Senator Nunn interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio

Interview with former Senator Sam Nunn
The Diane Rehm Show

MR. ROBERTS: From WAMU and NPR in Washington, I am Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's away for treatment of a voice disorder. Sam Nunn represented the State of Georgia as a U.S. Senator for 24 years, and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. Today, he has a new job working with media magnate Ted Turner to help address the threat of nuclear proliferation around the world. He is speaking out on the problem at the same time the Bush administration is moving forward with plans for a missile defense system and other measures. Senator Nunn joins me in the studio this morning. Welcome. Nice to have you with us.

SENATOR NUNN: Thanks, Steve.

MR. ROBERTS: It is an important day, President Bush speaking today on the very subject we are talking about. Timing is good, and you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Give us a call and talk to Senator Nunn about this very pressing question. As I mentioned, the President is talking today. Yesterday he apparently called a number of allied leaders around the world to brief them on what he was going to say, and the heart of his speech today is about his proposals for nuclear defense shield. Give us a sense of where you think the President is going on this.

SENATOR NUNN: Steve, I think the president will talk, as he did in the campaign, about deep cuts, and he will couple that with declaring—

MR. ROBERTS: Deep cuts in—

SENATOR NUNN: Deep cuts in existing nuclear strategic weapons, and I think he will couple that with a statement that the ABM treaty is outmoded, and that they are willing to discuss it, but are not going to be bound by it in the future over the long term unless there are very significant changes in that treaty. I also think that he will talk about the ballistic missile defense system, and he will outline it in very broad terms. I don't have any inside information on this, but I don't think they are nearly far enough along to get very definitive about exactly what kind of system they are going to have.

I am pleased the president talked to the European leaders. I would like to have seen him have a discussion with the Russians beforehand, not in the sense we are going to reach an agreement with them quickly, because that is going to be very difficult, but in the sense of really reaching out for consultation. Because in the world we live in today, without allies and without the Russians and even the Chinese cooperating on nonproliferation, we may address one problem successfully, i.e., the North Korean threat, and leave a lot of other problems even more exposed without the cooperation we need.

So that consultation is very important, and I think it must go beyond simply informing. It must really be seeking the views of others, and then, of course, we will make our own decision. Nobody will have a veto, but I hope the president does that, and I think the calls he made yesterday indicate that he is heading in that direction.

MR. ROBERTS: Let me ask you a couple of specifics. You mentioned the ABM. This, of course, is the antiballistic missile treaty. It has been in existence since 1972. Briefly, give our listeners a sense of what that does, and why the president feels it is important to abrogate that treaty, given his plans for a defense shield.

SENATOR NUNN: Well, the ABM treaty was negotiated by the Nixon administration, and it has been in existence for a long time. It was a bilateral treaty and it basically limited both the Soviet Union and the United States from deploying, beyond one site and a limited number of missiles, any extensive national missile defense system, whether in the air, or in space, or on the water.

We do have the right to have one base with, I believe, up to 100 defensive missiles. Now, the reason for that and the philosophy behind it during the Cold War—and certainly it needs to be updated—there is no question about that—the conditions that existed in 1972 have radically changed, but the reason for it still has relevance today, because if one side believes that the other side has a defensive system that will allow them to strike first with offensive systems and then protect against most of the weapons coming back in retaliation, then it could lead to both sides thinking that there is going to be a first strike.

MR. ROBERTS: So it is destabilizing.

SENATOR NUNN: It could be destabilizing, and really what we have got to do, even independent of this debate, we have got to find ways to give both our president and the president of Russia more decision time. It is absolutely absurd, 10 years after the Cold War, that in a matter of minutes the president would have to make up his mind, our president as well as the president of Russia, after being warned by the military that some kind of missile attack was underway, or they thought it was underway, that they have to make up their mind on what could basically be a world-destroying kind of a counterattack, in a matter of minutes. I would like to give them—if it is minutes now, I would like to give them hours, and I would like to find the time, a way, and methods—it will take a lot of military working on it—to give them days.

MR. ROBERTS: Why does the Bush administration and other proponents of this idea—which is controversial—feel it is so important? How has the world changed, that it makes it necessary to change the system that has been in place for almost 30 years?

SENATOR NUNN: I believe the Bush administration would come from the perspective of saying that countries like North Korea and Iraq and Iran were not capable of having a ballistic missile, and certainly not capable of launching one against the United States from that distance back in 1972, and that those countries are increasingly working on—they may or may not be very close to having it, but you can debate that for a long time, but they are at least working on the means to deliver a weapon to the United States, and that therefore, if we get into any kind of regional confrontation, like coming to the aid of South Korea, the North Koreans might hold one of the American cities hostage if we intervene. That, of course, could also be the situation in the Middle East. So I think that is where they are coming from. I think that is a legitimate concern, but the larger concern is the huge stockpile of weapons and materials and know-how in the former Soviet Union. We have cooperative programs going on with Russia there, and while I would like to see us be able to protect ourselves against that kind of limited attack, I think it is even more important that we not allow that move to completely obliterate the kind of cooperation we have had with Russia in getting rid of the reservoir of materials and weapons that could, indeed, spread all over the world, and make all of those countries much more dangerous.

MR. ROBERTS: Now, I want to get to that point, because your focus has been first when you were in the Senate—I remember covering the debate over the Nunn-Lugar program, which has been really the original attempt to help the Soviet Union dismantle its weapons, but you now have a situation where, as you point out, the European allies are not all that pleased with President Bush's plans, even though he did consult with them yesterday. Russia has been very negative about plans to abrogate the ABM treaty. You say there is a strategic reason for going ahead, but is there a political cost, and how serious is that cost?

SENATOR NUNN: The answer is, we do not know, and I do not think the Bush administration knows. We do not know what the Russian reaction will be. If the Russians have a sensible course, I think they would sit down with us and negotiate some rather significant but acceptable and strategically stabilizing changes to the ABM treaty that would permit us to have a limited kind of defense system, and permit them to have one if they choose to, to deal with a threat from North Korea, Iraq, Iran—

MR. ROBERTS: There has even been talk about sharing technologies.

SENATOR NUNN: There has been, and that was President Reagan's idea, and at that time it was probably 20 years premature, but nevertheless, it had the makings of a sound concept, because the Russians have those threats also. As a matter of fact, they already have a very limited and very modest system around Moscow. They went ahead with that and are permitted to have that under the ABM treaty. We never have exercised that option. We do not think it is very significant. We don't think it works very well, and it certainly doesn't interfere with our offensive capability of destroying Russia if we chose to, and God forbid that, but it does indicate that they are not completely oblivious to the need for some kind of defenses. But the Russians now are broke. They don't have any money, and these systems cost a lot of money, and if we are going to cooperate, we are probably going to have to have a lot of sharing.

One of the things that I think the Bush administration, I hope will discuss with the Russians, is perhaps some limited sharing of technology on limited systems, but beefing up the early warning systems in Russia, with cooperation. Now, the Clinton administration started down that road with a very modest effort. It has just barely gotten underway, but one of the worst dangers we face is the force postures we still have that are left over from the cold war from a different era, where we have literally thousands of prompt, hard target kill nuclear weapons, but the Russians are not able, now, to exercise their mobile missiles and move them out like they used to, which makes them more vulnerable. Most of their submarines are in port, which makes them more vulnerable.

But the key here is, they have a deteriorating early warning system. Their radars and their satellites have deteriorated, which means the chances of a false alarm, or a panic response when there was no alarm and someone reported missiles coming erroneously, has gone up. So the chances of some sort of misjudgment here have gone up enormously since the cold war, based on Russia's economic conditions, and I think working with them on that kind of early warning system, coupled with perhaps proposing to them that we share some technology, but we would also share some territory.

I mean, if you look at the Russian land mass, many of the threats that might be here in 5, 10, 20 years, could be better addressed with the near-term systems which may be available, ground-based systems, from the Russian land mass than from the United States. We are talking about ship-based, but we are a long way away from that.

MR. ROBERTS: You know, as you are talking—you made a speech recently in the National Press Club where you said that it is important to think anew about this whole landscape. One of the issues that is perhaps ironic is that as you discuss the problems with Russia, with the eroding early warning system, you have scientists out of work, you have poorly guarded stores of weaponry and nuclear material, that really we have gone from a situation where the great threat of Russia was its strength, to the great threat is its weakness.

SENATOR NUNN: Exactly right, Steve. There is no question. Back in the Cold War we feared a Russian massive first strike against us, and that, again, was part of the ABM treaty philosophy, that a first strike was more likely if you could defend against what is left. You know, if you could knock out 80 percent on the other side and then defend against the 20 percent left, that is a different equation than if you are still exposed yourself, and have a discernible return address, which we do.

So I think the Russian weakness today is the biggest danger we have. Now, that weakness in conventional forces has led them to rely more on tactical nuclear weapons or battlefield weapons. These are the short-range weapons that would actually be used in battlefield, but some of them, most of them are the size of Hiroshima, so they are not mini-nuclear, they are pretty substantial and could cause huge devastation. So the Russians are relying today, because of the deterioration on their conventional defenses—the budget has been cut 80, 90 percent—on tactical nuclear weapons. Not only that, they are relying on their early use of tactical nuclear weapons in any kind of conflict more. Now, we need to address those things.

We do not know how many tactical nuclear weapons they have. We know how many we've got. We hope they know how many they've got, but when you give battlefield commanders the responsibility of defending with tactical nuclear weapons, that means they have to have early release authority, and it also means they have to have possession of those weapons without the kind of safeguards and controls, they are more subject to theft by terrorist groups, or sale. So all of those dangers are clear and present, and we have to put our overall plans on defending against a North Korean missile or an Iraqi missile or an Iranian missile in that overall—

MR. ROBERTS: Context—

SENATOR NUNN: Context, absolutely.

MR. ROBERTS: Well, there is this tremendous irony that in some ways it sounds as if the threat is actually worse now because of the deterioration of the Soviet Union, and it is a combination of the fact that they were once strong, therefore they had this stockpile. Now that they are weak, they can't protect the stockpile, they can't put their scientists to use, and they're worried about the whole question of early warning.

SENATOR NUNN: That's exactly right, and we are helping them, and have been since 1991, with what we call the Nunn-Lugar program. We have taken money out of our own defense budget for 10 years and helped them with essential sums of money to get these weapons under safeguard, to get them under control, to even help employ on a part-time basis some of the thousands of scientists who know how to make these weapons and are in great demand around the world, but don't know how to feed their own families.

We are doing all of that, but there is a huge gap remaining between the threat of that material, weapons and know-how leaking out, or being sold to terrorist groups around the globe, and the response. So there is as gap between the threat and the response, our allies are not doing nearly enough, and we all need to step up to the plate and understand we have a window of vulnerability but also a window of opportunity, and we must take advantage of it.

MR. ROBERTS: I will be right back with former Senator Sam Nunn, and our discussion about the whole question of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You stay with us.


MR. ROBERTS: Welcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm, and my guest is Senator Sam Nunn, former Senator Nunn, who spent 24 years on Capitol Hill, finally as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and our phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. We're talking about the whole issue of how the world can protect itself against the use of weapons of mass destruction, just today, President Bush speaking on that issue here in Washington. Senator, we were talking about the question of what is already being done to help the Russians. Give us a—the Nunn-Lugar program, a lot of money over the years, as you say, taken out of the American defense budget on the theory that our own security—this is really a question of self-interest, isn't it?

SENATOR NUNN: That's right, Steve. It's not foreign aid, it's self-interest. We have helped them destroy over 80 bombers that carried nuclear weapons, some 18 submarine missilecarrying weapons, with hundreds of launchers we have helped them destroy, and we have also helped them deactivate several thousand warheads that were formerly pointed towards us. But more importantly, we are beginning to help them seriously on the human side, both chemical and biological, although we have a long, long way to go, so we have done a lot with this money. It started off with about $400 million a year, and it's now up to about $600 or $700 million a year. President Bush is now proposing on an least an interim basis of cutting some of that back, and if he can come up with a better mouse trap, that's fine, but we have to help them address these problems.

In fact, while we have an opportunity, I would like to see us declare, with our allies, that we are going to help the Russians and pile up all the nuclear material and put it under international safeguard. I mean, you imagine one bomb getting out, one city would cost us - -not even talking about the terrible human tragedy—would cost us in economic terms far more than buying up all the nuclear material in the former Soviet Union that they're willing to sell, and putting it under international safeguard, and I think that could be done. It would help the Russians. Basically, if you had some requirements as to how they spent the money, and you had some audits about how they spent the money, let them spend a substantial portion of that money increasing their own safeguard system, which would be in their interest as well as the world's interest.

MR. ROBERTS: If this program had bipartisan support, as it always has—Senator Lugar, of course is a leading Republican, still in the Senate—why, then, suggestions to cut back on the funding? Do you think it is ill advised on the part of the Bush administration?

SENATOR NUNN: Well, I want to wait and see how they come out on the final outcome, because they may have some different approaches, and I am certainly going to be talking to them. I would never contend that every program we have in this vein is effectively and efficiently run, so there's room for improvement, always, so I will wait, but I certainly believe we ought to be accelerating our efforts. Former Senator Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler just headed up a Department of Energy Task Force—

MR. ROBERTS: Baker, of course, also a Republican, about to become Ambassador to Japan.

SENATOR NUNN: A Republican, Reagan's chief of staff, and about to become Ambassador to Japan, that's right, and they recommended exactly what I just mentioned, and that is trying to have a 10-year goal of putting all this material, nuclear material that can be sold, and is in great demand, and can be used by terrorists if they get a hold of this kind of material—and it will not come to this country on a missile. It is more likely to come in a suitcase bomb, or a bomb on a ship that pulls into harbor, and the crew abandons ship, and then the bomb goes off in 24 hours. That is a much more likely threat.

Now, that does not mean we do not have a missile threat, we do, but it means that people who do not have a return address, so to speak, are much more likely to use a weapon than those who do have a return address, and they would destroyed if they did use it. So the Baker and Cutler Task Force basically said we ought to have a goal of buying up all that material, we being the international community, not just the United States. So it is puzzling to me the administration would be cutting back on that. While we certainly want to be able to intercept a missile if it is coming from North Korea, it would be much better if North Korea never got the material and never fired a missile to begin with.

MR. ROBERTS: And never built the missile.

SENATOR NUNN: And never built it, right, and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry has been working on the North Korean situation, and I thought Secretary of State Powell was just right when he said the negotiations with North Korea should be taken up just—by the new administration, and taken up with continuity from the old administration. It is still going to be a serious problem that it has been interrupted, and that is another serious problem.

MR. ROBERTS: Well, in that particular case, other voices in the administration contradicted Secretary Powell on the issue of continuing negotiations with North Korea, and it raises a larger question. Senator Kerry of Massachusetts, John Kerry, said in response to the President's speech today that at least part of what is driving President Bush is a need to appeal to his right-wing conservative base and be hard-line with Russia, hard-line with China. How much does politics factor into these decisions?

SENATOR NUNN: I have confidence in the long run that President Bush will understand his responsibilities as President of the United States and put the overall security goals of the nation in front of any kind of partisan or even right-wing pressures. But he may be under those kinds of pressures now, and one of the things that I have said for sometime, but I repeat, is that missile defense is a technology. It should not be debated as a theology. When you talk to some of the people who are actually working on these programs, they tell you we are 8, 10, 12 years away from some of the things they are talking about. In fact, most of them are 8, 10, 12 years away. We have got 8 or 10 years of hard work to get these weapons under control, which depends upon cooperation with Russia. It cannot be done without cooperation with Russia, so consultation with Russia on something that may happen in 8 or 10 years is absolutely essential, so that we can utilize the next 8 or 10 years while this missile defense program is going on.

MR. ROBERTS: But there seems to be an inherent conflict, then. If you say that it is necessary to consult with Russia to do all of these things, dismantle their weapons, improve their early warning system, train, retrain, and put to good use their scientists, if the proposal to abrogate the ABM treaty harms relations with Russia, and on the other hand dealing with this problem involves better relations with Russia, isn't there an inherent conflict?

SENATOR NUNN: Well, there could be, Steve, but it depends on the negotiations, and it depends on the discussions, and it depends on whether we basically serve up a fait accompli, saying to Russia, we don't really care what you think or say, we're going to do it our way. I don't think President Bush plans to do that. I think he's got smart people around him. Condi Rice is very bright and very capable. Colin Powell is very capable. Steve Hadley, Condi's deputy is very capable, of course, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz—they've got good people here. They understand this, and I think it's very important, though, that this be more than just informing them about our course of action. Now, we can't give them a veto, and there's a thin line here between—

MR. ROBERTS: Consultation—

SENATOR NUNN: That's right. Right.

MR. ROBERTS: —and actually giving them veto power. Two other quick questions. One is, you've talked in your speech recently at the National Press Club about, you listed a number of incidents, rather scary, I must say, in reading them, where intercepts of attempts to sell nuclear material—how active in the black market are so-called rogue states like Iran and Iraq and North Korea and China, to find loopholes and find ways to obtain this kind of material?

SENATOR NUNN: The Iranians have had a large number of their people over talking to the Russian biological scientists for sometime, and those people are without work, so getting on top of the biology, and biological threat, is very important, and not having those scientists end up in Iran is very important. There was an incident in Prague back in 1994, 2.7 kilograms of weapons-grade material that was intercepted by the police. We have had an incident where the Russians—several incidents where the Russian Police Force has arrested people who were trying to sell to foreign agents, so there have been a number of these, but what we worry about most is the ones that were not intercepted, the ones we don't know about.

It's like looking for the keys under a street light. Most of the law enforcement actions that have interrupted this have either been in Russia itself or on the east-west border, not on the south side. We have heard of almost no arrests in terms of southern Russia. There are almost no border controls there, and so we really do worry about this, but it's what we don't know, not on just nuclear material, but also, most importantly, biological as well as chemical.

MR. ROBERTS: You mention that—and that was going to be my other question, of course. You do mention, for instance, in your speech the gas attack in the Tokyo subway. We do have the horrifying example of the use of biological weapons against Kurds in Iraq during the Gulf War. How is the threat of biological and chemical weapons different from the nuclear threat?

SENATOR NUNN: Well, biological and chemical themselves are different. The commonality between biological and chemical is the ingredients that would go into making up a weapon, mainly legal and out there on the market, whereas in the nuclear case, the radioactive material is under safeguard, hopefully, not good safeguards in some spots, but it would be much easier for a terrorist group to get the materials that were required to make those.

The computer age has many wonders, and far be it for me to criticize it, but one of the bad things in the computer age is, you can dial up with a computer and a modem and get pretty good instructions on how to make biological and chemical weapons as well as rudimentary nuclear weapons, so we are going to have to have a much more cooperative international system to protect against this.

One of the things we are working at, looking carefully at, with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is funded by Ted Turner, and you mentioned it in the introduction, and which Charlie Curtis and I are heading, is whether we can develop an early warning system on a biological attack, but would it also include infectious disease?

This is a place, Steve, where the health side and the security side come together. We have never had that kind of challenge, where we really needed to link law enforcement, military, and health officials to respond to a threat, and also we need to link our health officials to the intelligence community, because intelligence is absolutely key here, and we need to have early detection devices for both chemical and biological, so in every city we would know quickly if something happened. But we also have to have a global surveillance system, so that if something happens in Africa we would know about it very quickly, and vice versa, because we are in an age of globalization, and biological or infectious diseases not caused by deliberate attack could spread like wildfire.

MR. ROBERTS: As we have seen very recently.

SENATOR NUNN: We've seen that in the animal population in Great Britain, right.

MR. ROBERTS: Before we get to our phone calls, let me ask you one other thing. You mentioned this private initiative that you're heading with Charles Curtis, funded by Ted Turner, and why is there a need for a private effort, given the concerns of governments around the world? What can you bring to the table that is different?

SENATOR NUNN: Steve, it's interesting, because back in the Eisenhower administration there were all sorts of comic books put out about the nuclear attack. There was one about a fictitious turtle character that sold 3 million copies, telling kids to cover up to prevent being incinerated. The government put out a 60-page bulletin telling people they could survive a nuclear attack.

There was a high degree of alertness back then, when there was very little, if you look at it in reality, that the public could do about it.

Today, we have just the opposite. We have very low public attention in this area, very little realization in this area, and yet there is a great deal that can be done, because we no longer have an ideological foe, i.e., the Soviet Union. We have Russia, a country that is struggling to survive. They certainly do not meet Thomas Jefferson's definitions of the Bill of Rights in Russia, but they are trying to survive in an economic environment. So we are finally—we have got Russia in the ballpark, the economic ballpark, and I think we ought to be like Brer Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch.

We ought to be able to deal with it economically, because even thorny issues that are very threatening to us from Russia about cooperation with Iran, put into an economic context, they can be dealt with, but we haven't been able to muster—I think—the wherewithal to think anew, and to think broadly, and to think as our predecessors did, back after World War II, when we had just fought bloody battles all over the world against Germany and Japan, but we turned around and we said, we need those countries as friends in the future. We are not thinking that way about Russia, and I think it is not easy. It is tough, but it wasn't easy, either, for President Eisenhower and for President Truman and for General Marshall, and all those people who put us on a different path from any other country in history, after they had won a war. In a way, we won the cold war in a way, but when you look at the residue, I'm not sure anyone has won it.

MR. ROBERTS: I'm Steve Roberts. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Our phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. Senator Nunn, we are going to take some phone calls now. Let's start with Kushner in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thanks for being on the air with us.

MR. KUSHNER: Hi, good morning.

MR. ROBERTS: Good morning.

MR. KUSHNER: I guess I had two questions or comments to bring up. One is, the summer of 1993 issue of First Century Science and Technology reports on an article from Izvestia in Russia, the April 2nd issue, to be specific, mentioning something called Operation Trust, where Russia approached the Clinton administration saying this mutual destruction does not work for us. We want to go back to the SDI that we had in the early eighties, or at least that kind of approach, and unfortunately it was rejected. I look at what's happening today, and it looks like Russia, China, other countries are upset with our approach. Might we return to that?

MR. ROBERTS: Okay, hold on. Let's get Senator Nunn's answer.

SENATOR NUNN: Mr. Kushner, I think we ought to really take another look at where we are today, vis-à-vis Russia. We still have a Doomsday type posture vis-à-vis Russia. They are the only country in the world that can destroy our nation while we are having lunch, in a 30-to-45 minute time frame, and vice versa. We could certainly destroy theirs, so we really need to take another whole look at this.

It doesn't make sense, when we are in a post cold war environment for the last 10 years, to still be in a position where we would have nation-ending damage against each other. So whether it's the force posture, reduction of weapons, whether it's the way we station weapons, whether it's some form of de-alerting, or whether it's a combination of offense and defense, we ought to have our best minds working with their best minds to figure out how we can get out of this sort of situation. That does not mean we get rid of everything we've got, nor that they would get rid of all their weapons, but it does mean that we shouldn't be threatening each other's civilization, and in effect, threatening the world itself.

MR. KUSHNER: Well, that's good, because it was called Operation Trust, to work together on that. That's wonderful.


MR. KUSHNER: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is, you keep mentioning Iran, and if you recall a few years ago the President of Iran, Khatemi, went on CNN and had this big interview, and he has called for a dialogue of civilizations, rather than the clash of civilizations. If we look at France, Germany, and Italy, who are much closer to Iran than we are, yet they have claimed no threat from Iran, and the actual threat they bring up is this BMD-NMD stuff. I'll take your comments off the air.

MR. ROBERTS: Okay, thanks. Translate those initials for us.

SENATOR NUNN: BMD is ballistic missile defense. That means national defense, and the other symbol you may hear a lot is theater missile defense, which I think is really the highest priority now, because our military forces out in the field are more likely to be exposed to short-range missiles for the next 10 years than we are in this country, exposed to new countries with long-range missiles.

MR. ROBERTS: And as you made the point, the command and control over those weapons is far shakier.

SENATOR NUNN: Right, no question about it. As far as Iranian relations are concerned, Mr. Kushner, it's a difficult subject, because the Iranians have had dialogue with a lot of other countries in the world, and Khatemi certainly is leading in that direction, but there are lots of other elements in Iran that are leading in the other direction, and there's quite a battle going on, a political battle in Iran itself, so it's hard for us to judge that, and it's also clear that America is not on the top of their list in terms of establishing relations, but we ought to be alerted for those opportunities.

For the United States and Iran to be permanently hostile doesn't make much sense, and we ought to be alert to those opportunities. In fact, if we could put it in an economic framework—and none of this is easy, and I don't want to make it sound easy—but if we could put it in an economic framework, I think we could even deal with Russia's cooperation with Iran, and perhaps even entice the Iranians into a different type relationship.

MR. ROBERTS: And that was one of the points we haven't really touched on, which is the economic weakness of Russia means the temptation to sell arms and materials to a country like Iran is higher, given the fact that they don't have much else to sell on the world market.

SENATOR NUNN: Absolutely. This is not a philosophical thing with Russia. They're not out there trying to do America in all over the world. This is not the cold war. I mean, they certainly have some policies that are totally alien to our own interests, but it's because of their economic situation, and in effect it's a social program, where they're trying to keep people employed.

MR. ROBERTS: Former Senator Sam Nunn is with me. Our phone number is 1-800-433- 8850. We're going to continue our conversation about nuclear proliferation, chemicalbiological weapons around the world, in just a few minutes, so we'll be right back. Stay with us.


MR. ROBERTS: Welcome back. I'm Steven Roberts sitting in today for Diane, and my guest this hour is former Senator Sam Nunn, very active still in the whole area of controlling nuclear weapons and biological-chemical weapons. We've been talking about this issue on the day—it just so happens our crack producers figured it out to do this on the right day— that President Bush is speaking on this very issue today here in Washington. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850, and Senator Nunn, let's talk now to Edward in Washington, D.C. Thanks for joining us.

EDWARD: Thank you very much. I'm calling just because I do have some questions about—actually, a question just about how foreign policy is related to the public. Number 1, I would just like to say that I don't think that America really realizes the problem and the full implications of what's going on right now, especially when, for instance, when you have an 18-year-old Russian soldier who hasn't been paid in 5 or 6 months, he has a family to feed, he is not going to consider the full policy implications of what may happen if he actually turns his back and allows somebody to come onto a base, or you know, go into a room and take, let's say, a backpack missile—excuse me, a backpack warhead, and you know, go across the southern border, which isn't guarded, into Iran, and stuff like that really bothers me, that the public—you know, the United States public, we don't—most people here in the United States don't see that as a problem.

MR. ROBERTS: Well, this is exactly the kind of awareness you want to raise, Senator Nunn.

SENATOR NUNN: Well, that's exactly right, and that's what we're going to try to do with this private foundation. We're going to try to raise awareness, because there are some good people in the government who would really like to make this a top priority. Senator Lugar has just been magnificent in his leadership. Senator Domenici has been superb, and he works on this all the time, Senator Levin, Senator Bingaman, Senator Stevens, head of the Appropriations Committee has been superb. There are a lot of them I could name. There are a number of House Members I could name that have been superb.

MR. ROBERTS: And it's interesting, you've named about half and half Democrats and Republicans, a totally nonpartisan issue.

SENATOR NUNN: It's not—it shouldn't be a partisan issue. There are partisan overtones, because the not-invented-here syndrome may be in place. It's been in place for sometime, but you're absolutely right, this is a top priority. The public doesn't understand it, largely, but when the public concentrates on it—the American public has common sense. They understand that we must not have a Russian scientist guarding these materials have to choose between feeding their own family and jeopardizing our families, and that's the situation in too many cases now.

So my point about all these people who are in the Congress now, and some in the administration, I think that the public, the more the public understands it, the more these people will have support, and they need support. They really need support, but they're always met with the argument, well, we could spend this money better by buying another tank or another airplane, or something of that nature. I'm strong pro-military, but I'm telling you, this is the best money we spend for our own defense and the defense of our children and grandchildren, and they're always met with the argument, this is foreign aid, and they're always met with the argument, why should we help the Russians, they haven't totally disarmed. Well, they cut about 85 percent back, and there's nothing that says they're going to disarm as a nation, so that's a pretty specious argument, but these are all the arguments we have.

MR. ROBERTS: Thank you for your call, Edward. Well, why is it so difficult to convince people about this point? It would seem to make total sense from an economic point of view, and from the interests of the country, that this is money well spent.

SENATOR NUNN: They just don't focus on it. People think the nuclear dangers have gone away. Even Ted Turner basically said that he thought after the cold war we'd get down to 200 weapons, it would all be kind of fading away. He started paying attention, and he realized that the dangers were much more than we thought. Getting back to one of your earlier points, Steve, I don't want anybody to believe we're in more danger now than we were during the cold war. We're relatively much safer than we were from all-out war. I don't think there's any incentive whatsoever for Russia to attack the United States, or for the United States to attack Russia, unless it's a mistake or misjudgment, but we're in more danger of a nuclear explosion or chemical or biological incident in this country, because of the spread of information, because of the loose guards on the material, because of these scientists and know-how that we talked about, and because of the ability for many more people to know how to build these weapons. So we have got more danger of some kind of terrible catastrophe, but not an all-out nuclear war.

MR. ROBERTS: Senator Nunn, let's talk to Wes in Cleveland, Ohio. You're on the Diane Rehm Show. Thanks for waiting.

WES: Thank you. Good morning.

MR. ROBERTS: Good morning.

WES: This is fortuitous timing. I attended a discussion or a town hall meeting about missile defense last night at Case Western Reserve here in Cleveland, and one of the points that came out of that was that for all the money we'd spend, missile defense is not a viable alternative for dealing with rogue nations or concerns, however you'd want to phrase it. Specifically, why would a nation of that nature want to identify itself as the origin of some level of destruction in America by launching a rocket straight from their own territory only to be retaliated against by us, and that a bigger issue is, they wouldn't. They would look for other ways to bring death and destruction to our country. So from the standpoint of missile defense itself, doesn't it—and here is my question, doesn't it make more sense just to—I can't believe I'm saying this—maintain the status quo of mutual destruction—something I didn't really agree with long ago, but can see the logic of now—maintain the idea of status quo with nations that do have missiles, keep their missiles in the ground, under guard, keep the fissile material not on the black market, keep their scientists under known government control and not shopping their ability to around to other nations that we can't foresee. Is there some sense in that as a viable missile defense strategy?

SENATOR NUNN: Well, that's certainly what we've had for sometime, and deterrence seemed to work, but if you look back over the whole scope of the cold war there were several times where we almost got into war, the Cuban missile crisis being one, and I think if you boil it down, and history will have to judge this, but my guess is, we were lucky on several occasions.

We were lucky in 1995 when we launched a satellite off of Norway, and we had notified the Russians properly that we were launching a peaceful satellite, but their warning system picked it up as a missile, and they went to alert. They went to alert, and alerted President Yeltsin, and they went up to—some people by some accounts went up to 8 minutes on a 10- minute warning to begin launching.

That's the kind of danger we face now, so I'm not in favor of continuing a mutual assured destruction, Doomsday posture, but I think we have to move away from that in cooperation with Russia, and that means that we have to—basically, whatever we do in the missile defense arena, we have to talk to them about it very early, and hopefully we bring them in some kind of cooperative pattern.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of the program, if we end up being able to defend against a North Korean or an Iraqi or Iranian missile, two or three missiles, 10 years from now, but in the meantime we have a huge proliferation of nuclear weapons because we've destroyed the cooperation needed with Russia, and if we have the proliferation of terrorists with access to biological and chemical weapons and nuclear material, then we would not have moved our defense posture forward. We would be in much more jeopardy than we are now.

So the Bush administration has a real obligation to put this in a broader context. We've got to deal with TAC nukes, we've got to upgrade our deterrence posture, move away from Doomsday, we've got to deal with an accidental-type attack, we've got to deal with rogue states, and we've got to deal with terrorists, and we've got to limit the spread of all this. This is a multiple kind of problem, and we must interrelate it, and without interrelatedness it doesn't have context, and without context, we will not have a balanced approach.

MR. ROBERTS: Wes, thanks so much for your phone call. But Wes had a second point that I think is very interesting, and you're implying it as well. A lot of this rationale for this missile defense system that the President talked about today, the threat from so-called rogue states, primarily North Korea, but how realistic is that threat, and enormous cost of a missile defense system, both in terms of dollars, but also in terms of potential fall-out in terms of our relations, not only with Russia, but we haven't talked about potential fall-out with China, which in some ways is an even more significant downside risk. Does it make sense, in terms of the cost, to do this?

SENATOR NUNN: The answer is, Steve, it depends. It depends on the cost. We don't know what the cost is now, and to not know what the cost is means you have to proceed, and you have to have cost as a factor. We have to also look at the political cost. We have to deal with the Chinese. You're right, that is a key element. We don't want to have a confrontation with China. It doesn't make sense from anybody's point of view, China, U.S., Taiwan, or anyone else, certainly Japan and Korea, so that doesn't make sense.

So we've got to put this in the overall balanced program, and those political costs, as well as monetary costs, have to be factored in. This means we are going to need to have a lot of discussion. We need to have a debate in this country. I mean, way back in the Eisenhower era, he said that we were in danger of moving into a technological elite controlling the country, rather than the average common sense of the American people.

The American people need to basically get involved in this. They need to think about this. There are no easy, quick answers. We're not going to have a miraculous solution. Arms control is not the only answer. It's not arms control at all costs, or deep reductions at all costs, or even missile defense at all costs. We have to have a balanced approach to all of this, and again if we're able to knock down a North Korean missile or an Iranian missile or an Iraqi missile, there's to say they can't put material on a boat and send it into harbor. We've got to protect against the whole array of threats.

MR. ROBERTS: If you were in the Senate today, and you're probably going to say it depends on what the bill looks like, but would you vote for a missile defense system today?

SENATOR NUNN: I've always favored some method to knock down an accidental launched missile, or an unauthorized attack, a limited attack, but I would be pursuing that, but also with a lot of consultation and a lot of diplomacy, and it would depend. It would depend on what I thought the costs were going to be, both monetary as well as political, and my support, or lack of support, would depend on how the Bush administration—although I'm not in the Senate. I don't have a vote, so it's pretty irrelevant, but my own support as a citizen would be highly dependent on whether they really do have consultation, and whether they really listen, and whether they have a broad, balanced program, and whether they address these proliferation issues, or whether they're just fixed on the theology of missile defense.

MR. ROBERTS: I'm Steve Roberts. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. My guest this hour is Senator Sam Nunn. Our phone number, 1-800-433-8850, and we have time for a couple more questions, and let's go to Kevin in Goshen, Indiana. Thanks for joining us. You're on the Rehm Show.

KEVIN: Thank you. I agree with Senator Nunn on the need to address these threats and to safeguard nuclear weapons and materials. I would have to say I am disappointed he doesn't take his advice in terms of thinking anew about these questions, because everything the Senator talks about accepts in perpetuity, I guess, the continued existence of nuclear weapons, and I think that is completely unsustainable and unrealistic that human life on this planet is going to continue if we in perpetuity retain nuclear weapons. People like Jimmy Carter and Ted Turner, as former Georgians, and Ted Turner, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Lee Butler, who used to be in charge of all our nuclear weapons, have come out for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

It wouldn't be easy. It wouldn't happen tomorrow, but there would be steps along the way, including a lot of the things he talks about for verification and safeguarding nuclear materials, and we'd build confidence along the way, and that's to me the most sustainable and realistic option when you're talking about the problems of nuclear weapons. My organization is having an event in Washington June 10 to 12 to raise the call to oppose missile defense and work towards abolishing nuclear weapons. June 10 through 12, and you can get information on our web site at

MR. ROBERTS: Okay, Kevin, thanks for your call. This is a point of view, that really in the long run the most sane thing is to get rid of them all.

SENATOR NUNN: Well, I don't know how to do that, and anybody who tells me how to do it, I'd be very receptive. We have a nonproliferation treaty where most of the countries in the world signed up and said, we are going to get rid of them. The political side of it is already there. We've had it for sometime, but there's not a single person that I know of in the United States Government, the Russian Government, the British Government, the French Government, or the Chinese Government, that is assigned to the task of how you get rid of nuclear weapons.

We can't get rid of the know-how. The material lasts for thousands of years. We've got to take it step by step. We've got to get control of the material first. We've got to build trust and transparency and confidence. We've got to build the rule of law. We've got to help settle regional problems where people turn to weapons of mass destruction. We've got to stop the proliferation.

All of those steps have to be taken, so I don't see much need in getting into a real big philosophical debate when the world's already signed up to the elimination of nuclear weapons, but nobody's working on it. You've got take it step by step. We've got an old saying in Georgia, Steve. When you're up to your rear end in alligators, you don't have time to drain the swamp. I think we've got to deal with the alligators right now.

MR. ROBERTS: Time for one more caller, Chuck in Chester, New Jersey. Thanks for waiting. You're on the Diane Rehm Show.

CHUCK: Hello, Mr. Roberts and Senator Nunn. Missile defense, or strategic defense initiative, whatever you want to call it, it is a jobs program, and there's nothing wrong with that. Now, Mr. Bush had to speak about missile defense and increasing defense spending because he is depending, and he depended on in his last election a Southern States Electoral College victory, and Mr. Nunn, I am sure you would understand what defense spending means to the South.

MR. ROBERTS: Chuck, I am going to have to interrupt you there, because we only have another few seconds for Senator Nunn to answer. This also is a point of view you hear a lot

. SENATOR NUNN: Well, I don't believe any American President is trying to pump up jobs via defense. I think President Bush, whether we agree or don't agree with him on missile defense, whatever he does in the military arena, he's doing it to protect the nation, because every economist will tell you that money spent in the private sector is much more productive in job creation than money spent in the defense sector, so it's to protect our security, and I think that's the framework for the debate, and I don't attribute that motive to President Bush.

MR. ROBERTS: Former Senator Sam Nunn, thanks so much for being with us on the Diane Rehm Show this morning.

SENATOR NUNN: Thank you very much, Steve, I enjoyed it, and I hope Diane gets better. Tell her I missed her.

MR. ROBERTS: I certainly will do that… I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm, and this is NPR, National Public Radio. You can order a cassette copy at 202-885-1200, and our e-mail address is

May 1, 2001

Senator Nunn interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI