May 1, 2007  

See no evil

Countering WMD proliferation is a job the Pentagon doesn’t want

The Bush administration launched the war in Iraq ostensibly to secure weapons of mass destruction and prevent al-Qaida from acquiring them. The president has said repeatedly that nothing is more important to the security of the U.S. than preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. And yet, while the U.S. spends $10 billion a month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department plans to spend nearly 25 percent less on securing fissile material and weapons of mass destruction in 2008 than it spent in 2006.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently didn’t think much of nonproliferation efforts. Former Assistant Defense Secretary Kenneth Adelman, quoted in a recent New York Times Magazine article by Michael Crowley, says Rumsfeld thought “it was a wimpy thing to have the Pentagon involved in.” These days, it is clear from their actions that Pentagon leaders have less desire to fund nonproliferation efforts than J. Edgar Hoover had in playing touch football at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport.

The reasons why remain one of the great mysteries and ultimate frustrations for nonproliferation believers in both nongovernmental organizations and within the halls of the Pentagon.

There’s no denying the successes of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, conceived by Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar as a way to destroy or secure the former Soviet Union’s stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Because of their landmark 1992 legislation, 6,312 nuclear warheads were deactivated or destroyed, 128 bombers and 27 nuclear submarines have been chopped up, 208 metric tons of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium were blended down to a form unusable for bombs, 260 tons of fissile material were secured within proper protective facilities, and 58,000 former weapons scientists are now engaged in peaceful work.

And yet, on the 15th anniversary of Nunn-Lugar’s initial funding, the Pentagon has zeroed-out all spending for destruction of chemical weapons in its 2008 budget request. That’s right, Pentagon leaders don’t see the value next year in spending one thin dime to destroy or secure VX, soman, sarin, or lewisite/mustard nerve and blister agents from Russia or the former Soviet states.

The 2008 Defense Department funding request for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act is $348 million, down from $372 million this year and $454 million in 2006. Factor in inflation, and funding for Nunn-Lugar is down by nearly half since its inception.

How could that be, given that 150,000 American troops are embroiled in a war that was all about securing nuclear material and preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction? And what about the 1 percent doctrine? Vice President Dick Cheney was quoted in Ron Suskind’s recent book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” saying that the U.S. would be justified in its Iraq military actions even if there was only a 1 percent chance of “the unimaginable coming due.” Isn’t there a 1 percent chance that terrorists will get their hands on WMDs? Ten billion dollars a month to fight a war in which there were no weapons of mass destruction is justified, but spending a fraction of that over an entire year to secure WMDs is not?

Zeroed Out

When I pointed this out to Lugar’s press secretary, Andy Fisher, he responded that “Nunn-Lugar is fully funded for the mission.” According to Fisher, Nunn-Lugar is being defunded because construction of a billion-dollar chemical weapons neutralization plant in Russia is virtually done.

Not so, say a number of former Defense Department, Energy Department and Senate Armed Services Committee officials who have personally inspected the site.

Chemical-weapons storage and destruction have always been key components of the Nunn-Lugar program. Since Russia became a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 (it was ratified by both the U.S. and Russia in 1997), it has declared more than 40,000 tons of chemical weapons spread over seven stockpiles — most of it contained in millions of artillery shells. The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions addressing that material through the development of mobile testing laboratories, an analysis facility in Moscow and the decommissioning of a pair of production facilities.

The centerpiece of the efforts to destroy Russia’s chemical weapons stockpiles is at Shchuch’ye, north of Kazakhstan in the Ural Mountains, where Russia has stored 5,400 tons of nerve agents. The U.S. agreed in the mid-1990s to spend about $1 billion on the construction of a plant to do away with the chemical weapons there, but construction costs have doubled from the initial $750 million estimate. With no more Nunn-Lugar funding for chemical weapons destruction in the 2008 budget, the U.S. is leaving the facility only partially built and the job undone.

“We’re cutting short that project by several hundred million dollars and failing to complete the full scope,” said Paul Walker, former senior adviser to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and program manager at Global Green USA, the U.S. affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross International. “There are three other nerve agent sites that are either unfunded or underfunded in Russia.”

If there is any good news at all in the rapidly shrinking funding for Nunn-Lugar it is that the Pentagon has finally acknowledged the threat of biological weapons. For 2008, the Pentagon has requested $75 million more in Nunn-Lugar funding to secure and destroy bio-weapons.

“Chemical threat reduction is quickly becoming bio-threat reduction,” said Kenneth Luongo, the former senior adviser to the secretary of energy for nonproliferation policy and executive director of the Partnership for Global Security. “What’s driving it is homeland security and disease surveillance. In the last eight to 10 years we’ve found new infectious diseases with their roots in the animal world. The Bush administration wants better surveillance of that and they see biological threats as something they don’t have a good grip on. What they’re doing with bio is great.”

Unfortunately, little of that work is likely to be done in Russia, which is extremely reluctant to give U.S. inspectors access to its bio-weapons sites.

“The Pentagon is sunsetting chemical threat reduction and moving to other states that are more cooperative,” Walker said. “That leaves major threats that hold a high risk for U.S. security.”

What’s Best?

There are several ways to look at funding levels for Nunn-Lugar. First, is it adequate to do what the government says it needs to do to address what it calls the No. 1 threat against the U.S.? Granted, some of the major weapons-destruction-related construction projects are winding down, but why are there no new programs being conceived, let alone implemented? Earlier this decade, legislation gave the Pentagon authorization to spend Nunn-Lugar money outside the former Soviet states. Since then, that authorization has been exercised only once, when $50 million was spent to secure or destroy a stockpile of chemical weapons that turned up in Albania.

“Albania is not the only place on the planet that needs DoD expertise in addressing nonproliferation challenges,” said Laura Holgate, former director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program at the Defense Department under Defense Secretary William Perry in the 1990s and now a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a public charity founded by Nunn and Ted Turner in 2001. “It is a question of priorities. Funding priorities are one way to measure how seriously things are taken. Nunn-Lugar is a cheap way to get a high-quality outcome. Think of the money we would have spent in the 1980s to destroy Russia’s nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear programs in South Asia and North Korea are two examples tailor-made for Nunn-Lugar-type activities. On the subcontinent, for example, the U.S. should be working with India to make sure its nuclear facilities are properly secured. And North Korea could be a classic Nunn-Lugar success: Eliminate the infrastructure, and either transfer the fissile material out of the country or blend it down to a state unusable for weapons.

The absolute wrong way to look at funding, however, is as a giveaway to Russia — in other words, foreign aid to a former enemy (though the Marshall Plan turned out pretty well for the U.S. after World War II).

“Let the Russians pay for it themselves” has always been the mantra from Nunn-Lugar detractors, not acknowledging that it is in America’s best interest to do whatever it takes to keep WMDs out of the hands of terrorists. I haven’t heard anyone argue that Nunn-Lugar isn’t working, only that the Russians should pay for it themselves. In the mid-1990s, a writer at the Heritage Foundation even argued that Nunn-Lugar money should instead be spent on building more B-2 bombers. Yes, we’d all be much safer if there were 12 more B-2 bombers sitting in hangars at Whiteman Air Force Base.

It’s a classic case of doing what’s best for yourself rather than what’s best for your country.

“This is a governmentwide problem, but a DoD issue,” said George Perkovich, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Everyone says publicly that proliferation is the greatest threat to the U.S., but it’s not sexy compared to funding weapons platforms. It is not where generals make their careers or where civilians make big money after they leave the Pentagon. It’s also true in Congress. Would they rather spend money in Russia or in the U.S.?”

With a shortsightedness that rivals construction of the Maginot Line or the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, too many Pentagon leaders believe that nonproliferation is a job for the Energy or State departments, ignoring the reality that military-to-military cooperation and trust between American and Russian generals is the quickest and most effective way to tackle the problem.

Today, even as the American-Russian political relationship deteriorates, nobody is worried that the land of the czars will revert to being our sworn enemy once again. The relationship has morphed over time, but it has also remained constant in the face of political ups and downs — even when the U.S. was bombing Russian ally Serbia.

What’s altered today is Russia’s economy, which has been bolstered by $70-a-barrel crude oil. That’s resurrected the argument that Nunn-Lugar is little more than a foreign aid package for Russia and changed American political willingness on Capitol Hill to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to secure Russian WMDs.

At the same time, Russia’s newfound prosperity has also altered its willingness to engage in the pay-for-play relationship under which U.S. inspectors have traipsed through Russian weapons facilities as a quid pro quo for putting up the money. Today, Russia is once again flexing its muscle — not as a military power but as an economic one. Overflowing in petro-rubles, Russia is now more interested in tapping America’s technical expertise, particularly in areas like nuclear energy development, than it is in tapping America’s bank account. We’re willing to share that expertise with everyone from India to North Korea, so why not Russia if it means that more WMDs are taken out of play?

In the larger scheme of things, it is not Russia’s growing economic might that we should fear — it is the terrorists and the nonstate actors who are now the nightmare.

“A lot of the egregious security problems from the early 1990s have been fixed with fences and detectors,” said Matthew Bunn, a former arms control official in the Clinton administration and senior research associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “But there are reasons to still be concerned. Where in the past the threat was one guy with no plan stuffing nuclear material in his pocket, now we’re seeing insider conspiracies to steal everything that isn’t nailed down.

“There are huge external threats now, like the 30 guys with grenades who took over the school in Beslan,” said Bunn, referring to the Chechen terrorists whose attack on a school in Western Russia in 2004 led to the deaths of nearly 350 children and adults. “We know that Chechen reconnaissance teams have carried out surveillance against nuclear sites. These are bigger threats than existing security can handle.”

I don’t believe that an act of nuclear terrorism is necessarily inevitable. As argued by Graham Allison, the long-time Defense Department adviser and former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, such an occurrence is the “ultimate preventable catastrophe.”

We know that there is a demand from terrorists to acquire WMDs. We also know that there is a supply of WMDs out there. As yet, supply and demand have not met, but the window in time to keep them apart is shrinking.

BARRY ROSENBERG has covered aerospace and defense issues for two decades. He is the co-author with Catherine Macaulay of “Mavericks of the Sky: The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail.”