Get to know NTI: Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Samantha Pitts-Kiefer is Director of NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program (GNPP), which works with governments and partners around the world on the urgent, practical steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. She also has co-led two major projects: the NTI Nuclear Security Index and the Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities. Recent work includes cyber security of nuclear weapons and related systems and nuclear facilities, U.S.-Russia relations, and nuclear weapons policy and disarmament.

As the director of the GNPP, you work on the steps toward a long-term goal. Can you talk about that? 

NTI has long advocated for the need to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. Recognizing that this goal will most likely not be achieved in any of our lifetimes, we believe it is important to take steps that are necessary to reach that goal and create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. At NTI, our projects take on many of the conditions, working both in the U.S. and with international partners in areas such as reducing the role of nuclear weapons; changing nuclear policies to reduce nuclear risks; encouraging countries to secure and reduce nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists; and supporting the universalization and enforcement of international instruments that would ban testing of nuclear weapons or the production of nuclear materials for nuclear weapons. So we do a lot of thinking about reducing nuclear risks and encouraging countries to take steps to reduce those risks.

You’ve also played a big role in the development of the NTI Nuclear Security Index and the Global Dialogue.

The Index and the Global Dialogue are two very, very different projects but each has its own impact on nuclear security. The Index is an assessment that has so far been released three times since 2012 to track and assess the security conditions in countries to prevent acts of nuclear terrorism—theft of materials or sabotage of a nuclear facility. The Index looks at specific measures that we think countries should be taking to improve security conditions for nuclear materials and facilities—from physical security or cyber security to ratification of treaties and even to things like corruption in a country. By assessing these conditions and actually scoring and ranking countries we’ve been able to start a dialogue, a conversation among countries and experts, about what really matters when it comes to securing nuclear materials, and we’ve been able to track progress over time. The Index also helps countries identify what they need to do to improve their security, and we know of several countries that took certain actions to improve security in response to the findings in the Index. 

It’s also raised awareness about a new threat—cyber security—which we included in our 2016 report for the first time, and it really raised attention to why and how cyber security is important at nuclear facilities. It generated a lot of interest.

The Global Dialogue project is very different in that we work directly with government officials from around the world to have a dialogue about ways to have a more global, systemic approach to improving nuclear security. This project was started in the context of the Nuclear Security Summits, which were started by President Obama in 2010—they were held every two years until 2016. The summits brought together over 50 countries to find ways to secure and reduce nuclear materials and led to significant achievements. The Global Dialogue was meant to feed into the summit process by challenging officials involved in the summits to take off their official hats and put on their global citizen hats in order to develop interesting, creative ways to improve security.

What are the big security challenges facing the Trump administration?

The Trump administration has to face a long, long list of nuclear challenges. Some of the most obvious ones are going to be ensuring implementation of the Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump and others in his administration have criticized that deal, but the key will be to ensure accountability—to ensure that the implementation and verification measures are working and to hold Iran accountable for living up to the agreement. I don’t think Trump will actually kill the deal because the alternatives are just not good—possibly losing support for sanctions amongst our allies, etc. But we will have to wait and see. The North Korea nuclear program is also going to be a significant challenge. I think we are all wondering how Trump’s approach is going to differ from the Obama administration’s.

The Trump administration will also be reviewing U.S. nuclear policies—in fact he’s already tasked the Secretary of Defense to do so. There are several elements of nuclear policy that will be part of the review: whether to maintain the triad of nuclear weapons; how many weapons do we need and can we make further reductions; will the U.S. reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict or use them for purposes other than to deter a nuclear attack; are we going to take nuclear weapons off high-alert status to reduce the risk of accident or miscalculation. Importantly, Trump will need to figure out how to address the up to $1 trillion modernization plan that the Obama administration has set in motion. Will Trump roll it back or will he increase spending on nuclear weapons? So those are going to be very big issues related to nuclear weapons policy. 

He’s also going to have to face the issue of Russia and arms control. The New START treaty is going to expire at the end of his first term, so Trump is going to have to consider whether to extend the treaty or to negotiate a new treaty. His recent statements indicate that he’s willing to negotiate some kind of arms control deal, but we don’t know what that would look like at this point (140 characters isn’t exactly long enough to describe serious policy). We will be looking at how Trump decides to deal with Russia. Will he try to undertake a broad strategic dialogue with Russia which puts everything on the table—missile defense, conventional weapons, tactical nuclear weapons?

Another important nuclear challenge will be to continue making progress on nuclear and radiological security and decide what initiatives from the Bush and Obama eras to continue or design a new initiative—perhaps focusing on radiological terrorism and the dirty bomb threat. The radiological threat has been less of a focus in the last eight years than the nuclear terrorism threat, even though many experts think a dirty bomb attack is more likely than a nuclear attack, given the large number of radiological materials available and the lack of security.

You were not always in the nuclear security field. You started your career as an attorney practicing in London. Why the switch?

When I was in law school, I was really passionate about international law—treaties, international organizations, etc. Instead, I ended up going into corporate law and practicing mergers and acquisitions and securities at a law firm in London and New York for a few years. But deep down I knew that I really wanted to have a career that I found fulfilling and that I could be passionate about. And while billion-dollar deals can be exciting at times, my heart just wasn’t in it. So I decided to go back to graduate school, eventually attending Harvard Kennedy School. While there, I was inspired by classes with Graham Allison and Matt Bunn and Will Tobey to pursue a career in nuclear policy. When I first learned in Dr. Allison’s class that a terrorist could use a nuclear bomb to destroy a city, it truly shocked me, which led me to getting a summer internship at NTI and eventually coming to NTI full time.

You mentioned that you worked in London and you’re British, but you have an American accent. Why is that?

That’s right. My whole family is British, I was born in England, and I grew up in Oxford. When I was 12, my family moved to Japan for my dad’s job, and I went to an international school where most people spoke with an American accent. So I guess I started just absorbing the accent during that time, and now that I’ve lived in the U.S. for over 20 years, it’s kind of stuck. But if you hear me talking to my family or if you’re with me in England, you will definitely hear the English accent coming back. And you’ll still catch me using British slang once in a while.

Another interesting thing about you is that you’re a long-distance runner in your free time. Is that what they’re called? Long-distance runners?

They’re called ultramarathon runners.

So what does that mean? And what’s the longest distance you’ve run?

Technically an ultramarathon is anything over a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. Typical distances are 50k, which is about 32 miles; 50 miles; 100k, which is about 61 miles; and 100 miles–and even beyond that. The longest that I’ve run is 100 miles, which I did in December–it was actually more like 102 miles when you do the math. 
Samantha sprints across the finish line

Why would anyone want to do this?

Well, I started running long distances because I felt that all of my time was spent pursuing professional challenges, and I decided I wanted to pursue personal challenges as well. And I had read the book, Born to Run, and was intrigued, so I joined an ultrarunning club in Virginia called the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, and once you start hanging around with these crazy people, who run these long distances, you start thinking, “Well, maybe I could run 50k or maybe I could run 50 miles,” and you get a little bit hooked. The challenge just seemed too enticing not to pursue, and the people in the club and the ultrarunning community are so welcoming and supportive, you feel like you’ve found a second family. So I just started out slow … and every time you run a longer distance you start to feel you can do more, and so it just never ends.

Are you going to run farther?

My dream is to run the Tahoe 200 miler, which is a race around Lake Tahoe.

That sounds at least as hard as getting rid of nuclear weapons.

One of the things you learn from running long distances is that of course you have to be physically fit, but the majority of what gets you through these races is the mental aspect. In a long race like a 100-miler, at some point you’re going to feel that getting to the end is impossible–that it’s too painful, there are too many obstacles. Maybe there’s a rain storm, maybe it’s icy, maybe you fall and cut yourself, or maybe you don’t have enough food. But mentally, you just have to tell yourself to keep moving, step-by-step. 

There’s a phrase that ultra-runners use, which is “Relentless Forward Progress,” and it means that no matter what, you keep moving forward. If you can’t run, you walk. If you can’t walk, you shuffle. If you can’t shuffle, you crawl. And eventually, if you just think step-by-step, you will get to the end. And this can be applied in any part of life, personal or professional. When you have a goal like we have, which is working toward a world without nuclear weapons, it seems like such an enormous goal that you might never get there, but that’s why you have to  work towards it step-by-step, making relentless forward progress, no matter how slow, no matter how many obstacles get in your way. You have to keep focusing on the small steps that will eventually get you there.

Samantha and Emmy, her standard poodle
February 1, 2017
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