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News Analysis: The Bush Administration and Verification

Wade Boese

Since taking office, the Bush administration has opposed or bypassed opportunities to codify measures to check compliance with three arms control treaties. Yet, the U.S. government’s lead office for assessing worldwide adherence to arms control obligations—the Department of State’s verification and compliance bureau—insists the current administration is second to none in supporting effective verification.

Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter and her colleagues in the bureau see no contradiction. In one of the cases, they say, a blooming relationship with Russia has made extensive verification superfluous. In the other two cases, they say, the proposed approaches would have proved ineffective in checking cheating and instilled a false sense of security as they leaned too heavily on what the administration views as limited international verification methods.

DeSutter would like to reduce the reliance of other states on international verification means and regimes and shift them toward taking greater national initiative and responsibility for verifying compliance. Yet, some former top U.S. government officials and international officials maintain that the importance of international inspections should not be underestimated, noting that international bodies assessed Iraq’s pre-war weapons programs more accurately than the United States and other foreign governments, and are less susceptible to having their findings swayed by national agendas.

Defining Verification
Verification involves collecting and analyzing information to determine whether parties to an agreement are abiding by its terms. Verification aims are threefold: deterring cheating, detecting violations, and providing confidence that all parties are adhering to their commitments.

Because it is generally acknowledged that an agreement cannot be perfectly verifiable, governments must determine what margin of verification uncertainty they can bear. One consideration is whether it is cost effective to add further measures to increase certainty.

Another trade-off pits the benefits of greater information on others against the costs of granting them reciprocal rights.

The U.S. willingness to accept uncertainty has varied over time depending on the administration and the agreement. The Bush administration maintains its tolerance for uncertainty is low.

The verification and compliance bureau evaluates an agreement’s verifiability by several factors, including the other parties’ status as friend or foe, their compliance history with other obligations, incentives to cheat, the potential dangers of undetected cheating, and what is being constrained. Chris Ford, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, told Arms Control Today Feb. 7 that “[t]he precise contours of what it means to be verifiable will vary according to context.”

In a Jan. 28 speech, DeSutter spelled out the Bush administration’s view of what constitutes effectively verifiable. “The degree of verifiability must be high enough to enable the United States to detect noncompliance in sufficient time either to have the violation reversed or, particularly in the case of intentional noncompliance, to reduce the threat presented by the violation and to deny the violator the benefits of his wrongdoing,” she said.

National Means and Methods
Two different methods of verification have traditionally held center stage: national technical means, such as satellites and radars, and on-site inspections and monitoring.

U.S. officials argue that many states have over time incorrectly equated these two methods with being the whole of verification. This conclusion, from Washington’s perspective, has led them to become passive observers in the verification and compliance process because they believe they lack the appropriate means or expertise to participate.

DeSutter and Ford argue that one particular manifestation of this passivity is too much faith in international on-site inspections and monitoring. Although such mechanisms can contribute useful information, the U.S. officials say data gathered by these means only speak to certain locations and times. “Our problem is with oversold on-site inspection,” DeSutter told Arms Control Today Feb. 7.

To rectify this problem, the bureau last year began urging that “national means and methods” replace “national technical means” as the term of art. This preferred wording encompasses all sources of information available, including human intelligence, open source media, the internet, and commercial satellite imagery. By awakening states to the universe of data to which they have access, the administration’s hope is that they will become more self-reliant in verification.

DeSutter said that the reliance by states on international sources of verification has led some governments to default to international inspectorates or institutions in shaping national treaty compliance judgments. International organizations, she pointed out, are not parties to treaties and should have no say in compliance rulings.

“Neither the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] nor the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] were created, constituted, or mandated to make compliance judgments,” DeSutter said. The OPCW is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the IAEA is responsible for verifying that non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) do not use their peaceful nuclear programs to pursue nuclear weapons. IAEA officials can determine whether a state is complying with its obligations to assure the international community that its nuclear technologies are being solely used for peaceful purposes, but it is up to the NPT states-parties to determine whether any noncompliance constitutes a treaty violation.

The Bush administration has expressed some frustration with the IAEA over its handling of Iran, which Washington accuses of illegally seeking nuclear weapons. It also repeatedly cast doubt on the efficacy of inspections in Iraq by the IAEA and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

The Bush Approach Applied
The administration’s skepticism toward international verification measures and preference for national verification has been apparent in its approach toward two treaties: the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans germ weapons, and the proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT).

Beginning in 1995, states-parties to the BWC began negotiations to fashion a legally binding protocol of verification measures, including on-site inspections, for the instrument. Concluded amid Cold War tensions, the treaty only provides for countries to consult about noncompliance concerns and lodge complaints with the UN Security Council.

Six months after taking office, the Bush administration announced its opposition to the proposed protocol, sinking it. The administration argued that the protocol would impose an unacceptable burden on legitimate commercial biological research and government biodefense programs, while not deterring cheaters.

DeSutter dismissed the contention that, even if the protocol had flaws, it was better than nothing. She argued, “We have a verification regime [for BWC]. We collect all the information that we can possibly collect.”

DeSutter described the rejected protocol as “a feel-good agreement that would not have increased our overall confidence that we had gotten a handle on people’s biological weapons programs.”

Likewise, the proposed FMCT, which aims to halt production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes, would include countries with “very, very poor records of compliance with their other obligations,” DeSutter said. Presumably, she is referring to Iran and North Korea, although NPT outliers India, Israel, and Pakistan would also be involved.

Washington had subscribed since 1995 to negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT, but the Bush administration reversed course in July 2004. (See ACT, September 2004.) Aside from involving countries that the United States distrusts, the administration contends that the difficulty of verifying a final treaty would be compounded by the challenge of confirming the date of production and purpose of any suspicious fissile material. Another potential loophole cheaters could exploit would be to hide their misbehavior under the cloak of a naval nuclear fuel program, to which inspectors would unlikely be granted access. The U.S. Navy opposes opening up its nuclear fuel program to outsiders.

These factors make it impossible, in the administration’s view, to construct a useful formal verification regime. Instead, the administration advocates that a future FMCT be verified through national means and methods. The U.S. proposal has met stiff foreign resistance, and negotiations have yet to start. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Robert Einhorn, who ended his nearly 30-year career in government as a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation in August 2001, told reporters Sept. 2, 2004, that “[o]ne of the problems here is that the United States over the last 50 years has taught the world all too well that you need effective verification for arms control agreements.” If the administration succeeds in its FMCT approach, he warned, “[t]here would be countless compliance disputes all the time without any mechanism to resolve them.”

A few foreign government officials have suggested to Arms Control Today that the administration’s position on verifying FMCT might simply be a pretext for not negotiating a treaty it does not really want.

By contrast, when it came to a third treaty—with Russia—the administration did not see verification as too difficult, only unnecessary.

In 2002, the Bush administration conceded to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that their mutual plans for nuclear reductions be codified. However, as then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice explained May 13, 2002, the administration felt no need to “dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T.’”

As a result, the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) totaled fewer than 500 words and lacked verification provisions. (See ACT, June 2002.) Washington and Moscow agreed to use the extensive 1991 START verification measures to help validate their new commitments to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads down to 1,700-2,200 apiece by the end of 2012. Unless extended, START will expire in 2009. At that point, a former U.S. verification official told Arms Control Today, the two capitals will be “flying blind.”

DeSutter said Feb. 7 that SORT is not effectively verifiable, but that matters little because of the friendlier U.S.-Russian relationship. Ford added, “We did not understand this to be a situation in which there was a really high danger of people trying to run around breaking rules.”

Lessons From Iraq
As the administration tries to sell others on its verification approach, it is working in the shadows of the Iraq experience.

Bush ordered the March 2003 invasion of that country to eliminate its suspected biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs, which the administration charged existed despite international arms inspectors’ failure to find any evidence supporting this claim. The Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which led the U.S. search for proscribed Iraqi weapons following the invasion, concluded last year that Baghdad had no actual weapons, except for some illegal short-range ballistic missiles, or active programs as Washington alleged.

David Kay, the first ISG leader, told Arms Control Today in a March 5, 2004, interview that international verification proved effective in disarming Iraq. Noting that the Iraqis “really feared” inspectors, Kay said, “international inspection is even more important now than it ever was” and “the on-the-ground examination of what’s going on is irreplaceable.”

The verification and compliance bureau did not respond to a question about what verification lessons it drew from Iraq.

To be sure, Iraq, by virtue of the disarmament terms it agreed to as the losing power of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, presented a unique case. Inspectors possessed far greater authority than traditional international verification regimes that rely upon the inspected party’s consent.

Still, the limited legal authority of an international regime inside a country is greater than that of another state. In a Feb. 4 Arms Control Today interview, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei contended, “You can send a couple of agents to look around, you can send a satellite station to take a picture, but there is no substitute for the legal authority of international organizations to be on the ground.”

Speaking in June 2004 with Arms Control Today, former UNMOVIC head Hans Blix said another advantage of international inspectorates is their independence from capitals that might try to influence verification work and compliance conclusions to support national agendas. “In the national governments, I think there has been a risk of blurring,” he stated.

A Means, Not an End
Although the U.S. verification and compliance bureau and its international counterparts may not agree on the most effective verification approaches, they do concur that verification is not an end in and of itself. All agree verification is a tool for providing assurances about security concerns and sounding an alarm if a threat arises.

In a series of speeches over the past year, DeSutter has warned, “Without the concerted action of all states-parties [to an agreement] to insist upon strict compliance and to hold violators accountable for their actions, the national security of all nations will erode and global stability will be undermined.”

After Iraq, however, it remains to be seen how the U.S. emphasis on national verification and a devaluation of international institutions and methods will translate into greater collective will and action for enforcing compliance.