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GAO Report Calls for Revamped PSI
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Peter Crail

Since 2003, U.S. officials have credited the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) with a number of successes in preventing the transfer of unconventional weapons materials to states and nonstate actors. According to a Nov. 10 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, however, key U.S. agencies have not established performance indicators to assess the PSI's effectiveness nor have they outlined clear policies, procedures, or funding requirements for activities associated with the initiative, as called for by Congress. The report appears to highlight a dispute between U.S. agencies and Congress regarding how Washington should carry out this initiative and what needs to be done to strengthen it.

The PSI was launched in May 2003 as part of an increased effort by the Bush administration to address the risks of unconventional weapons proliferation. According to the statement of interdiction principles concluded by the 11 founding states at that time, the effort is intended to "establish a more coordinated and effective basis through which to impede and stop shipments of [unconventional weapons], delivery systems, and related materials." Since its founding, the initiative has grown to 93 participants that have endorsed this statement of principles.

Defining PSI Activities

The architects of the initiative, including then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, described the PSI as an activity rather than an organization. (See ACT, December 2003.) Bolton told Arms Control Today in December 2003 that the PSI was primarily intended to enhance existing multilateral efforts already being carried out by U.S. agencies.

In legislation adopted in August 2007, Congress recommended that the administration provide more specific guidance to U.S. agencies on how to implement the initiative. The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 suggested that the president issue a directive to "establish clear PSI authorities, responsibilities, and structures." (See ACT, September 2007.) The 2007 legislation also required that the Departments of Defense and State establish a comprehensive joint budget each year for PSI-related activities. These congressional recommendations were originally contained in a classified 2006 GAO report assessing PSI implementation.

In response to the GAO recommendations, the administration has asserted that PSI interdiction activities are already guided by a 2002 presidential national security directive governing WMD-related interdictions and that, in regard to other aspects of the PSI, such a directive is unnecessary. In an Oct. 17 response to the draft GAO report, the State Department indicated that National Security Council (NSC) staff chair an interagency policy coordination committee on the PSI that implements "clearly defined strategy documents" that describe agency roles and responsibilities.

The State Department also rejected the need for a joint PSI budget, stating in its Oct. 17 letter that, rather than a single distinct program, the PSI is "a set of activities interwoven into the [U.S. government's] established diplomatic, military, and law enforcement relations with other countries." The State Department said that each agency should establish their own budget items for the PSI.

In addition to the Defense and State Departments, agencies involved in PSI-related activities include the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The GAO indicated that none of these agencies include PSI funding in their annual budgets.

The GAO also criticized U.S. agencies for failing to establish performance indicators to assess the effectiveness of PSI activities. The report argued that, without such indicators, "it will be difficult for policymakers to objectively assess the relevant U.S. agencies' contributions to PSI activities over time."

Indeed, many of the successes that the administration has attributed to the PSI have been the result of activities that U.S. agencies had carried out prior to its establishment. A number of these interdictions were described during a June 6 briefing to nongovernmental organizations on the initiative. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) The interdictions ranged from halting a shipment of missile test equipment to Syria during transshipment to denying an export license of materials that may have been intended for Iran's nuclear program.

U.S. officials pointed out during the briefing that these interdictions were carried out in the furtherance of international law, such as UN Security Council resolutions, or national legal authorities, such as export controls. It is uncertain, therefore, what contribution the PSI had in carrying out these interdictions given their reliance on existing legal authorities and agency activities.

It is also unclear if PSI activities are limited to formal PSI participants. The Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 1 that India denied a request in August by a North Korean plane for passage through Indian airspace en route to Iran at the urging of the United States as part of a PSI effort. India is not a member in the PSI, but it has participated as an observer in PSI meetings and exercises.

In spite of questions about the administration's approach to the PSI, changes do not appear likely under the next administration. Although President-elect Barack Obama called for strengthening the PSI "through appropriate measures" in nonproliferation legislation he proposed in 2007, a congressional source told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the initiative "will be a very low priority for the incoming administration." The source doubted whether there would be any major changes and suspected that senior-level Obama administration policymakers believe that its value and successes were exaggerated and "provided an excuse for the Bush administration to ignore other, more critical aspects of its nonproliferation record."

Expanding PSI Cooperation

Among the initiative's 93 participants, 20 states constitute the initiative's Operational Experts Group, which meets on a regular basis to coordinate PSI-related efforts. Experts group members include the United States and several of its European allies, as well as Australia, Japan, and Russia.

One of the two key recommendations of the GAO report was the need to establish greater coordination with PSI participants that are not part of the leading experts group. In particular, the GAO noted that more than 70 participants not part of the experts group have little involvement in efforts to increase cooperation and coordination and that, of the 36 interdiction exercises held between September 2003 and September 2008, only six involved non-experts group states.

Many of these non-experts group states are situated in regions or locations of particular concern for illicit trafficking in unconventional weapons materials, including the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Southeast Asia.

The report noted that the Defense and State Departments recognized the need to expand cooperation with these states. The State Department highlighted its outreach efforts and indicated that it intended to hold a PSI meeting for the Western Hemisphere in May 2009 involving PSI members from Latin America.


Posted: December 4, 2008