Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Testimony by
Joseph Cirincione
Director, Non-Proliferation Project
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

April 29, 1999
Washington, DC


The spread of weapons of mass destruction is the single greatest security threat confronting the United States. While official assessments recognize the seriousness of these threats, the federal government has not redirected sufficient organizational and budgetary resources to manage effectively the varied responses to the new dangers. The government needs sustained, senior-level coordination (with commensurate budget authority) devoted to combating proliferation. At a minimum, the President should appoint a National Coordinator for the Non-Proliferation and Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Russia to integrate and prioritize all relevant U.S. programs in the states of the former Soviet Union.


The Problem

Hardly a week passes without a new crisis or concern surfacing about the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Just this month, tests of new, medium-range ballistic missiles by both Pakistan and India increased fears of the eventual deployment of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent. Russia’s continuing political and economic decline since the financial shocks of August 1998 threatens to weaken that nation’s already tenuous safeguards over its nuclear arsenal and the loyalty of tens of thousands of nuclear scientists. Concerns with missile and nuclear programs in North Korea, Iran and Iraq remain unresolved; international negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament and the Non-Proliferation Treaty review sessions drift inconclusively; and it appears that President Clinton may complete his eight years in office without signing a single strategic nuclear reductions treaty, compared to the two his predecessor signed during his four-year term.

The non-proliferation regime – the interlocking network of treaties, agreements and organizations painstakingly constructed by the United States and its partners over the past 40 years – is badly in need of repair and revitalization.

Optimists often look to the United States to provide leadership in such times. While some demonize our country as the source of many of the regime’s problems, the United States remains the one nation in the world with the resources, status and potential leadership capable of galvanizing international non-proliferation efforts.


Matching Resources to Threat Assessments

It is not difficult to find official expression of concern about the mounting proliferation problems.

  • President Clinton on several occasions has cited "the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States posed by the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the means of delivering such weapons."a
  • Secretary of Defense William Cohen notes, "Of the challenges facing the Department of Defense in the future, none is greater or more complex than the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction."b
  • Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted last year, "The recent nuclear tests in India, and now Pakistan, have reminded us all that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the single most pressing threat to our security." She and then-Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov agreed at the ASEAN summit last year, that non- proliferation was the "premier security issue of the post-Cold War period."c
  • Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet warned in his annual threat assessment testimony, "Societal and economic stress in Russia seems likely to grow, raising even more concerns about the security of nuclear weapons and fissile material…We have…reports of strikes, lax discipline, and poor morale, and criminal activity at nuclear facilities…these are alarm bells that warrant our closest attention and concern."d
  • Lt. General Patrick Hughes, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, concludes bluntly in his annual testimony to Congress, "The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, missiles, and other key technologies remains the greatest direct threat to US interests worldwide."

These comments reflect the consensus view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence agencies and the expert community. But, however well intentioned these officials are, however clear their warnings, they have been unable to re-orient the government’s resources and policies to confront the threats they so correctly identify.

This does not mean that the Administration has not made progress. It has on a number of fronts, and some of it is very impressive. The most historically significant is the successful de-nuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and the implementation and expansion of the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici program in the states of the former Soviet Union. Both are bi-partisan success stories. The Administration also led the successful extension and strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, the successful negotiation and signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, and the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s diplomatic efforts with India and Pakistan also made some progress over the past twelve months. Leaders of both nations agreed to sign the CTBT and opened up cordial bi-lateral talks and exchanges. The recent round of missile tests, however, demonstrates the limited impact of our efforts.

Hundreds of dedicated officials toil daily for these and other programs. Arms control officials genuinely feel that they are doing all that they can under the circumstances and that the system simply cannot absorb any more.

The problem is that these efforts are not commensurate with the threat. Despite the best intentions of many Administration officials and some members of Congress, the work performed, the resources devoted, and the political capital expended are simply not sufficient to deal with the problems we face. Many experts believe, for example, that with improved management, the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici programs could be expanded to two or three times their current size. There is an enormous amount of work remaining to be done in Russia and time may be running out. The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici programs were fully funded by Congress last year at $442 million. By comparison, the Congress added $450 million to the defense budget to purchase eight new C-130J transport planes that none of the military services requested and for which no valid military requirement exists. This is a serious threat/resources mismatch.

With the exception of the special effort made in South Asia, non-proliferation policies in general and Russia policy in particular seems to be proceeding as if nothing unusual happened over the past year. It is difficult to identify a senior official in charge of the Administration’s non-proliferation policy, or in charge of our policy towards Russia. Resources have not been significantly increased; personnel have not been augmented; and top-level attention seems to wane soon after a crisis subsides. This is not simply an Administration problem. Congress has blocked several key non-proliferation agreements, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, regularly threatens the budgets of others, such as the Agreed Framework with North Korea, and agencies preemptively scale back their budgetary requests anticipating congressional resistance to increased funding.

Imagine, for a moment, that in addition to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, we had a Missile Proliferation Prevention Organization with a $4 billion annual budget culled from the departments of Defense, State and Commerce. This organization would have authority over Missile Technology Control Regime negotiations and compliance, intelligence estimates, export controls, sanctions policy, and a veto over trade policies with countries of proliferation concern. This would be a great leap forward in what some consider our most pressing proliferation concern. We could discuss precisely which authorities and tools it would need to curtail missile proliferation. But as soon as one begins designing an organizational scheme such as this, it becomes obvious that it is probably impossible. There would be too many bureaucratic obstacles to overcome, even assuming that Congress would not see this new agency as a threat to favored missile defense programs. The very offices we created to serve our national security during the Cold War would strongly resist any efforts to take away their responsibilities, authorities and budgets.

So, we remain mired in a patchwork approach. Non-proliferation missions are often tacked on to existing positions. In some cases they are up-graded, such as the recent naming of an Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nonproliferation and National Security. In other cases, the missions are actually down-graded or merged into existing bureaucratic structures. For example, the former position of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counter-Proliferation has become a deputy assistant position in the new Defense Threat Reduction Agency. It is difficult to track what has happened with the merger of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the State Department, but it appears we may now have fewer senior officials working on non-proliferation. The consolidation has also eliminated direct access to the President and the National Security Council for some of government's most dedicated non-proliferation professionals.

The net result is that the number one threat to our national security does not enjoy anywhere near a priority claim on budgets, senior positions or senior-level attention.


Presidential Leadership

The non-proliferation agenda will never be able to compete in the government bureaucracy with programs that enjoy considerable industrial or trade interest. Non-proliferation programs do not require substantial government funding for manufacturing products nor generate billions of dollars in trade agreements. Thus, they will never build up large national constituencies to champion their causes. On the contrary, programs critical to stopping the proliferation of nuclear or missile technologies, for example, often stop lucrative trade deals or arms transfers and run counter to the goals of government agencies established to promote commerce or defense alliances.

This is precisely why it is vital that non-proliferation advocacy and coordination take place at the highest possible level, to rise above the competing commercial and special interest agendas. At the presidential level, non-proliferation programs can tap into the substantial support that exists in the public for doing all that we can to stop the spread of these deadly weapons. Public opinion polls confirm that Americans believe the task of reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons is an important issue for presidential attention. They believe this is just as important as the domestic issues to which the President has dedicated enormous amounts of time and political capital, such as balancing the federal budget and improving race relations.e



To better combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the federal government should first ensure that there is a senior-level non-proliferation authority in each major department responsible for all of that department’s proliferation-related programs and activities.

The President should also appoint a senior administration official to coordinate these departmental activities, with the authority to coordinate budgets. It would be preferable if this individual were in a sub-cabinet position, similar to the former position of the drug czar. It could also be accomplished by elevating the position of the Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls at the National Security Council to a more senior level, again with significant budget authority.

Short of a government-wide coordination of all non-proliferation and counter-proliferation activities, we should, at a minimum, appoint a National Coordinator for the Non-Proliferation and Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Russia to integrate and prioritize all relevant U.S. programs in the states of the former Soviet Union.

Russia remains the world’s largest warehouse of nuclear weapons, fissile material and expertise. We currently have some thirteen major threat reduction programs dealing with the nuclear and chemical weapons programs in Russia. They are scattered across several agencies and bureaus at the Departments of Defense, Energy, State, Commerce and the Customs Bureau. Often, these separate programs are doing work at the same facility in Russia, but without inter-agency coordination. There should be a coordinator in the Executive Office of the President to track and report on all these activities, to enforce intra-agency cooperation, and to improve and promote these joint efforts.

Short of a national coordinator (or in conjunction with), the Department of Energy could serve a useful function by establishing at one of the national laboratories an analytical unit to monitor all official U.S. cooperative threat reduction activities. This unit would be responsible for gathering and updating information on all U.S. assistance programs, and making this information readily accessible to relevant U.S. officials, laboratory personnel, and contractors.

Central coordination and responsibility may help us improve the ability of the government to respond more rapidly to future non-proliferation crises. It would have permitted us to respond more quickly to the August financial crisis in Russia and its obvious deleterious impact on Russian nuclear safeguards. It should facilitate the quick appointment of special envoys to tackle particular problems – an approach that proved effective in the North Korea crisis of 1994.

There are solutions to these problems, but they are neither simple nor cheap. The next few years may well determine whether the non-proliferation regime can be successfully repaired and revived, or if further shocks overwhelm our collective ability to sustain the security system that the United States helped create and nurture over the past 40 years.


  1. National Emergency declared by Executive Order 12938 on November 14, 1994, reissued on November 12, 1998 and Letter to the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate, November 12, 1998.
  2. Defense Reform Initiative Report, November 1997, p. 19
  3. Remarks to the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, May 28, 1998.
  4. Statement of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Current and Projected National Security Threats, February 2, 1999, p. 1.
  5. See, Public Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons: An Opportunity for Leadership, Herny L. Stimson Center, 1998 (on the Internet at: and American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1999 by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (summarized in Foreign Policy, Spring 1999, pp. 97-114 and on the Internet at: