WASHINGTON — With the country on high alert for another Al Qaeda attack, the Bush administration is facing increasing criticism for allegedly not doing enough to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
The 9/11 Commission and leading nonproliferation experts say that the administration has been too lax in securing nuclear weapons and materials in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Administration officials are expected to be grilled on the issue next week, during congressional hearings on the report of the 9/11 Commission.
The commissioners, in their final report, stopped short of directly assigning blame for the situation. They did, however, mention that “outside experts are deeply worried about the U.S. government’s commitment and approach to securing the weapons and highly dangerous materials still scattered in Russia and other countries of the Soviet Union.”
In contrast to the Bush administration, which has focused intensely on neutralizing the threat of nuclear material transfers from Middle Eastern governments to terrorists, the 9/11 report stresses the danger of unsupervised nuclear materials ending up in the hands of terrorists. A nuclear bomb, the report states, “can be built with a relatively small amount of nuclear material.” A bomb made with highly enriched uranium or plutonium “about the size of a grapefruit,” detonated by commercially available explosives “would level Lower Manhattan,” the report warns.
Sensing Bush’s vulnerability on the issue, the democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, has recently made the problem of “loose nukes” one of his main arguments in criticizing President Bush for his performance on national security. Experts who, for the most part, agree that Bush has not made the containment of “loose nukes” a high enough priority, expect the issue to emerge during debates between Kerry and Bush.
“Kerry and [his running-mate, Senator John] Edwards, are making this a line of attack, and they have a point,” said Scott Parrish, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, a journal issued by the independent Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. A month ago, the center published an extensive report on nuclear terrorism, which criticized the administration for lacking a comprehensive plan to address the threat of terrorists with nuclear capability and for not making it a higher priority.
The administration needs to be more focused on the former Soviet Union, where many nuclear facilities lack minimal safety devices, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an independent Washington think tank. “All the experts I know recommend that the most urgent task to prevent terrorist networks from getting their hands on such materials is to secure the stockpiles of these materials where they exist,” Kimball said. “And the prime location is Russia and the former Soviet Union.”
The main tool for securing the Russian and former Soviet nuclear stockpile, according to the 9/11 Commission’s report, is the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, popularly known as the “Nunn-Lugar” program, named after the senators who sponsored the legislation in 1991. The program aims at destroying or converting Russian nuclear warheads, and securing stockpiles of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The program, at first, received $300 million to $400 million per year. Some conservatives criticized it as an inappropriate use of American dollars on a former foe, which in turn could free up Russian money to further develop weapon systems.
Before September 11, 2001, the Bush administration intended to cut funding for the program, but reversed course after the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The White House decided to maintain the $400 million figure, while promising to increase funding to a level of $1 billion for the next 10 years. In addition, the administration leveraged a pledge from members of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations for a similar sum.
Most critics agree that the level of funding is now sufficient, but they also said the pace is too slow and that the scope is too narrow. “Ten years is too long,” said Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of “Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
“We should be aiming to do that in the next four years. It’s a perfectly reasonable timetable. Let’s go out there and get this stuff,” Cirincione said. “What we should be doing is implementing a very aggressive program, to go out and secure and eliminate all potential sources of nuclear weapons and materials that terrorists might attain” whether in the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Iran or more than 40 countries that run research reactors. “Would this be expensive? Yes. But you could do that annually for the price of about one moth of operations in Iraq: $3 billion to $4 billion a year.”
Administration officials recently said that about 70% of nuclear facilities in Russia and the former Soviet republics meet the safety standards prescribed by the Nunn-Lugar program. But outside experts argue that the rate is as low as 40% to 50%.
Some experts criticized the 9/11 Commission for not going far enough in outlining the effort that is needed to curb and control nuclear proliferation, to prevent such materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.
The report concludes that preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons “warrants a maximum effort — by strengthening counter-proliferation efforts,” including an expansion of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program to detect nuclear materials in shipments at American ports, and continued support for the Nunn-Lugar program.
Some experts say that the commission didn’t go far enough. Given its focus on the specter of nuclear terrorism, one could expect bolder recommendations. “These are relatively minor measures,” said Carnegie’s Cirincione. “It will be good to do all these things, but this is nowhere near a maximum effort. A maximum effort, said Cirincione and other experts, would be an aggressive, comprehensive global strategy that covers all nuclear facilities worldwide. “It’s too bad that the commission pulled its punches for the sake of bipartisan consensus.”