Monday's events in the Arabian Sea off Yemen sound like the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel: A "stateless" ship with its name and nationality painted over is intercepted by Spanish warships who, acting at the request of U.S. intelligence, compel it to submit to inspection.

Buried in its hold beneath tons of concrete are discovered as many as 12 North Korean Scud B ballistic missiles. Initially, the final destination is unknown. The intended recipients may have been our so-called allies in the war on terror, the government of Yemen. Alternatively, they may have been al Qaeda cells operating out of Yemeni strongholds.

The part that Clancy's editors would surely reject as too far-fetched for fiction would be the Bush administration's decision today to release this prize seized on the high seas in a time of war. They would be right. It is absolutely unbelievable that the United States government felt unable to prevent the transshipment of these missiles to Yemen. So is the proposition that this action was made acceptable from a security point of view by the Yemenis' promise not to allow these delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction to fall into dangerous hands!

If Clancy fiction is notable not only for its readability but its pedagogic value, the lessons offered by this real-life drama should be even more educational for security policy-makers and the public, alike:

--North Korea certainly qualifies as a member of the Axis of Evil. It is proliferating the technology for weapons of mass destruction, and the missiles with which they can be delivered, around the world . Since such commodities are Pyongyang's only cash crop, it would be folly to expect that there will be any change in this deadly trade unless and until Kim Jong-Il's Stalinist regime falls.

There is, in fact, a delicious irony to the timing of news of the high-seas intercept: It coincided with Jimmy Carter's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo -- a distinction accorded him in part due to his freelance diplomacy in 1994 with the original North Korean despot, Kim Il-Sung. The misbegotten Carter mission to Pyongyang in that year bought the Orwellian Communists there time to acquire nuclear weapons and develop and export ever-more capable ballistic missiles to fellow rogue states and, perhaps, to non-state actors around the world.

--Scud B missiles pose a threat not only to vital U.S. interests and allies around the world but potentially to the United States, as well. In the past, Saddam Hussein used such weapons to rain death and destruction wrought by conventional explosives on Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. If allowed to do so in the future, he and/or other rogue states armed by North Korea may well try to kill American forces or allied populations with Scud-delivered weapons of mass destruction.

The intercepted ship calls to mind another horrifying scenario, however. If the stateless vessel had one of its missiles on a transporter-erector-launcher inside a deck-mounted,  dismantleable container and the ship was within a hundred miles or so of the U.S. coast, a large proportion of this country's population could be put without warning into the cross-hairs of the ship's missileers.

The U.S. demonstrated the feasibility of launching a ballistic missile from a surface ship nearly four decades ago. In 1998, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission chaired by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned that American cities could face missile threats far faster if some of the thousands of short-range systems that currently exist around the world were to be launched from litoral waters, than we would if longer-range missiles had to be developed and fired from farther away.

What is more, in a recent address to a Washington think tank, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz revealed that the U.S. government was aware that at least one rogue state regime was interested in acquiring just such a capability.

--North Korea's trade in Scud missiles, to say nothing of more capable, longer-range No Dongs and Taepo Dongs, is not legitimate. It is the height of folly for the U.S. to signal that such trafficking is anything other than the sort of proliferation that we are determined to stop. If the president's newly unveiled strategy for countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems is to have any meaning, it must entail the use of whatever means are necessary, including force, to intercept and prevent this sort of trade -- even if the purchaser claims to be an ally in the war on terror.

--America must urgently acquire and deploy defenses against ballistic missile attack. Unless corrected, the decision not to prevent these missiles from being delivered can only increase the appetite of rogue states and sub-national groups to try to acquire them. It is just a matter of time before one or more of them finds its way onto a ship to pose a Clancyesque threat to an undefended U.S. from the sea.

Fortunately, three successful tests of missile defenses in recent months from a Navy cruiser suggest that President Bush now has an option quickly and relatively inexpensively to begin rectifying our dangerous vulnerability to sea-launched and other ballistic missile attacks. Ideally, such a defense would enhance the effectiveness of other counter-proliferation initiatives. However, it becomes absolutely imperative if the U.S. fails in the future -- as it did today -- to keep ballistic missiles out of the hands of unreliable people, and possibly worse.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.