Key U.S. Interdiction Initiative Claim Misrepresented

Wade Boese

When the Bush administration is challenged on its dedication to nonproliferation, officials like to point to the two-year-old Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) as evidence of the administration’s nonproliferation bona fides. In particular, officials have repeatedly hailed the initiative for its role in intercepting nuclear contraband destined for Libya and thereby helping persuade that country to renounce its illicit nuclear weapons program. Yet, it is now apparent that the Libya interdiction did not occur because of PSI.

Launched by President George W. Bush in May 2003, PSI aims to improve countries’ capabilities and readiness to stop shipments of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as related materials and missiles, at sea, on land, and in the air. Since its inception, some 60 countries have endorsed the initiative, and more than a dozen interdiction training exercises have been carried out.

Washington frequently describes PSI as an “activity, not an organization” because it is voluntary and lacks any formal structure. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker noted in a June 3 interview with Arms Control Today that the initiative encourages governments to bolster their domestic legal authorities to be in a better position to act against proliferation and “establishes patterns of communication and cooperation between governments that facilitate interdiction operations.”

Bush administration officials tout PSI as one of their top accomplishments and innovations. In a Sept. 7, 2004, Financial Times op-ed, then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton cited PSI as a leading example of how the administration is “reinventing the nonproliferation regime it inherited, crafting policies to fill gaping holes, reinforcing earlier patchwork fixes, assembling allies, creating precedents, and changing perceived realities and stilted legal thinking.”

Selected Bush Administration Statements on the Proliferation Security Initiative

“It was a very important success of the Proliferation Security Initiative that we interdicted a cargo that was headed to Libya from North Korea,[1] probably helping Colonel Gaddafi and his decision to give up his weapons of mass destruction [WMD].”
—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, May 27, 2005

“Exposure of the [Abdul Qadeer] Khan network this past year, helped along by the PSI interdiction of nuclear materials aboard the BBC China and the subsequent decision of Libya to forgo its nuclear and other [WMD] programs, has brought to light the breadth of the shadowy trading network in [weapons of mass destruction].”
—Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, Oct. 27, 2004

“In October, after we and our allies in the Proliferation Security Initiative seized a nuclear-related shipment headed for Tripoli, Libya permitted the first Americans into the country and made the admissions that ultimately ended their programs.”
—Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter, Sept. 22, 2004

“So that our action through the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict the shipment of uranium centrifuge equipment bound for Libya in late October 2003 was a critical element in convincing Gaddafi that we knew what he was doing.”
—Bolton, July 21, 2004

“I think what [the BBC China interdiction] shows is that the PSI…is robust, producing results, [and] fulfilling the mission for which it was intended.”
—State Department deputy spokesperson Adam Ereli, Dec. 31, 2003

1. The source of the cargo was not North Korea but the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear black market network.

Within months of the initiative’s start, Bush administration officials asserted that PSI had scored some successes, but claimed that they were unable to reveal details for fear of disclosing and damaging sensitive operations and intelligence sources and methods. Nevertheless, after Libya revealed and pledged to abandon its secret arms programs in December 2003 (See ACT, January/February 2004.), Bush administration officials pointed to PSI as having underscored for Tripoli the risks and hardships of pursuing its weapons ambitions. Specifically, they chalked up as a PSI success the October 2003 interdiction of the BBC China, a German-owned ship carrying centrifuge components for Libya’s nuclear weapons program.

Bolton said Sept. 28, 2004, “The seizure of that ship and the equipment on it, we think, had a major, perhaps dispositive role in Libya’s decision to give up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction last year.” Bolton and other officials further said the interdiction helped lead to the unraveling of the nuclear black market network run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, which was the source of the centrifuge components. (See ACT, March 2004.)

Bush administration officials explicitly said the interdiction resulted from PSI. In a typical example, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice stated Feb. 26, 2004, “PSI has already proven its worth by stopping a shipment of centrifuge parts bound for Libya last fall.”

However, John Wolf, who served as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation from 2001 to 2004, told Arms Control Today May 25 that the BBC China operation was “separate” from PSI. He said the incident stemmed from previous efforts to track and uncover the Khan network.

A foreign official familiar with the operation corroborated Wolf’s version of the event. “The BBC China operation was carried out in the spirit of PSI, but it was not a PSI operation,” the official informed Arms Control Today May 31.

Recently, the administration appears to be backing away fromsome of its earlier claims. In a May 31 event commemorating PSI’s second anniversary, Rice, now secretary of state, claimed that, “[i]n the last nine months alone, the United States and 10 of our PSI partners have quietly cooperated on 11 successful efforts.” She said some of those operations involved arms-related shipments to Iran, but declined to provide further details. Similarly, Ulrik Federspiel, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States, asserted at the same event that “the shipment of missiles has fallen significantly in the lifetime of PSI.”

However, Rice did not claim that the BBC China was a PSI interdiction. Instead, she described the initiative as providing the “framework for action” for intercepting the ship.

Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher later that day indicated Rice chose her words carefully because “[t]here were other efforts being pursued in the case of Libya and Khan that contributed to successfully…finding out and stopping this shipment.” He continued, “So in that case, we did not want to say it was solely a matter of the Proliferation Security Initiative because [it] was, if I remember, at an early stage back then.”

Rademaker maintained June 3 that “[i]t really becomes impossible to say whether an interdiction that took place involving a number of countries involved in PSI was a PSI interdiction.” He further stated, “PSI exists to facilitate these kinds of operations and when these operations successfully occur involving the participating countries, we would regard that as a success for PSI.”

Germany and Italy, both of which are PSI members, played major roles in the BBC China interdiction. Still, Germany, as well as other countries, had stopped proliferation in transit prior to PSI’s launch. The initiative does not legally empower or obligate countries to do anything that they previously could not do.

Rademaker said whether the BBC China interdiction was a PSI operation is irrelevant. “I am mystified by this bizarre measure of success of PSI by reducing its work to just a numerical measurement of successful operations,” the assistant secretary stated. He added, “The point is that PSI exists, interdictions are taking place, and life has become much more complicated for those entities interested in engaging in these kinds of transfers.”

One way the United States is raising the stakes for proliferators is the negotiation of reciprocal shipboarding agreements with other governments. These deals expedite the process for stopping and searching ships suspected of transporting dangerous weapons cargo. Washington has reached such agreements with Liberia; the Marshall Islands; Panama; and, most recently on June 1, Croatia. Panama and Liberia are the two countries with the most foreign vessels registered to ship under their authority.

Wolf, who retired from government in the summer of 2004, assesses PSI as a “very important initiative if made to work.” He said PSI “raises the price of, narrows the lanes [of], and makes it easier to interdict” proliferation.