Sam Nunn testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations

Sam Nunn
Co-Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, it’s an honor to come before my former colleagues today to testify on the most pressing national security issue of our times -- how to protect our homeland and homes, our cities and people from terrorist attacks.

Last October, according to news accounts, top U.S. government officials received a highly classified intelligence report. The report warned that terrorists had stolen a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb from the Russian arsenal and planned to smuggle it into New York City.

As far as we know:  

  • No one claimed it was impossible that a nuclear weapon could have been stolen from Russia;  

  • No one claimed it was impossible that a nuclear weapon could be smuggled into New York City;  

  • No one claimed it was impossible for terrorists to disarm the safeguards and explode the bomb; and  

  • No one said it was impossible that a terrorist group could want to kill several hundred thousand people with a nuclear weapon.

On the contrary, the experts knew this is all possible, and even before the October warning, they took it very seriously:

  • Senior-level federal managers in Washington were moved outside the city so the government could continue to function in the aftermath of a nuclear or other catastrophic attack.  

  • The Washington Post reported that – following a CIA briefing in October – President Bush told his national security staff to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to America.
  • In the end, officials came to two conclusions. Number one: That particular intelligence report was false, thank God. Number two: If terrorists were to succeed in acquiring a nuclear weapon, there is low probability we would intercept it at our borders or find it once it’s here.

Mr. Chairman, let’s imagine for a moment we had not been so fortunate, and a 10-kiloton bomb had exploded in New York City. Beyond the horror and human catastrophe, we can imagine the bitter public comment on our government’s stewardship of homeland defense. Without a doubt, the media would have catalogued exhaustively and scathingly all of the warnings policymakers heard and should have heeded, but did not.

Today, I think that it would be useful to ask ourselves two questions:

1. If that report had been true and a bomb had gone off, what could we have done to prevent it?

2. Why aren’t we doing it now?  

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler headed a panel in the year 2000 that studied the threat to our country posed by nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how in the former Soviet Union. The Baker-Cutler report, which came out in January of 2001, stated: “The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states.”

When Senator Baker testified on this report before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about six months before September 11, he said: “If I were arguing this matter on the floor of the Senate of the United States on a matter of appropriations, I would simply say that there aren’t any issues of national defense that are more important … [than] the protection and safeguarding of existing sources of nuclear material.”  

Mr. Chairman, we are in a new arms race – between those seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction and those trying to stop them.

Keeping terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction is either a priority or an afterthought. If it’s a priority, our budget should reflect that. If it’s an afterthought, after what?

In my view, both before September 11 and after, the greatest threat to the United States is, was, and remains nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. On the nuclear side, the greatest specific threat to our national security is, in my view, the danger that terrorists could acquire weapons-grade materials, build a rudimentary nuclear device or a radiological bomb, and blow it up in a U.S. city. I believe this is the most likely nuclear threat we face. Together with a biological attack with a contagious agent, I believe it is the most potentially devastating terrorist threat we face. To prevent our worst nightmare from becoming a reality, we have to determine the steps terrorists would take to carry it out, and the best ways to block them.

First, the terrorists would have to acquire nuclear material. Second, they would have to build the weapon. Third, they would have to transport the weapon (or the material to make the weapon) to the target location – which could include smuggling it across international borders into the U.S. Fourth, they would have to explode it.

Analyzing the pathway to a terrorist nuclear weapon helps us understand several points:

First: Homeland defense begins abroad. Cooperative threat reduction and homeland defense are different phases of the same mission -- to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack.

  • Our threat reduction initiatives in Russia are responsible for helping Russia monitor stockpiles and secure warheads and materials to prevent theft.  

  • If we fail to protect these materials at the source, the international law enforcement and intelligence communities are responsible for identifying the threat and interrupting transport. 
  • If we fail there, Customs and Coast Guard officials are responsible for keeping the weapon or material from entering our borders.

  • If we fail there, nuclear emergency search teams and law enforcement tackle the nightmare job of searching for, finding and defusing a nuclear weapon.  

  • If all of these steps fail and a nuclear device is exploded in an American city, we turn to the terrible task of managing the consequences.

It becomes obvious from analyzing the terrorist path to a nuclear weapon that the most effective, least expensive way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to secure weapons and materials at the source. Acquiring weapons and weapons materials is the hardest step for the terrorists to take, and the easiest step for us to stop. By contrast, every subsequent step in the process is easier for the terrorists to take, and harder for us to stop.

When I say “we” and “us,” I do not mean the United States alone. I mean the United States, Russia, China, India, Europe, Japan, and all our allies, and all nations who have dangerous weapons and materials. Even as the strongest country on earth, America cannot prevent catastrophic terrorism alone.  

Mr. Chairman, our top priority must be to prevent terrorists from gaining possession of nuclear material. Once they gain access to nuclear materials, they’ve completed the most difficult step. Recruiting individuals with physics knowledge, explosive expertise and machining capability to build a weapon or device is a much easier task.

Mr. Chairman, my point is this – in protecting America from nuclear terrorism, an ounce of prevention is worth a megaton of consequence management.

That is why homeland defense must begin with securing weapons and fissile materials in Russia -- and in every country with dangerous weapons or materials.

U.S. work in threat reduction has so far been limited to Russia and the new independent states, but the threat extends beyond these countries. There are 58 nations with research reactors designed to use highly enriched uranium. That means 58 nations where terrorists might go to steal premium material to build a nuclear weapon. I don’t know for certain how many of these reactors still have dangerous materials. I hope someone in the government does. While the International Atomic Energy Agency checks to make sure that the material has not been stolen or diverted, there are no international standards for securing nuclear materials within countries. This has to change. We are talking about the raw material of nuclear terrorism, stored in hundreds of facilities in more than 50 nations -- some of it is secured by nothing more than an underpaid guard sitting inside a chain-link fence.

As Senator Lugar wrote in The Washington Post: “We have to make sure that every nation with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons capacity accounts for what it has, secures what it has, and pledges that no other nation or group will be allowed access.”

President Bush has made some strong statements on this matter. In November, at his joint White House press conference with President Putin, President Bush said: “Our top priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.”

Unfortunately, the President’s priority is not yet his Administration’s priority. Last September, Congress approved $40 billion to respond to the events of September 11. On top of that, Congress now has a $27 billion request from the President to fight terrorism abroad, and a $38 billion request from the President for homeland defense initiatives. As Senator Stevens has pointed out (and I quote), “This is a combination of $65 billion and reflects the largest commitment of federal resources to any security threat since the Vietnam War, and significantly exceeds the $15 billion appropriated during the Gulf War.”

Yet, even as the Administration seeks increases of tens of billions for fighting terrorism, for homeland security and for developing a missile defense system, it seeks no increase for efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. Last year, the Administration’s request [$745 million] would have reduced these programs by approximately $100 million, but the final appropriations approved by Congress, including the supplemental bill, increased the programs by $257 million to approximately $1 billion. The government’s total threat reduction programs for securing nuclear weapons and materials in Russia and the new independent states is requested at approximately $1 billion in the President’s 2003 budget – roughly the same level appropriated last year. We may even be losing ground on current work. The Nunn-Lugar and Nunn-Lugar-Domenici programs, which this committee helped establish and has strongly supported, has contributed to a decade of improvements in U.S. national security and reduced the threats from weapons of mass destruction terrorism. These programs have also greatly enhanced Russian compliance with its arms control commitments and have greatly increased the transparency of Russia’s weapons programs. But we have a long, long way to go.  

I’m very concerned, Mr. Chairman, that some of the vital work that is being done to protect America from a nuclear attack is being put on hold because the Administration has not certified Russia’s commitment to comply with arms control agreements. I believe that Russia should fully implement its strong verbal commitments to comply with arms control treaties. I strongly support, however, the Administration’s request to Congress for permanent waiver authority to allow this work that is vital to our national security to go forward. It is indeed ironic and disturbing that the U.S. and Russia – both nations with a huge security stake in preventing catastrophic terrorism – allow this critical work to be interrupted or slowed. Whatever our differences with Russia over its arms control commitments, suspending efforts to reduce the nuclear threat to the United States should not be viewed as leverage, and is not the answer. To me, this is a top priority in preventing catastrophic terrorism.

Mr. Chairman, at your hearings on homeland security last month – in your opening statement and in your questions to the witnesses, you repeatedly returned to the question of priorities – how we could “better prioritize our funding decisions to best protect the safety of our citizens.”

I agree with your emphasis on this point. Designing an effective defense against the full range of risks is a formidable challenge. To do this, I believe we must begin with an objective, comprehensive national security estimate that assesses each major risk, ranks each major threat, and estimates every major cost. From this analysis, we can begin to build a broad-based strategy – one that would allow us to direct the most resources to prevent the threats that are the most immediate, the most likely, and the most potentially devastating. We must confront the full range of dangers in a way that defends against one without making us more vulnerable to another. In the absence of an infinite budget, relative risk analysis must be the beginning point in shaping our strategy and allocating our resources.

Our best government and non-government sources must be involved in conducting this relative risk analysis of the threats we face, and they should submit to this Committee their best estimates of the risks, the priorities, and the costs. I also recommend – and this is the most important point – that your funding decisions be based on such an analysis. The cost incurred must be proportionate to the threat deterred.

We have now a window of opportunity to reduce these risks and to build a framework to address these ongoing threats on a continuing basis. President Bush, this month, has a second summit with President Putin. I believe it is essential for our two Presidents to bring our nations together as lead partners in a global coalition against catastrophic terrorism.

Mr. Chairman, during the last half of the century, our organizing security principle was to contain Communism. I believe that today, the challenge of preventing catastrophic terrorism is important enough, urgent enough and geographically broad enough to become our organizing security principle for the 21st century. Preventing catastrophic terrorism is a mission that demands unparalleled security cooperation. To be effective, it must include our traditional allies and must also include Russia, China, India, Pakistan -- indeed, every civilized nation.

Recommendations

I have a few suggestions for the upcoming Bush-Putin Summit that could significantly affect the security of our homeland now and in the decades ahead:

1) Both President Bush and President Putin should commit each nation to the highest international standards of weapons of mass destruction security – to ensure that nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials are safe, secure, and accounted for – with reciprocal monitoring sufficient to assure each other and the rest of the world that this is the case.  

2) The United States and Russia must lead the rest of the world, encouraging and assisting all countries to adopt these high standards.  

3) Both Presidents should find a way to build on their commitments from their Crawford, Texas meeting – to speed the pace of reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons by both the U.S. and Russia without losing the transparency, verifiability and stability that are the benefits of traditional arms control.  

4) Numbers are important, but what’s even more important is that we find ways to reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident or miscalculation. Both Presidents should order their military leaders, in joint consultation and collaboration, to devise operational changes in the nuclear forces of both nations that would reduce toward zero the risk of accidental launch or miscalculation and provide increased launch decision time for each President.

5) The two Presidents should get an accurate accounting and guarantee adequate safeguards for tactical nuclear weapons. These are the nuclear weapons most attractive to terrorists – far more valuable to them than simple fissile material, and much more portable than strategic warheads.  

6) The two Presidents should combine our biodefense knowledge and scientific expertise and apply these joint resources to defensive and peaceful biological purposes. When the same investment can improve international security, advance public health, and promote global partnership, it’s an investment that ought to be made.  

7) Finally, the two Presidents should link Russian and U.S. capabilities to plan and practice in advance for a joint response if weapons or materials ever get loose from the custody of either state or from any third nation.

Mr. Chairman, Senator Stevens, Members of the Committee -- we must think anew. The threat of weapons of mass destruction is global; the United States and Russia cannot meet it alone. But the actions of many nations often follow from the actions of a few – particularly when the actions of the few are in the interest of the many. Our two nations have done more than any others to build up these nuclear arsenals. We have to take the lead in building them down. Until we do so, we will not have the credibility to gain the world’s full cooperation in reducing the global threat. The initial steps in building a coalition against catastrophic terrorism must begin with action from the United States and Russia. We must set the example and ask others to join.

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May 7, 2002
About

Testimony on how to protect our homeland and home, our cities and people from terrorist attacks. Building a global coalition against catastrophic terrorism must begin with a partnership between the U.S. and Russia.

Authors
Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI