GAO Details Nuclear Aid to Terrorism Sponsors

Scott Miller

Four countries the Department of State has designated as sponsors of terrorism received a total of $55 million in nuclear technical assistance under an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) program between 1997 and 2007, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The four countries-Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria-received the money through the IAEA's Technical Cooperation Fund. In 2007 the United States accounted for 25 percent, or approximately $19.8 million, of the fund's budget. IAEA member states agree to pledge a certain amount of money to the fund each year.

The report was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. In releasing the report March 31, Akaka issued a statement saying, "As a long-time advocate for strong, international nonproliferation efforts, I am troubled by GAO's findings."

Akaka's office said April 23 that "no final decisions on hearings or legislation have been made at this point" but that he is "working with his colleagues in the Senate and the State Department on an appropriate solution."

One problem the GAO noted was the inability of the Departments of Energy and State and U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories to get detailed information concerning specific technical cooperation projects while the projects are under consideration by the IAEA. For instance, for 97 percent of the projects under review from 1998 to 2006, the only information the laboratories received was the names of projects, the report said. The GAO also found that, from 1998 to 2006, the Energy Department flagged 43 projects as potentially posing a proliferation risk, but 34 of those were approved and funded by the IAEA.

The GAO proposed that Congress instruct the State Department to withhold part of the U.S. technical cooperation contribution in an amount proportionate to the U.S. share of IAEA aid to countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism. According to the report, the United States currently withholds funds in proportion to its share of aid to Cuba and has done the same in the past for Iran, Libya, and the Palestinian territories.

The State Department "strongly opposed" the idea and argued that because contributions to the Technical Cooperation Fund are not directed toward specific projects, such an action would fail to prevent technical cooperation projects in states of concern and would "anger states in the developing world." The GAO defended the proposal but also broadened it to include the option of requiring the State Department to explain its rationale for not withholding funds, so that lawmakers have additional information before making their decision.

In addition to that "matter for congressional consideration," as the GAO called it, the report offered 10 recommendations for the executive branch. The State Department agreed with seven of those 10 recommendations. For example, the department endorsed recommendations to focus technical cooperation projects on a limited set of "high priority technical areas" and to encourage outreach to private sector donors and partners.

The department expressed misgivings about a recommendation to establish a formal information-sharing mechanism on technical cooperation project proposals, citing confidentiality concerns.