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Independent Panel Urges Increased Threat Reduction Efforts in Russia

Philipp C. Bleek

An independent panel commissioned by the Energy Department has called for a massive expansion of U.S. threat reduction efforts in Russia, identifying the proliferation danger posed by that country's poorly secured weapons of mass destruction and fissile material as "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States." The group urged the new administration to implement a series of targeted recommendations to remedy what it termed "inadequate" current efforts.

On January 10, the bipartisan "Russia Task Force," co-chaired by former Republican Senator Howard Baker and former Democratic White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, delivered its "Report Card on the Department of Energy's Nonproliferation Programs with Russia."

In its report, the task force praises ongoing Department of Energy (DOE) threat reduction efforts, including the Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program, which upgrades security and accounting at a broad range of vulnerable Russian facilities, and the Nuclear Cities Initiative, an attempt to help Russia reduce the size of its nuclear weapons complex and redirect former weapons scientists to non-military activities.

But while emphasizing that current DOE programs have achieved "impressive results," the task force notes that management has been "too diffuse" and budget levels are "inadequate." The report warns that these shortfalls leave an "unacceptable risk of failure" and the potential for "catastrophic consequences," such as the leakage of weapons, weapons-usable fissile material, or weapons expertise to "terrorists or national regimes inimical to the U.S."

The panel recommends that President George W. Bush immediately draft a strategic plan to enhance threat reduction activities in Russia. The task force argues that a plan incorporating "clearly defined goals," "measured use of resources," and "appropriate exit strategies" would considerably improve the government's response to the threat. The panel suggests that the plan be formulated in collaboration with Congress and the Russian government.

Threat reduction activities in the former Soviet Union are managed by the departments of State, Defense, and Energy, and they are coordinated by the departments and by the National Security Council. But in recent years, programs have received only sporadic attention from senior White House officials. Suggesting that threat reduction efforts would benefit from sustained oversight, the panel recommends the establishment of a high-level position in the White House with responsibility for policy and budget coordination for all threat reduction and non-proliferation efforts.

The report also states that current funding for "controlling and securing nuclear weapons material in Russia," efforts conducted mainly through Energy Department programs, is insufficient to "meet the challenge." The panel recommends that funding be increased from the current level of about $300 million to $3 billion per year, which the panel notes is less than 1 percent of the U.S. defense budget. The panel indicates that Russia would be expected to contribute financially and that further funding could be sought from "major powers" such as the European Union and Japan, which to date have provided little assistance to threat reduction efforts.

According to the panel, the increased resources would allow "all nuclear weapons-usable material" to be "secured and/or neutralized" within eight to 10 years, after which Russia could assume any "remaining work." U.S. threat reduction efforts, which were conceived in 1991, were intended to be wrapped up within about a decade, but the programs were extended by the Clinton administration in 1999.

During the presidential campaign, Bush praised ongoing efforts and pledged to ask Congress to "increase substantially" U.S. assistance under the Pentagon's Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. (See ACT, September 2000.) And in a January 12 interview with The New York Times, Bush said cooperating with Russia on proliferation is a "top priority" for his administration.

During Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said that DOE threat reduction activities were a "high priority" and stated that he planned to meet with panel co-chairs Baker and Cutler to discuss their report, while Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he agreed with the report's conclusions "entirely."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appears less enthusiastic about threat reduction programs, however. Responding to written questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld noted that, while Russia "claims to lack the financial resources to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, [it] continues to invest scarce resources in the development of newer, more sophisticated ICBMs and other weapons." The defense secretary called for "a review of ongoing CTR projects and their respective national security benefits."