GAO report slams US aid programme employing Russian weapons scientists

Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Publish date: January 15, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

A US economic aid programme to keep Russian scientists from selling nuclear weapons information to terrorists and rogue has apparently funneled much of the money to scientists who have no background in nuclear programmes, a congressional report issued late last week said.

Auditors with the congressional General Accountability Office (GAO) also found that in many cases assistance went to scientists who were too young to have participated in the Soviet-era weapons programmes, and was instead used to help Russia and Ukraine train new scientists in the field.

At issue is the US Department of Energy’s Initiative for Proliferation Prevention programme, which was inaugurated in 1994 to earmark funds to help Russia pay weapons unemployed weapons scientists to develop non-nuclear and weapons skills and eventually shift to private sector work.

It was hoped the programme would prevent a “brain drain” of native scientists who might be attracted to rogue states or terrorist pay after their salaries were gutted in the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncertain state of its nuclear weapons complex.

The programme has apparently worked in that respect, if measured by the relatively small amount of nuclear know-how that has spread to countries hostile to US interests that can be traced directly to Russia.

But, according to the GAO and many Russian weapons scientists and nonproliferation experts it interviewed there, it has worked so well that the US money is redundant and being put to use for things outside the parameters of the DOE’s IPP programme.

"(The) DOE has not developed an exit strategy for the IPP programme, even though officials from the Russian government, Russian and Ukrainian institutes, and U.S. companies raised questions about the continuing need for the programme government auditors write.

GAO urges an exit strategy from ‘unneeded’ programme
The GAO report urged the DOE to overhaul the nuclear nonproliferation programme and craft a way to end it. Some Russian officials told the auditors the program is no longer needed, given economic improvements in Russia in recent years.

In fiscal 2007, Congress appropriated $28 million for the programme.

"Due to the serious nature of these finding, we recommend that DOE perform a comprehensive reassessment of the IPP programme to help Congress determine whether to continue to fund the programme," the GAO auditors wrote.

While agreeing with a number of the GAO recommendations, such as the call for more rigorous documentation to establish scientists’ WMD background and better ways to measure the number of private sector jobs created, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) disagreed with the report’s overall conclusion.

The NNSA, which oversees the programme, said in a letter attached to the GAO report that the agency viewed the programme as justified and will continue to support it. An NNSA spokesman had no additional comment, citing the letter.

Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s Democratic Congressman and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, who released the GAO report, said the NNSA "should undertake a serious review of the programme’s nonproliferation benefits" and questioned whether its continued funding "makes sense."

"The GAO has raised troubling questions about whether a nonproliferation programme has perversely funded a younger generation of (Russian) weapons scientists," said Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The GAO’s findings
As of last October, there were 929 IPP projects either completed or at some state of activity involving about 200 facilities in Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries, according to the GAO report.

But the report said the DOE has overstated the success of the program both in terms of the number of target scientists that have been helped financially and the number of private-sector jobs that have been were created.

The auditors found that of 6,450 scientists in a sample of projects more than half of the scientists paid by the programme never claimed to have experience in dealing with weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical or biological – or had the ability to conduct the kind of knowledge transfer the programme was aimed at preventing.

Inexperienced scientist getting almost half the money

The scientists without WMD experience received about $10 million in payments, or 40 percent of the money those projects paid their personnel from US coffers.

Officials from 10 Russian and Ukrainian institutes told GAO investigators that programme money had also helped attract and retain not older former Soviet scientists but younger recruits who might otherwise emigrate to the US or other Western countries

While the DOE has said that through April 2007, the assistance program had created 2,790 long-term private sector jobs, the auditors found in their review of 48 projects they "were unable to substantiate the existence of many of these jobs."

That figure is uncertain because the NNSA relies on "good-faith reporting from US industry partners and foreign institutes" and does not independently verify the numbers, the report says.

Some recipients too young to have participated in Cold War
Also, the auditors found that many of the scientists who received assistance were born in 1970 or later, "making them too young to have contributed to Soviet-era WMD efforts," said the report. Some 15 percent of the Russian participants in IPP programmes fit this profile, GAO auditors found.

Instead of reducing the risk of critical information being sold to terrorists, the auditors were told by officials at 10 biological and nuclear institutes in Russia and Ukraine that the US programme simply helped them attract, recruit and retain younger scientists.

The report said the DOE currently is supporting 35 IPP projects at 17 Russian and Ukrainian institutes that the US State Department considers no longer needing assistance.

Instead of finding ways to phase out the IPP programme, said the GAO, the DOE has expanded the programme to include assistance to scientists in Libya and Iraq and for programmes that support a separate DOE initiative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), aimed at expanding use of civilian nuclear power.