known about the security arrangements at India’s nuclear facilities. Its weapons aren’t as widely dispersed as Pakistan’s. But in both countries terrorists and extremists are more likely to seek plutonium and weapons-grade uranium. Fissile materials are easier to steal than nuclear weapons and much lighter to carry. An improvised explosive device can be made with just a hundred and twenty pounds of uranium or twenty pounds of plutonium. And those amounts don’t have to be stolen all at once.
An insider at a nuclear facility might secretly remove a few ounces of fissile material every so often and accumulate a significant amount of it over time. That happened at a nuclear laboratory south of Moscow in 1992. Leonid Smirnov, an engineer at the plant, stole small vials of weapons-grade uranium for months, hoping to sell it. He was caught by chance, while talking to some drunken friends at a train station. The friends attracted the attention of the police, who arrested the whole group, searched Smirnov’s bag, and found lead cannisters filled with weapons-grade uranium.
Russia has the most nuclear weapons and the largest amount of fissile material in the world. For more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia worked closely together to improve nuclear security and reduce the danger of nuclear terrorism. Thousands of nuclear weapons were safely transported from former Soviet republics and dismantled. New storage facilities were built in Russia; modern security systems were introduced; fissile materials were removed from unguarded sites and locked away. But in December, 2014, Congress voted against additional funding for the nuclear-threat-reduction program. And Russia announced that it would end most of its coöperative work with the United States, despite the need to upgrade security at more than two hundred buildings. Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator who helped to create the program, has often called the effort to prevent nuclear terrorism “a race between coöperation and catastrophe.” The Russian decision, Nunn thinks, just made the latter more likely. Russia still has about two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of plutonium and about 1.4 million pounds of weapons-grade uranium.
“In our country, I firmly believe that breaking the law is not the answer,” Judge Amul R. Thapar told the three defendants at the sentencing hearing. “And I can’t help but think, as I listen to your allocutions, that if all that energy and passion was devoted to changing the laws, perhaps real change would have occurred by today.”
Thapar felt some regret at putting “good people behind bars.” The sentences he imposed were about half as long as those sought by the prosecution. Sister Megan was given three years in prison, Walli and Boertje-Obed five.
The activists were also required to pay for the damage at Y-12. The cost to repair that damage was no longer the roughly eight thousand dollars mentioned during the trial. The cost had somehow risen to $52,953. Quigley, Walli’s attorney, struggled to understand the huge discrepancy between those two sums. Babcock & Wilcox, the private contractor that operated Y-12, said that the eight-thousand-dollar figure didn’t include “the incremental fringe rate,” “the burden labor rate,” or “the overhead” for getting the work done. Half a dozen painters had been brought to the uranium-storage facility on a Saturday, at a cost of more than a hundred dollars an hour each. Dog handlers, who had searched the site for intruders, had cost almost five hundred dollars an hour. Videographers and photographers had been paid seven thousand dollars to produce images of the graffiti and the torn chain link. Despite the large sums of money involved, the most expensive material that had to be bought to undo this act of sabotage was twenty buckets of white paint.
After considering the threat of nuclear terrorism for many years, William C. Potter, the director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and Gary Ackerman, the director of the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division, at the University of Maryland, outlined some of the motives that could drive a terrorist group to obtain a nuclear weapon. The group might hope to create mass anxiety or mass casualties. It might want to deter attacks by a state with nuclear weapons. It might want to destroy a large area belonging to an adversary. It might want the prestige that nuclear weapons seem to confer, the status of being a world power. And it might seek to fulfill a religious goal. Groups that have an apocalyptic outlook—that believe “an irremediably corrupt world must be purged to make way for a utopian future,” that celebrate violence as a means of achieving those aims—could be especially drawn to nuclear weapons, Potter and Ackerman found. Today, the number of those groups seems to be multiplying.
“The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it,” Osama bin Laden declared in 1998. Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has said that his mood won’t improve until America vanishes. And he quoted, with approval, a radical imam’s view that using a nuclear weapon against the United States would be sanctified by God: “If a bomb were dropped on them, destroying ten million of them and burning as much of their land as they have burned of Muslim land, that would be permissible without any need to mention any other proof.”
The Salafi jihadist world view promoted by Al Qaeda stresses the religious duty to purify corrupt states through violence, drive out infidels, and create a new caliphate—a perfect state in which religious and political leadership will be merged. Seth G. Jones, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, estimates that there are about fifty Salafi jihadist groups worldwide. They focus primarily on local struggles, battling the “near enemy,” not the “far enemy”: the United States. The groups most likely to commit terrorist acts on American soil are Al Qaeda, its offshoot Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). None have thus far engaged in nuclear terrorism, preferring more conventional and reliable forms of violence.
Salafi jihadists aren’t the only millenarian group that might be drawn to nuclear weapons. During the early nineties, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) attempted to buy nuclear weapons in Russia, purchased land in Australia to mine for uranium, and sought technical assistance from scientists at Moscow’s leading institute for nuclear research. The leader of the cult, Shoko Asahara, was a partially blind yoga instructor who declared himself the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and the Hindu god Shiva. Asahara thought his followers would be the only ones to survive the coming nuclear apocalypse. In 1995, unable to obtain nuclear weapons, members of Aum Shinrikyo launched an attack on the Tokyo subway system with sarin nerve gas that killed thirteen people and injured more than five thousand. Despite having about a billion dollars in its bank account, perhaps fifty or sixty thousand followers worldwide, and the most advanced weapons-of-mass-destruction program ever created by a terrorist group, the doomsday cult was unknown to Western intelligence agencies until the Tokyo subway attack.
White supremacists in the United States have also fantasized about using nuclear weapons to purify society. Before Timothy McVeigh destroyed Oklahoma City’s federal building with a truck bomb, in 1995, he travelled the country selling copies of “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel long considered the bible of the white-power movement. It features a protagonist who flies a plane carrying a nuclear weapon into the Pentagon, committing suicide in order to destroy Washington, D.C. In the book’s “happy” ending, white patriots use nuclear weapons stolen from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, to annihilate inferior races throughout the world. Although the threat of Islamic terrorism has received a great deal of media attention, since 9/11 more people have been killed in the United States by American extremists than by foreign jihadists.
Last month, President Barack Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy noted the risk of nuclear terrorism. “No threat poses as grave a danger . . . as the potential use of nuclear weapons or materials by irresponsible states or terrorists,” it said. Although Washington, D. C., would be a likely target of such an attack, the issue seems to lack urgency there. Budget sequestration and the partisanship in Congress have greatly reduced spending on nuclear-security programs. The amount of money that will be saved this year by cutting those programs—about three hundred and forty million dollars—is equivalent to 0.06 per cent of the 2015 defense budget. Meanwhile, at least twenty-five countries now possess two pounds or more of weapons-grade fissile material, and some nuclear sites overseas don’t even have armed guards.
When I visited the Y-12 National Security Complex a few months ago, the place looked like an odd mix of Silicon Valley and the industrial ruins of Detroit. The site has a few shiny new buildings, some of the most advanced and precise machine tools in the world—and an abandoned steam plant in the middle of the complex, rusting and decayed, with grass growing in the cracks of surrounding pavement. Buildings and equipment dating back to the Manhattan Project are still in use. Inside one building, I saw calutrons—enormous contraptions, about fifteen feet high, relying on powerful magnets to enrich uranium—that were designed more than seventy years ago, and are still kept on standby to produce stable isotopes, if necessary. A dusty basement was filled with spare parts, gauges, huge vacuum tubes, unopened spools of cable marked with their date of manufacture (1944). The room felt like an exhibit at a museum of technology, a steampunk fantasy.
Inside the Protected Area, the security was impressive. Large coils of razor wire have been placed between fences to slow anyone trying to cut through them. I saw security guards with automatic weapons, plenty of video cameras, barriers to prevent car bombs and truck bombs. I have been told that if an intruder managed to get inside the storage facility, he or she would confront a series of lethal impediments before getting anywhere near the uranium.
Wackenhut is no longer responsible for the security at Y-12. Two months after the break-in, its contract was terminated, and Babcock & Wilcox took over the guard force. Creating a single, integrated management structure at the site promised to improve its security. But a couple of embarrassing incidents soon occurred. On June 6, 2013, Brenda L. Haptonstall, a sixty-two-year-old woman, was allowed to pass through the main entrance at Y-12 and drive the full length of the complex without being asked to show any identification. Haptonstall later said that she had been looking for a low-cost apartment building that she’d spotted in an ad. The sight of “nice officers waving her through with illuminated flashlight cones” didn’t strike her as unusual, according to the police report. There’s probably been an accident, she thought, driving into the high-security nuclear-weapons site. The following month, on the first anniversary of the Plowshares action at Y-12, a security guard accidentally fired his gun inside an armored vehicle. Fragments ricocheting off the interior armor injured two guards. Babcock & Wilcox’s contract at Y-12 was not renewed.
Consolidated Nuclear Security (C.N.S.), a consortium headed by Bechtel and Lockheed Martin, has operated Y-12 since last July. C.N.S. is in charge of the security equipment and the security personnel at the site. Although the guard force there is largely unchanged, new managers run it. Morgan Smith, the chief operating officer of C.N.S., seems tough, competent, and blunt. He previously ran the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, a Bechtel facility north of Albany that helps maintain nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy. Smith makes no excuses for the security lapses at Y-12 that preceded his arrival. “What happened in 2012 became something that could be used, going forward, in a very positive way across the complex,” he says. All the employees at the site are now expected to feel personally responsible for its security. Smith is confident that Y-12 is a more secure place today than in the past. And he says that the guards want “to do everything possible to restore the pride and reputation” of their force.
Standing atop Chestnut Ridge, looking down at the Y-12 complex, I felt uneasy. The valley that the site occupies is quite narrow, the hills overlooking it densely wooded. The fear of a sniper that had made Sergeant Riggs put on body armor before dealing with the Plowshares intruders suddenly made sense. Terrorists attacking Y-12 from the ridge would have the advantage of high ground and a great deal of cover. At night, they would be hard to see. Ideally, some of the trees on those hills would be chopped down for security reasons, regardless of what local environmentalists might think. From the ridge top, America’s most important storage facility for weapons-grade uranium no longer looked so intimidating. It looked vulnerable and exposed. During the Middle Ages, castles were built at the top of a hill, not at the bottom.
Weeks later, I learned that others had expressed similar concerns about Y-12 for years. The initial design of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility was a concrete bunker covered on top and on three sides by an earthen berm. When Babcock & Wilcox assumed management of Y-12, in 2000, it changed the design, claiming that a building aboveground would be less expensive. Four years later, the Department of Energy’s Inspector General argued that an above-ground, fortress-like design would actually be more expensive and less secure. Danielle Brian, the head of the Project on Government Oversight, stressed those very points during congressional testimony in May, 2004. An aboveground storage facility would have five exposed surfaces—four walls and a roof—that terrorists could attack. A bermed facility would have only one. The most secure nuclear-weapons storage site in the United States, according to the military and civilian experts whom I consulted, is the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex, at Kirtland Air Force Base, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In satellite photographs, aside from an entrance ramp and an exit ramp, the structure is practically invisible.
The Y-12 National Security Complex may be known as the Fort Knox of Uranium, but the United States Bullion Depository, the real Fort Knox, in Kentucky, is guarded by federal officers. They are members of the U.S. Mint Police, a law-enforcement agency that’s been in continuous operation since 1792. And Fort Knox is right next door to Fort Knox, an Army base with thousands of soldiers. Nobody has ever broken into the bullion depository, and none of its roughly forty-five hundred tons of gold has ever been stolen. But that gold is nowhere near as valuable as what’s being guarded by the private contractors at Y-12. A pound of gold is worth about twenty thousand dollars. A pound of weapons-grade uranium, on the black market, could be worth at least a hundred times that amount.
This summer will mark the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bomb’s invention and its use against two Japanese cities. The anniversary will be commemorated by rallies and speeches demanding the abolition of nuclear weapons. That has been the professed desire of most American Presidents since 1945, including Harry Truman. But I’ve spoken with military officers, academics, and former Pentagon officials who think the notion of abolishing nuclear weapons is a dangerous and impossible fantasy. They would like the United States to modernize its nuclear-weapons and delivery systems instead. Their arguments go something like this:
Fifty to sixty million people were killed during the Second World War. America’s nuclear weapons not only ended that war but also played a crucial role in avoiding a third one. Our nuclear weapons prevented the Soviet domination of Japan and Western Europe. History has shown that traditional enemies who have nuclear weapons don’t fight wars against one another. Nuclear deterrence works. Both China and Russia are now spending heavily to modernize their nuclear forces. If the United States doesn’t modernize as well, it will appear weak. And, if the United States unilaterally reduces the number of weapons in its arsenal, allies currently shielded under its “nuclear umbrella,” like Japan and South Korea, will build their own nuclear weapons—greatly increasing the likelihood of a nuclear war. Tampering with a national-security strategy that has kept the peace among world powers for seventy years would be a risky and irrational move. A treaty to abolish nuclear weapons would be as effective as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international agreement, signed by the United States in 1928, that outlawed war.
The Catholic Church once agreed with many of those arguments. For most of the Cold War, the Vatican was staunchly anti-Communist, and nuclear deterrence was blessed as a means of containing the influence of the Soviet Union. Last December, the Vatican released a statement that broke from decades of Church teaching on nuclear weapons. The distinction between having them and using them seems to have vanished. “Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to abolition,” the Vatican said. And Dorothy Day, once mocked and reviled, is now being promoted for sainthood by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the conservative Archbishop of New York.
The Department of Justice doesn’t seem proud of having imprisoned the Plowshares activists who broke into Y-12. Nobody at the Justice Department or the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Knoxville would discuss the case with me. Nor would the two prosecutors who handled the case.
Sister Megan Rice is currently imprisoned at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. My request to visit her was denied by Kimberly Ask-Carlson, the prison’s warden. When I appealed the decision, my request was denied again. Asked for an explanation, Ask-Carlson wrote me a letter that said, “I have decided to deny your request due to safety and security concerns.” When I inquired whose safety and security might be jeopardized by my visit, a prison spokesman declined to answer. Sister Megan is eighty-five, one of the oldest women in the federal prison system, and she has a heart condition. During roughly the same period in which the Justice Department refused to let me meet with her for security reasons, the National Nuclear Security Administration allowed me to visit three high-security nuclear-weapons sites.
I corresponded with Sister Megan for months, and she was eventually allowed to speak with me on the phone. We talked about her upbringing in Manhattan, her parents, and their commitment to racial equality in the nineteen-thirties. She told me about her years in Africa and her introduction to the peace movement. We discussed what happened at Y-12. But the subject that Sister Megan now seems the most passionate about is the suffering of her fellow-inmates. She is confined in a dormitory, not a cell. It has about sixty bunk beds, separated from one another by a few feet, without any partitions. There is no privacy, and the room can get “shrieking” loud. Many of the women seem to have been incarcerated for drug offenses. She thinks that most of them have been the victims of abuse. Instead of complaining or focussing on her own case, she has encouraged inmates to write to me about theirs. At the end of a conversation that felt too brief, Sister Megan said, “Bless you, brother. And thanks.”
Michael Walli is being held at the Federal Correctional Institution, McKean, a medium-security facility in northwest Pennsylvania. I wasn’t allowed to visit him, either, but we spoke on the phone for an hour and a half. His recall of dates and numbers is extraordinary, and, despite being a high-school dropout, he readily quotes passages of the Bible and lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s speeches. Walli believes that King is literally a saint, despite having been a Baptist, and considers Sister Megan to be a prophet of God. When I asked about the sabotage charge, Walli let loose. “Well, the U.S. government has trespassed against its own constitutional, legal obligations by its torture policies, its assassination campaigns, its illegal wars, a whole bunch of illegal weapons besides the nuclear weapons,” he said. “The U.S. government is a failed, rogue, terrorist nation.”
As for the Y-12 break-in, Walli thinks it would have received more media coverage if they’d been shot. And he was prepared for that to happen. “I’m ready to go into the afterlife,” Walli said. “My citizenship is in Heaven. When I go off into the judgment seat before Jesus Christ, the just judge, I’m not going to wave a U.S. flag in Jesus’ face, that’s for sure.” He will be sixty-nine years old when he’s released.
Leavenworth Penitentiary is the oldest federal prison and one of the most unsettling. Built more than a century ago, in Kansas, it was designed to look like the U.S. Capitol. Imagine the Capitol, flattened, stretched, surrounded by forty-foot-high walls made of red brick and topped with gun towers. Leavenworth was a maximum-security prison for more than a century, filled with bank robbers, train robbers, killers, mobsters, rapists. As I headed up the steep concrete steps to see Gregory Boertje-Obed, I thought about the thousands of violent inmates who had been locked away there. Many had reached the top of the stairs, walked into the place, and never walked out.
I met with Boertje-Obed in a small visiting room filled with beige plastic chairs. The only other people in the room were a prison official and a corrections officer, both of them polite and friendly and not especially interested in our conversation. Leavenworth is a medium-security facility today. But gang members, drug dealers, and murderers are still incarcerated there, amid a prison culture rigidly divided by race. The typical inmate is serving a ten-year sentence. In an environment that would frighten most people, Boertje-Obed seemed calm, grounded, and philosophical. He was there for a reason, and was just fine with it.
As a young man, Boertje-Obed seemed an unlikely candidate for a cell block. He grew up in a series of Iowa towns—Pella, Sioux Center, Ames. His father was a biology teacher, and the family was deeply religious. They attended two services at the local Dutch Reformed church every Sunday. Boertje-Obed went to Tulane University in 1973, joined the Army R.O.T.C. to help cover the tuition, and then entered a graduate program at Louisiana State University to study social psychology. He wrote a master’s thesis on whether personality tests could predict leadership ability and hoped to become an academic researcher. Before that could happen, he became a first lieutenant in the Army to fulfill his R.O.T.C. obligations.
Assigned to a combat-engineer battalion at Fort Polk, in central Louisiana, Boertje-Obed trained to be a supervisor at a medical-aid station. In battle, his job would be to organize the care of the wounded. In 1980, he was part of a major field exercise in Louisiana. During the war game, a Soviet armored column headed south from Monroe toward his unit. His battalion camped out in the fields and prepared for a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack, donning gas masks and protective suits. Boertje-Obed was in charge of the medics. He had to make sure that everyone wore the masks for an hour, then two hours, then three, four, five. Members of his unit began to cheat, pulling the masks away from their faces. It was excruciating to wear the masks for ten minutes, let alone four or five hours. The whole exercise seemed pointless to Boertje-Obed; he’d die during a real attack.
Boertje-Obed had begun reading about Dorothy Day, who had encouraged workers at munitions plants to walk away from their jobs. “God will lead and provide for you,” she had assured them. It seemed as though Day were speaking directly to him. He read the Bible and books about civil disobedience. He started to believe that you should love your enemies. The field exercise was his tipping point. Nope, he thought. I won’t coöperate anymore in the planning for nuclear war.
Boertje-Obed left the Army, returned to Baton Rouge, and took theology classes at L.S.U. He became involved in anti-nuclear activism, studied nonviolent resistance with Daniel Berrigan, moved to Jonah House, and lived there for seventeen years. Boertje-Obed and Philip Berrigan painted houses together three or four times a week and planned break-ins at nuclear-weapons sites. Boertje-Obed’s life became a series of protests, arrests, jailings, and imprisonments on behalf of peace. At one point, like the Berrigans, he went on the run. But that was an exception. On a fundamental level, he accepted responsibility for his actions. When, during a Plowshares trial, a court-appointed attorney tried to persuade a jury that he was innocent, pointing to the absence of fingerprints or photographs linking him to the scene, Boertje-Obed stood up, told the jury he’d done it, and started to explain why. The judge cited him for contempt of court.
In the months leading up to the Y-12 break-in, Boertje-Obed was happily married, living at the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker House in Duluth, and painting houses. One of the few times that he cross-examined a government witness during the trial in Knoxville was to question the amount of paint that Babcock & Wilcox bought to cover up the graffiti. He thought twenty buckets sounded excessive.
Boertje-Obed was slight and soft-spoken, wearing a beige prison uniform that looked a couple of sizes too big. But, as I listened to him talk about his faith and his devotion to nonviolence it became clear that deep down he was harder and tougher than most of the inmates in the yard. Henry David Thoreau spent a single night in jail as an act of civil disobedience and then wrote a famous essay about it. Boertje-Obed had already spent more than a thousand nights behind bars for his beliefs and may spend at least a thousand more. He seemed to have no regrets. “You must live your Christian beliefs fully,” he told me, “as though judgment may come at any moment.”
Boertje-Obed said that no one from the government has ever asked him for suggestions about how the security at nuclear-weapon sites could be improved. He certainly doesn’t want terrorists to do what he’s done. The Bureau of Prisons sent him to Leavenworth, nine hours away from his family, he said, because it considers him to be a “domestic terrorist.” Boertje-Obed plays a lot of Scrabble now, belongs to a Bible-study group, and spends time teaching a man in his cell block how to read. If he’s attacked by another inmate, he won’t fight back. But he might intervene to separate other inmates who are fighting.Right before the corrections officer led him out of the room, Boertje-Obed looked me in the eye and gave a subtle little smile.
I stood across the street from Leavenworth Penitentiary, taking in the view. The Stars and Stripes hung from a flagpole in front of the steps, sunshine glistened in the razor wire, the sky was clear and blue. The prison looked like an image on an old postcard, a haunting, uniquely American symbol of state power. And a thought occurred to me: the walls of the penitentiary guarding this pacifist were taller and more impenetrable than any of the fences at Y-12. ♦
*An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Industrial Workers of the World.
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