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U.S. Senators Await Obama Plan for Measuring Nuclear Security Progress

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), shown in May, last month asked a senior Obama administration atomic official for “metrics” to measure progress toward President Obama’s goal of locking down all vulnerable nuclear materials within a four-year period (AP Photo/Al Behrman). U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), shown in May, last month asked a senior Obama administration atomic official for “metrics” to measure progress toward President Obama’s goal of locking down all vulnerable nuclear materials within a four-year period (AP Photo/Al Behrman).

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee are awaiting a plan from the National Nuclear Security Administration for how to measure progress toward President Obama’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within a four-year time period (see GSN, March 14).

During a hearing last month, one senior Republican senator cited a government audit finding that the administration’s four-year initiative omits specific cost estimates and implementation details, and that the timing and scope of the effort “remain unclear.”

Obama announced the initiative in a 2009 speech in Prague. Since then, his administration has been criticized for what many perceive as a failure to define exactly what fulfilling the objective would mean and how to measure progress toward it.

The non-partisan Government Accountability Office has addressed this issue on multiple occasions. Its most recent report in March said that “as GAO reported in December 2010, the government-wide strategy approved by the National Security Council (NSC) for the initiative lacked specific details regarding how the initiative will be implemented.

“As a result,” the report continued, “key details associated with the initiative are unclear, including its overall estimated cost, time frame for completion of work, and scope of planned work.”

Also in March, Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, called the four-year goal a “free ride” due to the lack of detail or explanation associated with it. Luongo served as a top Energy Department nonproliferation official during the Clinton administration.

During the June 12 hearing, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, asked a top NNSA official to provide the panel with “metrics” that could be used to hold the government accountable to the four-year goal.

The nuclear agency is a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department that oversees the U.S. atomic stockpile and leads efforts to help secure nuclear material around the world against possible theft or misuse.

“You indicate that you do believe that, given the tax dollars going to these programs, a substantial increase in funding over a three-year period -- about a 60 percent increase overall -- that there ought to be metrics that you're held accountable to,” Portman told Anne Harrington, deputy NNSA administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, as she testified before the panel. “So do you feel you have those metrics in place … ?”

The Obama administration’s NNSA budget request for fiscal 2013 includes $2.46 billion for defense nuclear nonproliferation, a boost of roughly $160 million over 2012 funding.

Referencing the prior GAO criticism, the lawmaker asked Harrington to deliver the information to the committee in writing.

Harrington, however, said she objected to the conclusions of the GAO reports. She said criticism over lack of detail in the four-year plan fails to take into account complicated international negotiations and technical work needed to secure nuclear materials.

“All of those technical issues have variables,” Harrington said. “I would take some issue with the conclusions of the GAO.”

Nonetheless, NNSA spokeswoman Courtney Greenwald told Global Security Newswire on Thursday that the agency is “in the process of responding to” Portman’s request.

Caitlin Dunn, a spokeswoman for Portman, confirmed that the committee had yet to receive a written response from the administration. She said the lawmaker would press the issue if a response is not received within 30 days of the hearing.

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