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NSC’s Holgate: House Vote Shows “Fundamental Misunderstanding” Of Threat Reduction

By Lee Michael Katz

Special to Global Security Newswire

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) poses in 1999 near a Soviet Typhoon-class submarine, one type of ballistic missile submarine dismantled in Russia with support from the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative. Efforts by U.S. lawmakers to tie CTR funds to Russian actions on Syria and other issues represent “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the program, a senior White House national security official has said (U.S. Senator Richard Lugar photo). U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) poses in 1999 near a Soviet Typhoon-class submarine, one type of ballistic missile submarine dismantled in Russia with support from the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative. Efforts by U.S. lawmakers to tie CTR funds to Russian actions on Syria and other issues represent “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the program, a senior White House national security official has said (U.S. Senator Richard Lugar photo).

WASHINGTON -- Congressional attempts to link Cooperative Threat Reduction program funding to behavior by Russia over Syria and other issues are “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the program, a White House official dealing with the issue told Global Security Newswire (see GSN, May 1).

Despite the threat, National Security Council Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction Laura Holgate predicted that overall “we’ll continue to see support” for the Nunn-Lugar initiative in an era of budget cuts.

The CTR program for two decades has sought to secure and eliminate nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, chemical warfare materials and other unconventional arms threats, primarily in the former Soviet Union. The pressure from Capitol Hill comes as the effort is about to lose its top congressional backer and co-founder, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who was recently defeated in a primary election.

Still, Holgate pointed out that CTR activities are merely “decimal points in Pentagon budgeting.” The House Appropriations Committee even voted for a slight fiscal 2013 budget increase in the $519 million program for the Defense Department’s CTR activities (see GSN, June 20).

In May, though, the House adopted an amendment to 2013 defense authorization legislation that would limit “the availability of funds for Cooperative Threat Reduction activities with Russia until the secretary of Defense can certify that Russia is no longer supporting the Syrian regime and is not providing to Syria, North Korea or Iran any equipment or technology that contributes to the development of weapons of mass destruction.”

Holgate vowed the White House would “absolutely” fight adoption of the amendment by Congress. “Those kinds of linkage effects reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the premise and the mechanism of the threat reduction programs,” she declared. “And we’ll definitely be working with Congress to prevent their application to a centerpiece of our nuclear security program."

On the subject of the Syrian chemical weapons arms held by an autocratic regime now facing armed resistance, Holgate noted “we have no indications that the security of the stocks have been compromised. But that’s obviously one of the things that one worries about very much.” Still, Holgate conceded “there’s a limit to what the U.S. can do in that environment and in that situation" (see GSN, June 26).

The reportedly large Syrian chemical weapons arsenal is different from the situation faced in dealing with unrest that toppled another Middle East regime in Libya, according to the White House expert.  “They’re not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Holgate said of Syria. “They’ve made no pledges to eliminate. So we’re starting from a whole different perspective.”

Holgate was a key figure behind the recent Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea as well as the landmark initial 2010 summit in Washington. She hinted that the gathering of world leaders to focus on the defense of nuclear material from terrorism might come to an end after a planned 2014 summit. “It could be the last one, sure."

In an extensive interview, Holgate also addressed issues that include worldwide efforts to combat nuclear smuggling and the threat of bioterrorism. Edited excerpts are below:

Q: As a White House national security official charged with dealing with these issues, what fears make it hard to sleep at night? What are the biggest threats?

Holgate: As the president has said, the greatest threat we continue to face in the national security realm is the threat of terrorists with a nuclear weapon. We know there’s 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium on the planet. The U.S. and Russia have well over 90 percent of that, but there’s 40-ish other countries that have material enough to make an improvised nuclear device that would have the devastating effects of a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki-type explosion. When you look at the progress we’ve made, I think you can say it’s shrinking, but the devastating effects will always be true.

That’s why President Obama has made this a priority for his own administration and has … really created a lot of political space for us to work on those portions of the nuclear agenda where cooperation is the key aspect. So, I think we have seen an increase in the number of countries who see this as a problem.

And I was really struck in Seoul at the second Nuclear Security Summit in March, how many leaders around the table as they made their comments on the nuclear security agenda had made this a personal priority.

That’s a real shift from even the conversation that we had in 2010. So, we’re making progress. On the other hand, the most dangerous place, from a nuclear security point of view, is the complacent country, the leader who doesn’t see and act on those threats.

Q: Are there leaders like that?

Holgate: There are some. … In the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, there are some countries that folks might have wished were being a little bit more forward leaning.

We need to continue to use our voice and our actions and our cooperative opportunities to bring those countries along, find ways to speak to them in language that makes sense for them in terms of the threat. And to remove excuses for inaction. I mean, that’s in a sense what the whole concept of threat reduction has been since it was invented by Nunn and Lugar in 1991.

Q: President Obama singled out the plutonium danger this spring. What is it about plutonium that makes it a particular terrorist threat?

Holgate: You can make a weapon with highly enriched uranium and plutonium. And we’re equally concerned about both substances. But it’s just the nature of the nuclear energy fuel cycle -- and the paths that some nations have chosen that cause the total amount of separated plutonium to be rising in the world. Whereas, the total amount of highly enriched uranium is declining.

So, that’s why the president was particularly focused and mentioned plutonium in his speech just before the Nuclear Security Summit.

When you look at the history of actual nuclear smuggling cases that involve plutonium or highly enriched uranium, the thefts tend to come in the plant process. It’s an insider who has regular and authorized access to a facility that they pilfer a little bit here and there. And so, the more facilities you have generating plutonium, the more workers that have access to them in the course of their daily jobs, the more material that’s out there, the greater the concern becomes in terms of even small quantities of that material slipping into the black market.

Q: And small quantities are?

Holgate: Well, the IAEA tells us that all you need is 8 kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear device. That’s less than the size of my glass. And that’s a very sobering number when you compare that to the ton quantities that exist in peaceful nuclear programs around the world. … We’d like to see an overall reduction in the quantity of separated plutonium around the world, whatever its origin. So, that’s something we’re executing ourselves, and we’re trying to find ways to work with other countries to support that.

Q: Are you concerned about the future of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and similar efforts in this time of budget cuts and without the lead legislative backer, Senator Richard Lugar?

Holgate: Well, in terms of congressional perception, the support for that agenda has always been broad, but frankly shallow. No one’s in favor of nuclear terrorism. No one thinks that it’s a good thing to leave materials and weapons unsecured. So, the agenda is an obvious area for bipartisan support -- and that’s been the case over the 20 years of U.S. funding.

Certainly, the Defense Department and sister programs in the Energy Department and related programs in the State Department are going to be under some pretty significant budget pressures. The good news is, even with that, we’ve seen continued congressional support for the resources. Obviously, everybody’s going to be feeling the hurt a little bit, but I think it’s also true that these programs are small enough in comparison to the budgets in which they sit -- that it’s kind of hard to solve a problem on the back of a CTR budget cut. These are decimal points in Pentagon budgeting and still quite small quantities of DOE funding.

The other reality is that as the Nuclear Posture Review makes clear, reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism is our No. 1 nuclear policy goal in our approach. So, I think we’ll continue to see support, but that just means our programs are going to have to do better about explaining their contributions to national security. It’s not a hard job. There are plenty of success stories to be shared.

Q: What successes would you cite?

Holgate: One of the big headlines from the Nuclear Security Summit was removing all highly enriched uranium from Ukraine (see GSN, March 26). You could hang a sign out on the Ukrainian border, “No nuclear terrorists need come here, nothing here for them.” And we’re seeing an increasing swath of Europe that has no highly enriched uranium or plutonium on their territory. You’re seeing elements of removals in Latin America as well. And so, those are some of our most tangible successes.

The other big CTR success story we saw was in Kazakhstan. I was very disappointed at the lack of coverage that was received for the Degelen Mountain project. This was a joint program among the U.S., Russia, and Kazakhstan to completely fill in several former Soviet test tunnels that were found to have residual plutonium and highly enriched uranium in them that might have been available to scavengers who were reopening these tunnels sealed by the CTR program in the ’90s. …

These are important contributions to securing the U.S., international security.

Q: You worked on the Ukraine situation personally. What was that like? Was it harrowing at times?

Holgate:  I’ve been working on these issues with Ukraine for almost 20 years. And at the technical level, our Ukrainian partners were extraordinary supportive and helpful. The real challenge was kind of in the intermediate area where there’s always a perception of when you’re removing material from some of these countries that somehow this is a loss -- that they’re giving up something.

There were several points where if a decision had been delayed much longer, that the time lag would not have allowed for the removal.

But [Ukraine] said they’d remove it by the next summit, so we were working on some pretty challenging timelines that involved Russian export control and environmental approvals because this material was going into Russia. We ended up having to make some very high-level phone calls to Moscow for them to move paperwork in time that would allow the progression of the shipments.

So, there were a few question marks on the timeline, but we never doubted the intent of the Ukrainians to live up to their commitment.

Q: I was just talking with a former U.S. ambassador who served in these areas. He said basically, in terms of the U.S. doing things for Russia that there’s no political future for CTR. Have you detected hesitancy in Russia allowing U.S. officials access?

Holgate: Certainly access has always been a challenge. These are the most sensitive facilities in Russia in many cases. And certainly over the last decade, we’ve seen an increase in the relative political power of the security services in Russia, who are the ones who would stand in the way of U.S. presence at sites.

In terms of assuring accountable use of U.S. taxpayer dollars, we’ve found ways to manage that and to work around that to provide confirmation.

Q: The House recently passed an amendment that would limit CTR funds if Russia was found to be supporting the regime in Syria, as well as some other issues. Are you concerned about that?

Holgate: This is far from the first time that’s happened. Congress has made a lot of efforts over the 20 years of this program to link U.S. provision of resources for threat reduction to a whole range of behavior that Congress is unhappy with Russia about.

What concerns me about it is that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the benefits that the U.S. gains from that program. Nunn-Lugar is not a favor we do for Russia. It is a set of targeted activities to reduce threats to the United States.

And it’s also not about cash going to Russia for them to do things that then frees up cash that they can use to do things that make Congress unhappy. Those kinds of linkage effects reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the premise and the mechanism of the threat reduction programs. And on that basis, we have been successfully able to prevent those kinds of amendments from succeeding over time.

Q: You’re going to try and prevent this one from succeeding?

Holgate: Absolutely. Absolutely. We do not believe that those kinds of linkages are constructive. And we’ll definitely be working with Congress to prevent their application to a centerpiece of our nuclear security program.

Q: What is the level of U.S. concern about Syria’s significant stocks of chemical weapons, given the violence in Syria? Is there anything we are doing about it?

Holgate: Well, there’s a limit to what we can say publicly about the Syrian chemical weapons program. We obviously are concerned about it. We are keeping a close eye on it. We have no indications that the security of the stocks have been compromised. But that’s obviously one of the things that one worries about very much. But there’s a limit to what the U.S. can do in that environment and in that situation.

Q: Do lessons learned on our operation conducted in Libya related to its comparatively small chemical stockpile, apply to the Syrian situation?

Holgate: It’s a very different situation in Syria than it was in Libya for a couple reasons. One is that we had much more visibility into what was going on in Libya.

Secondly, Libya had ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and was already on a path to destruction of its chemical weapons stocks. That destruction had stopped because of an operational problem at the plant prior to the revolution, and they’re now working to get that back up and running and also to eliminate the additional chemical weapons that were discovered in the course of the uprising.

Syria’s a very different case. They’re not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. They’ve made no pledges to eliminate. So we’re starting from a whole different perspective.

Q: The United States provided Jordan with radiation detectors. How did that threat relate to Syria?

Holgate: The radiation detection, that’s a part of another story relating to the work that we’re doing with Jordan on countering nuclear smuggling. You know, there are some who worry about some residue of what some felt were a nascent Syrian nuclear weapons program related to the reactor facility that many people believed was there.

Q: The one that the Israelis bombed…

Holgate: Lots of questions on that. Less than transparent about their activities and intent regarding that facility, absolutely. But I’m not aware of anyone who is concerned about weapons-usable nuclear material. Certainly, you worry about smuggling of radioactive materials, not necessarily weapons usable, but for public health, kind of human exposure reasons.

[Detectors] can help you identify an orphan source or contaminated metal, as well as things that are being smuggled. And a lot of times we see smugglers who claim to have nuclear weapons-usable material, and what they have is actually a hoax material or just a simple radio isotope that may make a Geiger counter click, but it’s not actually plutonium or high-enriched uranium.

Q: Are there any other countries where we’re doing the same thing?

Holgate:  We’ve been doing a lot of work with countries all over the world through the Department of Energy’s Second Line of Defense program. If you think about nuclear security as a challenge of concentric circles, the first line of defense is the building where the material might be stored or the facility perimeter.

The second line of defense might be the next encounter a smuggler has with officials, which could be at an airport or at a border crossing or at a seaport. And we’ve been working all over the world to install radiation detectors, to train organizations among our international partners to improve that detection.

In fact, I was just in Lithuania where they are launching a counter–nuclear smuggling center of excellence as a training opportunity for the Lithuanian personnel to improve their capability to detect, interdict, prosecute, identify nuclear smuggling.

Q: Is there something specific you seek for the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2014?

Holgate: What we’re working on now is what do we need to do in the next two years to really create a kind of higher plateau of performance, of capacity, at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]? It means more authority, it means more resources, more expertise…

The Office of Nuclear Security is the location of this effort. One possibility could be even to elevate it from an office to a division, which gives it a little bit more visibility and clout in the organization. The interesting point about the inspection issue is that there is no international mechanism that connects to an inspectorate relating to security.

Q: Do you want to see the authority to conduct an inspection?

Holgate: I don’t think that’s realistic in the next two years. I do think that over time, we do need to advance the premise that part of being a responsible nuclear steward is being responsible in a way that is visible to your neighbors and your fellow inhabitants on the planet. And one way to do that is by inviting, on a voluntary basis, the IAEA to review the security at your facility. It’s a confidential report between you and the IAEA.

We’ve invited this as one of our key commitments: the first time ever for the U.S. to invite an inspection of a facility where we have highly enriched uranium. And that review will take place next year. But I’d like to see this become kind of a normal part of what a mature nuclear country does.

Q: Will the nuclear security summits that began in 2010 end in 2014?

Holgate: It depends on the will of the participants. It’s an open question at this point.

There’s certainly talk about that, and in some ways because [of] President Obama’s call for a four-year effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. That’s kind of a nice bookend at the end of that: 2014 being four years after 2010. But it comes back to this … point of really the best reason to stop having summits is because you put a better platform in place to manage the issue of every day, all the time, with all the relevant countries.

That’s the benefit of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations. They are authoritative, universal or near-universal institutions with an established authority to do work in these areas. And so, it takes away the argument of some who’ve suggested that the limited participation of the summits somehow decreases its legitimacy. Certainly, there’s nothing official about the summits.

Q: So it’s possible that 2014 could be the last Nuclear Security Summit.

Holgate: It could be the last one, sure.

Q: Biological weapons require less space to develop? Is bio a real worry?

Holgate: Of course bio’s a real worry. The president said so in the covering letter of the countering biothreats strategy. And I think you have a confluence of events: terrorists with intent, the expansion of biotechnology knowledge, a miniaturization of biotechnology capabilities. You have the rise of what’s called the DIY-- Do It Yourself--bio community. Amateur scientists in their own basements and garages …ordering kits from the Internet that are things that would have been Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs 20 years ago.

You add that to our global interconnectedness of airplanes and people and goods and animals. … I’m talking here about physical connectivity. Fortunately, computer viruses don’t yet kill individuals.

But spreading knowledge ... advancing technology and making it more accessible and available to people. It’s the confluence of those types of concerns that certainly make bioterrorism a real threat.

Q: Any other terrorist proliferation threats?

Holgate: We’re gratified to see the capabilities of what my counterterrorism friends call “core al-Qaida” decline as we’ve made inroads in their leadership. But certainly the splinter groups, the associated al-Qaida-affiliated groups, continue to have ambitions and aspirations for WMD acquisition and use.

We continue to see them seeking experts with relevant technological skill sets. So, the nuclear terrorism or the WMD terrorism threat continues to be one that concerns all of us working on this issue.

Q: You’re not going to sleep peacefully at night just because al-Qaida’s been degraded?

Holgate: Not at all, no. The WMD terrorism threat was always bigger than al-Qaida, and it continues even as al-Qaida’s weakened.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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