Sam Nunn, National Press Club, Question & Answer Session


MODERATOR: We have some of the smartest questions I've ever seen, passed up to the head table. So I hope I ask as many as we can. The first question: With so much unsecured nuclear material already in existence, and with terrorists possessing both the desire and money to acquire it, why has a terrorist organization not detonated a crude weapon or another weapon already?

NUNN: Well, I don't know the answer to that. I pray that that will continue to be the situation.

Acquiring nuclear material is the long pole in the tent. Once the material is gone from the source and once it's in the hands of terrorists, their problem becomes much easier, their problems and their obstacles, and ours become much harder. Our easiest job, and their most difficult job, is basically related to the source of the material. The source of the material is where we can protect it with the most efficiency, if we have cooperation from other countries and if we put the resources behind it.

So I do not know why we have been lucky so far.

Part of it's because of the efforts that I enumerated. Things are being done. It's not that we are doing nothing. We are doing a great deal. We've done a great deal since 1991. I think if we'd have done nothing when the Soviet Union collapsed, if there had not been the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, I think we might have seen a different situation. But we not only helped secure weapons and materials, we also have paid some attention to the personnel involved, and we've employed literally thousands of nuclear scientists that were out of work after the Soviet Union collapsed. That's all been done through the Nunn-Lugar program.

So we have done some things. We are not moving fast enough. We are not moving with a sense of urgency. And we're not keeping up with the threat. I have used the analogy that we are like a gazelle running from a cheetah. It's not that we're not taking steps in the right direction, it's that we're not going nearly fast enough.

MODERATOR: There are several questions about how we engage the public's interest in nuclear nonproliferation, noting that the biggest threat of the Cold War, the thousands of warheads ready for instant launch, are still there. So I was wondering how you could go about doing this, in raising public attention.

And also President Bush has used global terror as an organizing principle of his presidency. Can that be tailored to include the nuclear proliferation, as well as global terrorism in general?

NUNN: I think that's a good question. I think those two are absolutely and inexorably wrapped together.

I think keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, deals not only with the materials and personnel that I've enumerated today, but also with preventing other states from becoming nuclear states. Because if Iran and North Korea and others get nuclear weapons, it's going to mean there is much more danger of terrorists getting nuclear weapons. It's not that there would be an automatic sale, but it's the more exposure people have, and the more nuclear materials and more programs there are, the more transportation there is, the greater the danger.

So I think those two things are wrapped together.

Interestingly enough, President Bush, when he was Governor Bush, made a statement -- and I believe it was at the Reagan Library -- and he enumerated all of these weapons that were on high alert, and he made it very clear that this was going to be one of the priorities of his presidency, to see why we needed so many weapons on high alert, why the Russians need so many on alert, and to try to adjust our Cold War posture.

That, unfortunately, has not become one of his priorities.

I hope it will become one of his priorities, because I think it goes right in to this whole question of nonproliferation. And it's awfully hard to ask countries around the globe to do a lot more to fight against the North Koreans or the Iranians getting nuclear weapons if we ourselves seem to be increasing our dependence on nuclear weapons.

And the same thing would apply to the Russians.

So we have a real effort there, and we can set an example. It's not that if we set an example all of a sudden the North Koreans or the Iranians will say, "Oh, we'll give up our program, because the Russians and U.S. are doing better." That's not the point at all, because that's not going to happen.

The point is that we have to have other countries to put pressure on Iran; we have to have other countries to put pressure on North Korea, like Japan, like China, like South Korea. And to get those countries to really join in enthusiastically, in what I think is a crucial mission, we have to have an example that we're setting ourselves.

And the U.S. and Russia today are not setting that example. We're not devaluing nuclear weapons. We are really, in much of our rhetoric and much of our planning and programming, putting more emphasis on nuclear weapons.

So I think that is a real mistake. And I hope it will be reversed in this administration.

MODERATOR: Along those lines, you mentioned Iran. We have a couple of questions on that. How do you grade what the Bush administration is doing? Are they proceeding correctly in trying to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions? And which approach do you think would be more effective toward Iran, the European cooperative one or the Bush administration's more confrontational one?

NUNN: This gets to the point of working together with allies.

I think you need carrots and sticks. The Europeans need to be willing to put some sticks in their quiver; we need to be willing to put some carrots in ours.

And we need to work together. We need to have a coordinated approach. Otherwise, the Iranians will continue to play cat and mouse with both the United States and with Europe. So I think it takes both. It takes a coordinated approach. It takes diplomats listening to each other, and it takes an allied effort, working together.

We so far have not had that, but that's what we've got to have, carrots and sticks, and the Europeans have to be willing to do a lot more and get a lot tougher if the Iranians do not give up their nuclear goals.

We have to be willing to put some things on the table, both diplomatically and in other ways, with the Europeans while they're making this effort.

So both the Europeans and the United States, in my view, have to do much more to listen to each other and to coordinate their approach vis-à-vis Iran.

MODERATOR: There's much mythology about suitcase nuclear weapons. First, how serious an issue do you think it is, and are they accounted for on both the U.S. and Russian sides?

NUNN: Suitcase might be a bit of a misnomer, but battlefield weapons are very small. I remember visiting our NATO base when I first got elected to the Senate, back in the 1970s, and we had a base in Northern Italy then, where we were dealing with battlefield weapons for Greece and for Turkey and for Italy, and I was amazed at the size, the small size. They are portable and they are transportable.

So this is one of the most serious problems we face, and there's no effort going on in this arena at all that I'm aware of. It's not subject to any arms control agreements. We don't have any transparency with the Russians. We don't know how many tactical nuclear weapons they have. We don't know where they are. And as I said in my remarks, we hope they do. We hope they've got a good accounting of these.

There ought to be joint transparency and reciprocity and accountability between the United States and Russia on battlefield weapons. It is absurd that we do not have that. It ought to be on the very front burner. It doesn't have to be a public kind of transparency. It can be bilateral between the two countries. But once we do that, then we can get other countries, hopefully, to join in. But it must start with the U.S. and Russia.

MODERATOR: You're involved in the Dark Winter exercise. One of our listeners asks if Dark Winter still is a good indication of what to expect in case of a bioterrorism attack.

NUNN: Dark Winter was, for those of you who had not followed that, an exercise that was conducted over about a 48-hour period where we simulated about three weeks of activity. We did it out of Andrews Air Force Base. It was done before September 11, 2001, and before the anthrax attacks.

And virtually everything that we -- I testified the week before September 11th, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and laid out all the things we had found in that war game, as to the problems with our lack of preparedness on the bio front.

And about a month and a half later, of course, we had the anthrax attacks, and every single one of the things we found in the war games was front and center, in terms of the problems in dealing with anthrax.

Do I think we're better prepared today? Yes, I think we are much better prepared than we were. Do I think we have a long way to go? Yes, I think we have a long way to go.

I would say we probably -- I heard an official, I believe it was John Gordon, say not too long ago that he felt that in no part of the security arena have we made as much progress as we have in preparation on bio, but in no part of the security arena do we have further to go.

I think in terms of our understanding and knowledge of the biological threat, we're now where we probably were 20, 25 years ago on the nuclear threat.

And the biological threat is vastly different from the nuclear threat, because the materials for nuclear are usually in the hands, almost exclusively in the hands, of governments or big utilities or big organizations like in radiological materials and hospitals and so forth. Biological, the materials that can be made into lethal weapons are spread all over the globe in laboratories everywhere.

So the cooperation that's going to be needed in the biological arena is going to exceed what I described is necessary in the nuclear arena today.

It's going to take coordination at the local level between policemen and firemen and health officials. It's going to take health officials being part of our intelligence operation, intelligence officials being very familiar with our health operations.

It's going to take a global battle against infectious disease, because you're not going to know in the outset of a biological attack whether it's deliberate or whether it's Mother Nature, sometimes for weeks or months.

So as I view it, America has always had, and the world has always had, an imperative to help countries around the globe that are suffering from infectious disease. And I'm told some 16,000 people a day are dying of infectious disease around the globe. So we have a moral obligation there, but we also have a security obligation in terms of joining the battle against infectious disease and the battle on bioterrorism. I'm going to be talking at length on this subject in the next two or three months, because it is a separate subject. But I do believe -- summarizing -- we've made progress, but I think we have a long, long way to go.

MODERATOR: We have a number of questions about the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreements. One person wants to know: Have any weapons actually been eliminated, and are there verifiable scheduled weapons reductions required? And do the Russians' own limitations impede the destruction of nuclear stockpiles, and what can be done to address this?

NUNN: When we speak of weapon destruction under the Moscow Treaty and under the other treaties, what we really are verifying is the destruction of the missiles – the submarine and land-based missiles – and the silos and the bombers and so-forth. The warheads themselves, under the treaties we've had thus far, are not required to be destroyed.

Now, when we passed the Nunn-Lugar program in 1991, those resources were used to help Kazakhstan and Belarus and Ukraine get rid of their nuclear weapons. What we saw then was something very unusual. It wasn't part of a treaty process, but they were very reluctant to get rid of their weapons, but they did. And President Nazarbayev and the leadership he gave from Kazakhstan, the leaders of the Ukraine that was a real example for the world.

But the way it was done -- and most people missed this story -- the highly enriched uranium that was in those weapons was claimed by those countries because it had a value. You can blend it down and burn it in power plants. So it has a sales value.

So they wanted their proportion of the value of that, and we worked a three-way deal, in the case of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus, with Russia and the United States and those countries, where we had the highly enriched uranium taken out of the weapons in Russia. And it was then converted to low-enriched uranium and sold to the nuclear power industry, and those countries got their proportionate share of the value of that highly enriched uranium.

This is probably a little hard to believe, but 20 percent of electricity in this country is nuclear power, today, in America. And about one half of that is coming from former weapons that were in the former Soviet Union that were highly enriched uranium material and have been blended down and are being burned in our power plants.

So, theoretically, if you look at 10 light bulbs up there, one out of every 10 of those is coming from highly enriched uranium that was formerly in weapons that were aimed at the United States.

That's the remarkable thing about cooperation. It's a story that most people haven't grasped, but it's the ultimate in the old biblical admonition of converting swords into plowshares. And I think we've got to accelerate that effort. That program is still ongoing, and we have a long way to go on it.

And the more nuclear weapons we take out under the Moscow Treaty, the more highly enriched uranium we're going to have, and hopefully it will continue to be converted to plowshares from swords.

MODERATOR: What is the level of cooperation of the Russians right now, and have you seen any kind of change with the Kremlin being more or less difficult to deal with? And secondly, what is the most alarming lack of security you've seen in touring former Soviet nuclear sites?

NUNN: The cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar program with Russia has continued in good times and bad times between our two countries. But in the last two or three years, we have run into real roadblocks.

And one of those roadblocks is the liability provision. Without going into details, suffice it to say, the countries that help in Russia don't want to be liable if there's an accident. And the Russians, on the other hand, want some responsibility for those countries, like the United States, who are helping them on their nuclear complex. So we're hung up with lawyers and bureaucrats, well-meaning in both Russia and the United States, but this is the logjam that's got to be broken by the two presidents.

So far they haven't stepped up and broken that logjam. And I hold both President Putin and President Bush accountable for not breaking that logjam, because it's in the interests of the Russian people and the people of the United States.

The other issue is access. The Russian military is very reluctant to let us have access to their actual sites, in some cases, the nuclear sites. But Congress has taken the view that we have to have access because of accountability of funds, transparency and so forth. That's kind of understandable on both sides. But we've got to break through that. I don't think we have to have access to every single site. We have to know that the money is being well-spent, and we have to know that there's some accountability on the funding. So on the nuclear side, overall, in spite of these roadblock now, I think we've had pretty good cooperation from the Russian military and probably even better cooperation from the laboratories. Our nuclear scientists from Livermore and Los Alamos and Sandia have worked very closely with their counterparts in Russia. And those relationships have enabled us to make an enormous amount of progress on the disposal and safeguard of nuclear materials.

So all of that is kind of an analysis.

We've made enormous progress in helping the Russian navy, for instance, get their weapons sites and material sites under control. That's sort of a separate chain of command. We have something like 96 percent completed with that -- an enormous amount of progress. With the air force, it's more like 40 percent, more like the overall program. So that's kind of the nuclear picture right now. It's a bit clouded.

Have I seen problems in the last two or three years grow because of the FSB and because of some of the developments in Russia? Yes, but not problems that are insurmountable. I think these are problems, particularly given the relationship with President Bush and President Putin that can be surmounted.

The biological cooperation, or lack thereof, is a whole another story, and that needs a lot of attention. The civilian side of the Russian biological institutes and so forth has been pretty cooperative; but the military side has been very uncooperative. So we still have a big problem with the lack of biological transparency between the two countries -- a lot of suspicions in the biological arena, and those suspicions pour over and impede progress also on the nuclear side.

The final point is chemical -- we are working on the chemical destruction side. Senator Lugar and I visited, about two years ago, a place in Southern Russia called Shchuchye -- 1.971 million tubes of artillery, tubes about this long, about the size that would fit in a briefcase, full of nerve gas. Each one of those tubes would be enough to kill 60,000 to 80,000 people.

So there is a big job to destroy those chemical weapons. Both sides have agreed to it. It's a matter of priority, resources, and getting rid of the roadblocks. We're helping them destroy their chemical weapons. They're way behind. And we are also behind, not as far as they are.

This is an area where other countries and Europe and other places are beginning slowly to step up to the plate and give some assistance here. But it is a big challenge, and those weapons, in my view, have no use in military terms, but they would be a terrorist's dream if they were to get in the hands of terrorists. So that also is a big challenge.

MODERATOR: What is your opinion of the administration's efforts to study nuclear [earth penetrators]? And do you think that this is something that would make the problems more serious, or do you think it's a step in the right direction? The new nuclear weapons.

NUNN: I think you can make a theoretical case why we would find under some conceivable set of circumstances the need to have that kind of weapon. I think the price we pay, though, in developing that kind of weapon is enormously disproportionate to the benefit we would gain.

So I am opposed to that. I think we need to be devaluing nuclear weapons, not building new nuclear weapons. If we don't devalue nuclear weapons, we have a very hard time convincing other countries in the world to join us in preventing new nuclear states from emerging and to join us in securing material all over the globe.

So I think this is a mistake to talk about an earth penetrator. I think the chances of using it are extremely remote, and I think that the price we pay on the lack of cooperation side around the globe is very high.

MODERATOR: Now I want to ask you the most asked question yesterday of Angelina Jolie, and it is not about Brad Pitt, it's about John Bolton.


I was wondering how you think he would be as U.N. ambassador and what message does it send to the world.

NUNN: Well, Richard Nixon went to China; I guess Bolton could be diplomatic at the U.N., I don't know.


I don't know John Bolton very well. He's obviously a very smart, bright guy. It's obvious that I think we have to have cooperation around the globe. That's the heart of my message today. Whether he can get that kind of cooperation, which is essential in that job, I do not know. We'll have to wait and see. But nevertheless, I think that the cooperation is absolutely essential, and I hope that he would be able to perform that and get the job done.

I do think the U.N. deserves some critique. I think it deserves some criticism. I think it deserves constructive criticism, but consistent critique and consistent accountability, because they have an enormous mission, they are spending enormous amounts of money, and there are a lot of problems there.

So I don't mind the critique and the criticism, but it's got to be done in a constructive way, it's got to be done in a diplomatic way, and we've got to foster and build cooperation at the U.N. and other places around the globe for our own benefit and for our own security. So it's an open question about Mr. Bolton, from my perspective, and whether he will be able to fit into that job and do it effectively. I hope so.

MODERATOR: The old congressional correspondent in me has to ask a couple of Hill questions. When you were on the Hill, you were known for tough bipartisan oversight and also working across party lines. I was wondering what you think has happened on the Hill since you left, both the state of oversight hearings on the Hill and secondly, the partisanship that seems to be rampant now.

NUNN: I have never -- including the time I was there -- felt Congress did a good job of oversight. I felt that's one of the most glaring omissions on the congressional agenda. And one of the reasons -- unless it's oversight in the sense that it's a headline or it's an investigation where, you know, you get the mob to take the Fifth Amendment before your committee -- which I did a lot of times -- unless you have that kind of media event, you basically don't get any attention. So oversight is not a rewarded kind of function in the political world, but it is enormously important.

And one of the reasons there's diminished confidence in governmental programs is because people sense that once they're created then their creation is the whole game and the oversight is not there.

So I would not say that oversight has gotten worse since I served in the Senate. I think it was bad when I was there. And I think it probably may be just as bad now, may even be worse.

But nevertheless -- the bipartisan question, I think we need that. There are still people on Capitol Hill that work in a bipartisan fashion, perhaps fewer than in the past. But I think there's got to be a premium on that.

I think, frankly, the American people are tired of partisanship. I think they are tired of having people look like they are trying to make points rather than trying to move in the direction of benefiting the country. I think that's true on national security, but I also think it's true particularly in the domestic and economic arena. So I don't have a solution for it. I do believe that one thing that happened while I was in the Senate and that is we started having these three-day weeks, where you basically come in Monday afternoon, you leave Thursday night. And it started out the House was that way and then the Senate got that way.

So the result of all that is everything is so compressed, so compact, you don't have time to get to know each other. Wives don't get time to know each other. People don't get a chance to know each other. So the framework is that of a battleground rather than having people that get to have a personal relationship and have mutual respect for each other then quarrel about issues. That's a totally different framework than the framework we're seeing now.

Fund-raising has added to that. That's a whole other subject, but having to get on an airplane every week and go raise money is not healthy for bipartisanship. So I think it's a real challenge.

I will throw this one out. I think we ought to all watch what's going on in California with Governor Schwarzenegger and him tackling reapportionment, because I think that we have reapportioned ourselves out of a competitive political process in something like 75 or 80 percent of the congressional districts.

I think that is very detrimental to the political process. I think it's detrimental when you have absolutely safe districts for Republicans, absolutely safe districts for Democrats. They don't even have to talk to people who have a different view. That's not healthy for American democracy. And as we're trying to go on a quest around the world for democracy, I think we ought to look internally here.

So I say, God bless Governor Schwarzenegger, and I hope he can -- I don't know what his solution is. I think he's talking about a high- level independent-type commission. But watch that one because it is long overdue. Both political parties have engaged in basically rigging congressional districts to the point that they are absolutely safe districts. That's detrimental for the kind of dialogue we need, and I think it's a big impediment to bipartisanship. It's also happening in state legislative districts out there also.

MODERATOR: Before I ask my final question, I would like to make two presentations to you. One is to add to your collection of National Press Club mugs.


And the second is something new. Instead of a certificate of appreciation suitable for framing, we have a framed certificate of appreciation.



NUNN: Thank you.

MODERATOR: And now our final question is submitted by a new member of the Press Club about one of your personal diplomatic triumphs. How did you, Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell get the Haitian generals to leave peacefully?

NUNN: Well, I'd say very succinctly, in the spirit of Dean Acheson, Jimmy Carter was persistent, Colin Powell and I helped, and the 82nd Airborne was on the way.


MODERATOR: Thanks so much to Senator Nunn.


March 9, 2005

Sam Nunn, National Press Club, Question & Answer Session

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI