The prospect of "a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan" is the nation's top security worry, President Barack Obama said Tuesday as he rejected the notion that Russia's aggression toward Ukraine marks its re-emergence as America's top foe.
Obama's comments came during a news conference with Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague at the close of a 53-nation nuclear security summit aimed at preventing nuclear materials from falling into terrorist hands for use in a fission weapon or crude "dirty bomb." Asked by a reporter if Republican Mitt Romney had a point during the 2012 presidential campaign when he asserted Russia is the United States' "No. 1 geopolitical foe," Obama disagreed.
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"Russia's actions are a problem," the president said. "They don't pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States.
"I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan, which is part of the reason why the United States, showing its continued international leadership, has organized a forum over the last several years that's been able to help eliminate that threat in a consistent way."
Obama was addressing a concern that has been on the minds of national security officials and the NYPD at least since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Intelligence reports suggested al-Qaida has mulled attempting to obtain and set off a dirty bomb -- conventional explosives that spew radioactive materials -- in the United States.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Obama was right to remind the nation that New York City remains a prime terrorist target. But King took issue with playing down the Russian threat.
"Over the years, the nightmare scenario has been a dirty bomb going off in New York," but "terrorism is not part of a country or state," King said.
"As far as a nation, as far as a country we face, it would be Russia" that poses the top threat, King said.
After 9/11, the NYPD and police in other major cities were given tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to purchase radiation detectors, including hundreds that are worn by police officers. Larger ones are used at major bridges and tunnels, as well as highways leading into the city. "Low probability, high impact," was how former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly once characterized the threat of a nuclear weapon being used in the city.
A crude 10-kiloton nuclear plutonium or uranium device set off in mid-Manhattan could obliterate a quarter-mile area, kill and injure tens of thousands, break windows miles away and spew dangerous fallout over surrounding suburbs, according to experts' studies.
Dirty bombs spreading radioactive medical isotopes like Cesium-137, while not as deadly in terms of blast effects, could cause billions of dollars in economic dislocation and associated cleanup costs in the city, as well as health problems, federal officials have said.
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and his counterterrorism expert, Deputy Commissioner John Miller, were unavailable to comment Tuesday about Obama's remarks.
Last week at a City Council budget hearing, Bratton noted that the department will be asking for more federal money to purchase "critical explosive and radiation detection equipment."
With Tom Brune