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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Process for Nuclear Pacts Flawed, GAO Says
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Daniel Horner

The process of preparing the government’s nonproliferation assessment for proposed nuclear cooperation agreements is flawed and should be improved through better interagency coordination and the adoption of written procedures, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released in late July.

The report came in response to a request by senior Democratic lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who were concerned about a proposed civilian nuclear agreement with Russia. The members also asked the GAO substantive questions about the assessment, but the answers to those questions were not part of the public version of the report.

According to the report, there was a “breakdown of communication” between the Department of State and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The report focuses on the classified attachment, or annex, to the Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS), which is part of the supporting material that the president is required to provide to Congress when submitting a nuclear cooperation agreement. President George W. Bush sent the Russia agreement to Congress in May 2008 and withdrew it in September, after Russia’s war with Georgia.

According to the GAO, when the NRC commissioners voted to approve the Russia agreement, they were working from a draft version of the classified NPAS annex. The differences between the draft and final versions “were not merely editorial in nature,” the GAO said. “In some instances, the final version of the classified annex updated certain points with new information, while in other sections significant amounts of new text and further substantive information were added and other information was deleted,” the report said.

When they received the updated version, the NRC commissioners decided the differences did not warrant a new vote, the GAO said. But some NRC officials said they were “not previously aware of certain sensitive issues raised in the classified NPAS annex that they believed NRC should have been made aware of earlier as a matter of basic information sharing between government agencies involved in nuclear proliferation matters,” the report said.

On another aspect of interagency coordination, the GAO said officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said their review of the classified annex “would have benefited from additional time.”

The State Department said it agreed with the GAO’s recommendations for improving the process but did not believe that “the deficiencies identified in the interagency consultative process prevented the State Department from carrying out its responsibilities with regard to the NPAS and the classified annex.”

The original request, from Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) in May 2008, cited specific concerns about Russian nuclear assistance and the broader “history of [Russia’s] support for Iran’s nuclear, missile, and advanced conventional weapons programs.” It asked for a detailed review of the process of preparing the NPAS.

The representatives asked the GAO to determine “whether all relevant information from classified and unclassified sources was considered and fairly assessed” and “whether the NPAS conclusions are fully supported and whether there is contradictory information that was omitted which could invalidate, modify, or impair the conclusions for recommendation to approve the [nuclear cooperation] agreement.”

Sources involved with the GAO report said the GAO’s response to those questions was presented in classified oral briefings to congressional staff.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) later joined the request for the report. Markey, Stupak, and Waxman issued a July 29 press release in which Waxman said, “It was irresponsible of the Bush Administration to submit this agreement to Congress before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saw the final assessment and before our intelligence agencies had sufficient time to review this critical classified [NPAS annex].”

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have endorsed the cooperation agreement and said they will work to bring it into force, but Capitol Hill observers interviewed in recent weeks said they have not seen indications that Obama is about to resubmit it to Congress.