The request dovetails with the publication this week of a report by the US government’s auditing agency, the General Accounting Office, or GAO, that said Russian secrecy concerns at its nuclear sites are severely impeding progress of the 11-year-old Nunn-Lugar programme’s drive to provide safer storage for nuclear weapons arsenals.
The proposed expansion of the programme to include countries other than former Soviet states, however, has long been on the wish-list of many senior threat reduction officials and security analysts who say that focusing only on former Cold War left-overs limits the programme’s options in preventing other nations’ weapons stockpiles and radioactive materials from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.
One such stockpile, in Belgrade, had to be removed last year with funding assistance from the non-governmental Nuclear Threat Initiative because of Nunn-Lugar’s current restrictions that funding be used only to dismantle Soviet arsenals.
New White House commitment
US President George Bush asked for the additional $50m in funding in his $75bn supplemental appropriations request made Tuesday primarily to fund the US-led war in Iraq. The request for the new authority is partially redundant, since the Pentagon already requested the spending authority in its fiscal year 2004 budget request.
The Bush Administration had asked for funding last year to remove weapons-grade nuclear material from two dozen sites around the world. Republicans in the House of Representatives, however, opposed last year’s request.
Observers suggested that Bush’s request indicated a heightened commitment from the White House to threat reduction efforts.
“It shows the seriousness and importance the Bush Administration places on this. The US doesn’t have authority to pick up WMD [weapons of mass destruction] outside of the former USSR,” Senator Richard Lugar’s spokesman, Andy Fisher told the Global Security Newswire. Lugar, along with former Senator Sam Nunn, helped create the Nunn-Lugar, or CTR, legislation in 1991.
Lugar, who is also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has vowed to expand CTR authority to include nations that are not part of the ex-Soviet states. He recently has argued the administration needs to focus more attention on efforts to curb global nuclear proliferation.
GAO report triggers debates
The White House expansion request, however, was the only bright spot in a week characterized by sharp debates about the progress of CTR efforts that were inspired by the GAO report. Among the report’s most troubling findings were that only 227 tonnes of the 600 tonnes of weapons usable material in Russia is being kept at facilities with safeguards enhanced by the Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programme.
The GAO report also found that progress in the area of security improvements has been slowed because Russia continues to bar US officials from many nuclear sites they wish to upgrade, despite a more liberal access agreement reached with Moscow in September 2001.
“Russia is not providing needed access to many sites… [and] there is little reason to believe this situation will change in the near future,” said the GAO report.
Indeed, in a Wednesday news conference, Russia’s Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev flatly rebuffed the GAO report’s suggestions that Russia should be more open with sensitive nuclear sites than it is.
“As for access by representatives of other countries to our sites where nuclear materials are located, we will not show all sites,” Rumyantsev said, according to the Associated Press.
“And where the arrangement of these installations in confidential, we will not display them for international observation. It is a question linked to our defensive capability,” he said.
Rumyantsev told reporters that the level of access Russia is providing to US officials would have been impossible during the Soviet era. As an example, he pointed to a visit this month by US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow to Snezhinsk, the Mayak nuclear reprocessing centre in the Ural Mountains, where the Ambassador reviewed safety upgrades installed with CTR help.
“So in those places where we are cooperating, we show everything, but if it is a sensitive zone for our strategic stability and defence, we will not show it,” Rumyantsev said. “This is all in strict accordance with international laws.”
Challenges on Capitol Hill
It is this reticence from the Russian side that has prompted some in the US House of Representatives to demand overhauls in the CTR system that would include more onerous accounting procedures and less presidential authority to waive CTR’s certification requirements.
Representative Duncan Hunter, Chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, recently said CTR had “morphed into an open-ended, unfocused, and sometimes self-defeating venture.”
In recent days, Hunter told the Washington Post that some $230m in CTR funding was misspent on Russian rocket engine and fuel destruction projects. He then wrote in a USA Today op-ed piece that CTR has stumbled because of problems with access to facilities, spotty cooperation from the Russians, and a diffusion of programmatic focus.
Although he is a supporter of CTR, Hunter wrote that greater accountability in the government programme should be required. His comments, though, may likely be received by anti-CTR Republican camps in Congress as a call to cut back on funding for CTR efforts, or repeal the programmes altogether. Prior to September 11 2001, it was, in fact, the Republican White House’s intention to present deep cutbacks in CTR efforts.
Bush’s refusal to re-certify the programmes last year, and the ensuing battle in Congress to give the president the authority to waive certification requirements, shut down nearly a third of CTR’s activities in Russia for much of 2002. It was not until January that Bush signed a law giving him the authority to waiver certification for three-year periods.
What are the alternatives?
Earlier this month, a group of Harvard researchers said only 37 percent of the potentially vulnerable nuclear material in the former Soviet Union is being adequately protected. The GAO figures produced a similar percentage.
Appearing at a press conference attending the Harvard report’s release, Lugar spoke to the concerns being voiced among House Republicans, saying “Russia has got to be a partner.”
Lugar then cited a lengthy list of cases where Russians have rebuffed the US officials in seeking access to nuclear sites. “I have first hand experience with this,” he said, adding that it would be “absurd” to abandon the programme because of this.
“What alternative do we have?” asked Lugar.
Lugar’s sentiments were echoed in a lengthy statement released Wednesday by the influential Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, or RANSAC, a group that advised both Washington and Moscow on non-proliferation issues.
CTR is already cost effective
Saying that Hunter’s comments leave “the mistaken impression that threat reduction spending is not a cost-effective investment in protecting the homeland and global security,” the RANSAC statement appealed to those in government who would seek to slow and burden CTR efforts with more unwieldy auditing procedures and funding cuts. RANSAC pointed out that the approximately $1bn pf annual spending on the Pentagon-run CTR programme is less than 0.3 percent of the United States’ 2003 defence budget.
On this shoe-string budget, the statement notes, CTR has over the past 12 years removed roughly 6,000 nuclear warheads from deployment; has destroyed more than 400 missile silos; eliminated 1,500 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines and strategic bombers; eliminated 150 metric tonnes of weapons-grade uranium, and destroyed a major chemical weapons production plant.
CTR has also made the transportation and storage of nuclear materials safer, and has given financial support to some 50,000 nuclear, chemical and biological weapons scientists to pursue peace oriented research.
Although the quantity of weapons material that has been secured is minimal compared to that which remains to be secured, the RANSAC statement said that “threat reduction’s problems can only be solved if the Congress and the Bush administration act expeditiously to improve the effort rather than further bruising it.”
“Congress has impeded implementation of key programs because of spending and reporting restrictions. We need leadership that focuses on clearing away obstacles and accelerating progress, not on increasing micromanagement and magnifying mistakes.”
The statement went on to add that “we have been working on this problem for 11 years, and at the current pace there is still a decade of work to go. That is too much time in today’s unpredictable threat environment. More political capital needs to be invested to speed the completion of this work.”
Solutions to the threat reduction impasse
For this to be accomplished, RANSAC spelled out a number of initiatives — which have also been proffered by the many reports on CTR’s progress released since January — that officials should implement this year.
Among them is the creation of a senior coordinator’s position to monitor all CTR activities. This position, according to RANSAC, “must be more powerful than current interagency working groups and must have unfettered access to the President and his senior advisors.”
RANSAC also asserted the importance of “integrating cooperative threat reduction activities into the concept of homeland defence and the war on terrorism. These programs are a first line of defence against WMD threats to the US and its allies, and they should be considered high-priority national security activities, not foreign aid.”
The organization also said that congress should work to provide the president with a permanent authority to waive certification requirements, instead of the three-year authority he currently has. RANSAC also stressed the importance of keeping key CTR programmes at least at current funding levels. In the proposed non-proliferation budget for 2004, many vital security upgrade efforts had their funding cut to pay for new initiatives.
“If terrorists or hostile regimes should gain access to the world’s largest exposed WMD stockpiles because of inertia, distraction, or risk aversion on the part of our leaders,” the RANSAC statement concludes, “our security will suffer despite other victories in the war on terrorism, and the judgment of history will indeed be harsh.”