“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

– George Stephanopolous
ABC News
January 1, 2005
House Approves Nonproliferation Initiatives
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Miles A. Pomper

The House of Representatives approved several nonproliferation initiatives in January as part of a broader bill to fully implement the recommendations of an independent commission that investigated the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Implementing a campaign pledge of new Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House approved the measure 299-128 on Jan. 9 in one of the first pieces of legislation of the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Congressional aides said that they expect the measure eventually to be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee with similarly broad legislation approved Feb. 15 by the Senate Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee.

The 9/11 Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, had warned in 2004 that “the greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States” comes from weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (See ACT, September 2004. )

Key provisions in the House bill would lift legal roadblocks to providing aid to Russia and other former Soviet states to safeguard or destroy nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons stockpiles as well as associated delivery vehicles and facilities; create a White House office to coordinate U.S. efforts to prevent WMD proliferation and terrorism as well as establish an independent commission guiding U.S efforts; and seek to use sanctions and foreign aid to prevent the emergence of new black market nuclear networks.

The House bill would overturn long-standing requirements that bar the disbursement of threat reduction monies unless the president annually certifies that former Soviet states receiving the aid are committed to meeting several criteria, including compliance with all arms control agreements. In December 2005, Congress granted the president permanent authority to annually waive those restrictions but stopped short of eliminating them outright. (See ACT, January/February 2006. )

The certification requirement became a major hurdle to threat reduction activities in Russia and other former Soviet states in 2002 when President George W. Bush refused to certify Russia’s commitment to complying with treaties banning chemical and biological weapons. That refusal, the first since the program began in 1991, triggered a freeze of some threat reduction funds, stalling projects aimed at securing and dismantling surplus weapons and their fabrication facilities.

The bill included another provision that would create a new Senate-confirmed White House coordinator of efforts to counter the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, particularly to terrorist groups.

Democrats have long campaigned for such a coordinator, saying that greater coherence needs to be brought to scattered efforts across the government. But the idea has won little support from the White House itself, which sees it as simply adding additional bureaucracy. Moreover, budget authority for individual programs would still remain with the relevant agencies.

In a related provision, the measure would establish a nine-member independent commission to assess the current initiatives in this area and recommend steps for moving forward.

A newer initiative included in the bill seeks to prevent the recurrence of black market nuclear networks like the one fashioned by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan’s network is said to have provided technology for enriching uranium to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

It would require the president to impose sanctions for the transfer of enrichment or reprocessing materials or technology to some non-nuclear-weapon states that did not have functioning enrichment or reprocessing plants as of Jan. 1, 2004. In particular, penalties would be required if the transfers went to states that did not have in force an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or had a nuclear weapons program. The most sweeping sanctions would include suspensions of arms licenses and foreign aid to countries that host such black market networks. However, these sanctions could be waived by the president.

Both uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuel for plutonium can provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Additional protocols provide IAEA inspectors with greater authority to investigate allegations of undeclared weapons programs.

The passage of the nonproliferation provisions was a victory for Democrats, such as Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who have unsuccessfully pushed similar legislation in the previous Republican-controlled Congress.

Tauscher told the House that, “[f]or too long, the Bush administration and their congressional allies have left nonproliferation on the back burner. The bill before us today provides the tools we need to fight the threat of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

Many Republicans, however, objected both to the broad scope of the bill and individual provisions. In particular, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sought to strip a provision that would encourage the Bush administration to seek UN Security Council authorization for its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The 2003 initiative launched by the United States aims to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related goods to terrorists and countries of proliferation concern.

“Giving the United Nations the ability to define what is permissible under the PSI will result in the imposition of unpredictable limitations, unpredictable conditions, and unpredictable interpretations and would result in a regulatory straightjacket overseen by the international bureaucracy,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If this recommendation were followed, the PSI would be undermined.”

Democrats, however, countered that the provision was aimed at broadening international support for the PSI. The motion failed on a largely party-line vote of 198-230.