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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 65, July - August 2002

US Wrestles with Huge WMD-Terrorism Agenda

The horror of September 11 has dramatically increased the focus of the international community on the threat of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction, or causing massive psychological, economic and environmental harm using nuclear, chemical or biological materials. In the United States, where the sense of vulnerability is understandably severe, the strategy is twofold: naming, shaming and pressurising states it sees as seeking to acquire WMD and working in potential alliance with terrorist groups; and working to put in place effective legal, organisational and physical countermeasures to expose malign intent, prevent attack and minimise the impact of any serious incident.

On May 6, in a speech confusingly entitled 'Beyond the Axis of Evil', John Bolton, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, added three states - Libya, Syria and Cuba - to the 3-member club - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - famously unveiled in the President's State of the Union address. Addressing the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Washington, Bolton accused all six countries of seeking to acquire WMD and sheltering and providing support to terrorists.

The accusations against Cuba caused particular surprise, as well as great anger in Havana. Bolton stated: "Cuba's threat to our security often has been underplayed. ... Here is what we know: the United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research-and-development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support BW programmes in those states. We call on Cuba to cease all BW-applicable cooperation with rogue states and to fully comply with all of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention."

On May 10, Cuban President Fidel Castro responded to the charges in a televised address: "No one has ever presented a single shred of evidence that our homeland has conceived a programme that develops nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The doors of our institutions are open... Cuba has absolutely nothing to hide."

Speaking during an historic visit to Cuba, former US President Jimmy Carter told reporters (May 13) he was puzzled by Bolton's assertions: "I asked them [senior US officials] specifically, on more than one occasion, 'is there any evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes?' And the answer from our experts on intelligence was 'no'."

On June 5, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations' Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Carl W. Ford defended the tentativeness of US allegations against Cuba as both understandable and prudent: "What...can I say about the nature of our assessment? The nature of biological weapons makes it difficult to procure clear, incontrovertible proof that a country is engaged in illicit biological weapons research, production, weaponisation and stockpiling. Cuba's sophisticated denial and deception practices make our task even more difficult. That said we have a sound basis for our judgment that Cuba has at least a limited, developmental, offensive biological warfare research and development effort. I am prepared to discuss the evidence we do have in a closed session..." Senator Christopher Dodd (Democrat) responded: "The issue of biological weapons is a serious matter and we in the Congress should refrain from the temptation to play politics with it. So, too, should the Bush administration." Pressed by Dodd and other subcommittee members on Bolton's May 6 remarks, Ford replied: "What Secretary Bolton intended or meant would be best asked to Secretary Bolton."

The essentially pessimistic premise of the Bush administration with regard to the threat of WMD-terrorism - that the threat is not merely likely but certain to materialise - was expressed with stark clarity by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in testimony to the Senate Appropriations' Defense Subcommittee on May 21: "On September 11, terrorists took commercial jetliners and turned them into missiles, killing thousands. Let there be no doubt, it is only a matter of time before terrorist states, armed with weapons of mass destruction, develop the capability to deliver those weapons to US cities, giving them the ability to try to hold America hostage to nuclear blackmail. With the power and reach of weapons today, we have little margin for error, and we need defenses that can deter and defend against such attacks."

Addressing graduates at the US Military Academy at West Point on June 1, President Bush stressed not only the scale of the threat but the need to strike early and pre-emptively against it: "For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence...means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies. ... We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties and then systematically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialise, we will have waited too long. ... [T]he war on terror cannot be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act."

On June 6, the President announced the creation of a new Cabinet Department to deal with Homeland Security. Bush noted: "The Department of Homeland Security will be charged with four primary tasks. This new agency will control our borders and prevent terrorists and explosives from entering our country. It will work with state and local authorities to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies. It will bring together our best scientists to develop technologies that detect biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and to discover the drugs and treatments to best protect our citizens. And this new Department will review intelligence and law enforcement information from all agencies of government..."

The creation of the new Department is certain to pose major organisational challenges for the two Departments - Defense and Energy - currently dealing with the WMD-terrorism threat, both domestic and international. On the day of the announcement, John A. Gordon, Administrator of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) commented: "Centralizing homeland security responsibility in one Cabinet level Department will improve our response to weapons of mass destruction by leveraging resources currently spread across the government. NNSA scientists, engineers and program managers have worked ably to support the fight against terrorism and we will work to support the standup of this new Department". On June 7, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld issued a statement noting: "The first task of the federal government is to provide for the national defense. Because of the new national security environment we face, it is clearly time for a Department of Homeland Security. ... Since the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense has been refocusing our attention on the evolving new threats. Indeed, defense of the homeland has been our priority. We look forward to working with the newly proposed organization to do everything possible to provide for our country's national defense."

Homeland security is, of course, indivisible from effective international non-proliferation efforts. On May 22, Republican Senator Pete Domenici introduced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act 2002. Countering the threat of a radiological weapon, or 'dirty bomb' - a conventional detonation dispersing radioactive material - is at the forefront of the bill's concerns. According to Domenici: "With this new bill, our programmes to counter threats of nuclear and radiological terrorism will be significantly strengthened, and risks to the United States and our international partners can be greatly reduced". The bill's principal co-sponsor is Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. A statement released by Senator Biden's office notes: "The bill provides for $40 million in new funds for research and development programs to address potential radiological terrorism. Some funding will support research into technologies to detect smuggling of radioactive or fissile material into the United States. The bill also extends assistance to any country in dealing with either stray radioactive sources or with a 'dirty bomb' incident."

On May 16, CNN founder Ted Turner, who last year launched the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to raise public awareness of the global non-proliferation crisis, wrote a savage opinion piece in USA Today accusing the Bush administration, for all its rhetoric of new thinking for new threats, of effectively driving asleep at the wheel. According to Turner: "At a Bush-Putin news conference two months after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared: 'Our highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.' He also has told his national security staff to give nuclear terrorism top priority. But it's hard to see this priority in the budget and priorities of the new administration. Not a dollar of the $38 billion the administration requested in new funding for homeland defense will address loose weapons, materials and know-how in Russia. The total spending of these programs - even after September 11 - has remained flat at about a billion dollars a year... But what worries me most is not the lack of new spending, but the lack of new thinking. Where are the new ideas for preventing nuclear terrorism? ... If we are hit with one of these weapons because we slept through this wake-up call from hell, it will be the most shameful failure of national defense in the history of the United States."

US officials would be quick to quote chapter and verse to refute Mr. Turner's claims of slumber. With regard to working with Russia to tackle the 'dirty bomb' threat, for example, US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev announced a new initiative in Washington on May 9. Speaking after a visit to Russia, Abraham announced: "Perhaps the most important step we took this week was an agreement to work together to improve the security of radiological sources that might be used to develop so-called 'dirty bombs'. ... Such materials exist in many firms - medical isotopes, radiography sources, and sources that provide electric power in remote areas for things like beacons. The nature of these sources makes them potentially attractive targets for theft. ... Russia has also identified this material as a potentially grave threat and we both believe that we can more effectively counter this threat together... Accordingly we have agreed to create a joint US-Russian task force to immediately start looking at this threat and recommend appropriate responses. We are prepared to provide some initial funding for this effort from within the MPC&A [Materials Protection, Control & Accounting] program." In addition to this new initiative, Abraham told reporters that "we also agreed...the United States will resume purchase of plutonium 238 from Russia. This material is used as power sources in the US space program. We expect to be placing orders immediately."

On May 4, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in a study requested and made public by Democratic Representative Ed Markey, conceded that since 1996 it had received almost 1,500 reports of missing medical and commercial items containing small amounts of radioactive materials. Less than half - 660 - of these items had subsequently been recovered or traced. The report concluded: "The Commission is concerned about this potential terrorist threat and has advised its licensees to enhance security". Markey complained: "We know that the creation of a 'dirty bomb' is one of al Qaeda's stated objectives. In the past we have been very concerned about 'loose nukes' in the former Soviet Union, but it looks like we have the same kind of problem in this country."

Earlier (April 22) Markey released a copy of a March 28 letter from Bruce Carnes, a senior Energy Department budget official, to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), complaining that the Department was not receiving enough funding "to implement the security...requirements" recommended following September 11. Markey told reporters: "The administration has requested almost $8 billion for missile defense, which won't do anything to prevent suicidal terrorists from attacking nuclear facilities and blowing up dirty bombs or homemade nuclear weapons. But when DOE finally admits that security is not what it should be, OMB refuses to help."

Opponents of the Bush administration's plan to construct a vast, centralised nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 63, March/April 2002) charge that it substantially increases the risk of diversion of material suitable for use in a radiological weapon. In particular, critics point to the dangers of transporting an estimated 77,000 tons of nuclear waste from around the country over a 25-year period beginning at the end of this decade. According to Nevada Representative Shelley Berkley (Democrat) on May 4: "These waste transports are exactly the kind of target-rich environment they [terrorists] are looking for. If we can't move the waste safely, then we shouldn't move it at all. ...The [Yucca] project would us all at risk by transporting mobile Chernobyls across all our communities." Supporters of the plan argue that the existing wide dispersal of waste poses a much greater security threat.

Approval for the Yucca plan moved rapidly through the House of Representatives during May. On June 5, the Senate Energy Committee endorsed the scheme by 13 votes to 10. Secretary Abraham enthused: "The Senate must now decide whether to leave nuclear waste stranded at 131 sites in 39 states or allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make the independent determination that Yucca Mountain is suitable to serve as a geological repository. The Energy Committee's bipartisan vote is an important step toward enhancing our national security and environmental protections."

Note: on June 10, US Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of a US citizen, Abdullah al-Muhajir, on suspicion of planning to detonate a 'dirty bomb'. According to Ashcroft: "I am pleased to announce today a significant step forward in the war on terrorism. We have captured a known terrorist, who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb', in the United States. ... Now, a radioactive 'dirty bomb' involves exploding a conventional bomb that not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity, but also spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury. From information available to the United States government, we know that Abdullah al-Muhajir is an al Qaeda operative and was exploring a plan to build a radioactive 'dirty bomb'." See next issue for details and reaction.

Related material on Acronym website:

Reports: Funds lacking to protect US nuke labs, official says, Reuters, April 22; Energy Dept. says it lacks funds, Associated Press, April 22; Democrats criticize Nevada nuclear waste site plan, Reuters, May 4; Nev. lawmaker opposes nuclear dump, Associated Press, May 4; NRC warns of missing radioactive materials, Washington Post, May 4; Text - Libya, Syria, Cuba need scrutiny for weapons programmes, Washington File, May 6; US accuses Libya, Syria and Cuba on weapons spread, Reuters, May 6; Text - US, Russia agree to protect 'dirty bomb' materials', Washington File, May 9; Cuba's biotech worries some, Associated Press, May 10; Carter says he was told US had no proof Cuba shared bioweapons data, Washington Post, May 14; Bush administration have no hint of weapons claims, Carter says, Global Security Newswire, May 14; US can't ignore nuclear threat, by Ted Turner, USA Today, May 16; Bush renews warnings as Rumsfeld says terrorists inevitably will get chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, Associated Press, May 21; Nonproliferation Act to strengthen nuclear safeguards and streamline anti-terrorism measures, Press Release, Senator Joseph Biden (http://www.senate.gov/~biden); Domenici proposes more funds to dispose of nuclear materials, Global Security Newswire, May 23; Bush calls West Point graduates to service in anti-terror fight, Washington File, June 1; Abraham praises Senate Energy Committee's bipartisan support of Yucca Mountain resolution, US Department of Energy Press Release PR-02-096, June 5; Text - State Dept. reaffirms Cuba has biological warfare research effort, Washington File, June 5; Senators question Cuba's biological weapons capacity, Associated Press, June 5; Transcript - Bush calls for new Department of Homeland Security, Washington File, June 6; Secretary of Energy, NNSA administrator statements regarding establishment of Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Energy Statement N-02-097, June 6; Secretary Rumsfeld statement on Dept. of Homeland Security, US Department of Defense, June 6; Transcript - Attorney General announces detention of terror suspect, Washington File, June 10.

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