2002 November 01 Friday
Warren Buffett: 99.5% Odds WMD Terrorism In 50 Years

Writing in the Washington Times Arnaud de Borchgrave reports on Warren Buffett's views on the threat of weapons of mass destruction being used by terrorists:

The chances of making it through the next 50 years without a weapon of mass destruction act of terrorism are no better than 1 in 200. So wrote Warren Buffett, the wizard of Wall Street whose uncanny sixth sense for stock picks made him a billionaire 36 times over and propelled his Berkshire Hathaway into a Fortune 500 powerhouse.

Warren Buffett said this in a letter to former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn who is now the Co-Chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Update: After some digging I was able to find the URL to the PDF of a Sam Nunn speech of October 22, 2002 where he quoted from Warren Buffett's letter:

Through my work at NTI, I’m often asked, “What are the odds of nuclear use by a terrorist group?” Today, I received a letter from Warren Buffett, who is an adviser to NTI, describing the statistical chance of a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon attack in the United States. His letter said:

"If the chance of a weapon of mass destruction being used in a given year is 10 percent and the same probability persists for 50 years, the probability of the event happening at least once during that 50 years is 99.5 percent. Thus, the chance of getting through the 50-year period without a disaster is .51 percent -- just slightly better than one in 200.

“If the probability of similar weapons being utilized can be reduced to 3 percent per year, the world has a 21.8 percent chance of making it through 50 years without an event. And if the annual chance can be reduced to 1 percent, there is a 60.5 percent chance of making it through 50 years.

“Of course, no one knows what the true probabilities are, but this sort of calculation points up the extraordinary benefit to humanity that can be achieved by reducing the probabilities of usage."

At NTI, we are working to reduce toward zero the risk that nuclear, biological or chemical weapons will ever be used, by intent or accident, anywhere in the world. This must become the mission of our government and others.

The PDF makes it a lot easier to see what is being said by Buffett versus what is being said by Nunn or the author of the WT article. Note that it is Buffett who is saying that noone knows what the true probabilities are. So he is not really claiming that there is a 99.5% chance of the use of nuclear weapons or other WMD in a terrorist act in the next 50 years. But its worth noting that both of the example probabilities that Buffett uses in his example are dangerously high. This guy is trying to make a strong point.

My own take on the probability is that it rises every year. The knowledge needed to build WMD continues to spread more widely while the equipment needed becomes more readily available and at lower cost. Not only is the knowledge and equipment spreading more widely but the cost of the equipment will only fall and the rate at which the knowledge spreads will accelerate while new technologies will make it increasingly easier to build both biological and nuclear weapons. It is the recognition of this problem that lies at the heart of the Bush Administration's preemption strategy. If someone wants to seriously argue against preemption they must at least try to propose an alternative to preemption that has a serious prospect of stopping the spread of WMD.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 November 01 04:30 PM  US Foreign Preemption, Deterrence, Containment


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