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Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
U.S.; Allies Seek Right to Board Ships in WMD Search
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Wade Boese

As part of their effort to stop shipments of dangerous weapons and related goods in transit, the United States and its allies are now asking other countries to sign agreements allowing their vessels to be stopped and searched.

A senior Department of State official said Dec. 17 that the new pacts would be modeled upon existing boarding agreements for countering illegal drug trade. Washington expects to begin signing the new agreements in 2004.

Securing such agreements with key flag states for international shipping is a priority, a senior Department of Defense official explained Dec 18.

Flag states are those countries that permit a foreign-owned ship to operate under their national flag. Shipowners may register under a flag different from their home country because it accords them cheaper costs or more lax operating rules. Panama and Liberia are two of the world’s leading flag states, accounting for some 6,000 registered ocean-going vessels. Ships lacking a flag can be stopped without provocation.

The two senior U.S. officials outlined the new strategy following a Washington-hosted, Dec. 16-17 meeting of participants involved in the interdiction effort, formally known as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Both officials briefed reporters on the condition of not being identified.

The December meeting marked the first time experts from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Singapore, and Turkey were involved. They joined representatives from the core group of 10 countries originally enlisted in the initiative by the United States—Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

U.S. and foreign government officials describe PSI as an activity that is open to all countries wanting to contribute to the overall mission. Some 50 governments have reportedly endorsed the initiative’s principles calling upon countries to stop suspicious shipments traveling through their national territories and not to transport weapons of mass destruction (WMD) themselves.

At the Washington meeting, military and intelligence experts discussed lessons learned from previous exercises and operations and prepped for future practice and real-world interdictions. PSI participants aim to carry out short-notice search and seizures at sea, on land, and in the air.

The Pentagon official listed the Mediterranean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea as the key regions where PSI participants are preparing to operate because that is where the most proliferation activity is taking place. The senior State Department official said earlier that a lot of WMD trafficking flows out of the former Soviet Union through Europe.

Washington is planning a mid-January practice interdiction of a ship carrying a mock WMD cargo in the Arabian Sea. Four exercises have already been held, and several more involving various air, land, and sea scenarios are set for the first half of 2004.

In addition to improving the PSI participants’ ability to work together, the exercises are designed to give a public face to the initiative and force proliferators to reconsider the wisdom of plying their weapons and materials.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, addressing the Washington meeting, declared “interdiction can deter suppliers and customers by making proliferation more difficult and more costly and in some cases more embarrassing.” National security adviser Condoleezza Rice also spoke to the experts gathering.

The senior Pentagon official said that PSI had successfully deterred some proliferation activity. The official declined to explain this assertion further.

U.S. officials also claim that the initiative has resulted in actual interdictions of dangerous cargo, including centrifuge parts to Libya, which Dec. 19 unexpectedly renounced weapons of mass destruction (see page 29). The administration has declined to provide specifics on any other interdictions, citing concerns that undue publicity could compromise future operations.

It remains unclear what role the interdiction played in Libya’s recent decision. A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters the interdiction, which occurred in October 2003, was not the precipitating event because U.S.-British talks with Libya had started several months earlier. State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said Dec. 31 that one could argue that the interdiction, which he described as a “significant and important development,” had some affect on Libya’s move, but noted that drawing any definitive conclusion on causality was “hard.”

The interdiction of dangerous weapons did not begin with PSI. The United States and other countries have carried out many past interdictions, including the seizure of missile shipments to Libya, before President George W. Bush launched the initiative May 31, 2003.