Like the shadowy trade it is intended to stop, the workings and record of a U.S.-led initiative to interdict shipments of unconventional weapons in transit are largely inscrutable. That is the way U.S. officials involved in the voluntary Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) say it will likely remain, even as they seek to expand its reach.
The United States launched PSI in May 2003 with the aim of improving countries’ air, land, and sea capabilities to stop and confiscate suspected shipments of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as related materials and missiles. Initially, 10 countries enlisted in the initiative, but its ranks have swelled to nearly 80 governments, many of which remain anonymous.
Public information about PSI operations, however, has not kept pace with its growth. To be sure, there are some visible aspects of its work, such as 23 interdiction exercises, the latest sponsored by France in June.
The United States also has negotiated ship-boarding agreements with countries to establish expedited procedures for stopping and searching suspicious ships. Six countries have signed such agreements, although the last to do so was Belize in August 2005. A U.S. official involved in PSI told Arms Control Today Aug. 9 that additional agreements were being “aggressively” pursued.
The official refused to disclose whether past shipboarding agreements have been used to intercept any weapons cargo. Commenting on PSI in general, the official explained, “Things that happen in this arena are highly classified.” He further noted that “[o]ther countries could be [conducting] interdictions that we might not be aware of.”
Speaking to representatives of 65 countries attending a June 23 PSI high-level political meeting in Warsaw, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph touted the initiative’s value but said, “[I]t is inevitable that much of our work is done quietly and with cooperation in sensitive channels outside the public spotlight.” He continued, “[d]iscreet actions often help us stay one step ahead of the proliferators and give them less insight into steps they can take to evade detection.”
Nonetheless, Joseph told a Washington audience July 18 that the initiative has “played a key role in helping to interdict more than 30 shipments.” The example he singled out was the October 2003 confiscation of centrifuge components headed to Libya aboard the BBC China. But officials from participating foreign governments and former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John Wolf asserted last year that the interdiction was not a PSI operation. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)
The differing interpretations of the role PSI played in this October 2003 event appear to stem in part from the ambiguous nature of the initiative itself. As the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated May 31, “Unlike other international organizations, the PSI has no formal structure, headquarters, or chairperson.”
Moreover, the enforcement, intelligence, and military capabilities as well as legal authorities that PSI relies on predated the initiative. A main PSI objective is to get governments to make better use of or bolster these instruments. “We have been doing interdictions for a long time; [PSI] is a better way of doing it,” the U.S. official said.
Washington is now urging PSI participants to expand the concept of interdictions beyond just stopping cargo to blocking cash flows to proliferators. Last June, the president signed Executive Order 13382 to freeze U.S. assets of foreign companies connected to proliferation. Since then, more than two dozen foreign entities have been sanctioned under the measure. A foreign diplomatic source told Arms Control Today Aug. 16 that the administration’s proposal has not picked up a lot of momentum because other countries’ legal and financial frameworks are so diverse.
A more commonly shared goal of PSI countries is to increase participation, particularly in Asia. China, India, and Indonesia are all viewed as attractive candidates given their proximity to key trade routes and North Korea.India , however, is rankled by Washington’s public linking of PSI with negotiations on a U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation pact. China, as well as India and Indonesia, has expressed concerns about the legality of PSI, but U.S. officials have described Beijing as helpful on interdictions. Indonesian Minister of Defense Yuwono Sudarsono wrote June 13 in The Jakarta Post that the country’s leadership is weighing “partial and ad hoc adherence to the PSI on a case by case basis.”