1. Archive

Nuclear defusing is no place to scrimp

When Sam Rayburn was speaker of the House, he used to say, "There is no education in the second kick of a mule." We are about to learn whether Congress and the Bush administration have realized there is nothing to be gained by ignoring the threat of terrorism twice.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we discovered belatedly that the government had brushed off warnings from three blue-ribbon commissions that this nation was ill-equipped to defend itself against terrorist attacks.

Now, we are about to learn whether similarly clear and authoritative warnings about the possibility of Russian nuclear weapons and materials slipping into the hands of terrorists will be treated with the seriousness they deserve. Thousands of lives could rest on the answer.

For reasons that seem trivial, and really inexplicable, Bush administration budgeteers are trying to save a few million dollars by holding back a successful, 10-year-old program to assist Russia in securing its vulnerable nuclear materials and assuring that penniless Russian nuclear scientists do not join or assist hostile forces.

The program was launched in 1991 by Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican, and then-Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat, who between them know almost everything worth knowing about America's national security.

Under the Nunn-Lugar program, high-energy uranium and plutonium that could have built 5,000 nuclear weapons have been removed from Russian warehouses and "defused." But the same Energy Department special task force that cited that success last January warned that "much more remains to be done (to counter) the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States, . . . the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states."

A number of such attempts have been made and thwarted, the report said, but "imagine if such material were successfully stolen and sold to a terrorist like Osama bin Laden."

The authors of this report were neither amateurs nor alarmists. They were Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate Republican leader and Reagan White House chief of staff, subsequently named ambassador to Japan, and Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel during the Carter and Clinton administrations.

They recommended that the Nunn-Lugar program be increased to the point that all nuclear weapons-usable material in Russia could be secured or neutralized within the next eight to 10 years. That would cost about $30-billion _ just 1 percent of projected defense expenditures.

President Bush, as far back as the campaign and as recently as this month, has spoken of his concern about nuclear weapons or materials falling into terrorist hands. But his budget last winter proposed cutting overall defense nuclear nonproliferation programs by $100-million, with roughly $55-million coming out of the programs focused on Russia.

As Nunn told me the other day, there is "a puzzling disconnect between the president's words and his budget recommendations."

Nunn delivered a blunt warning of the nuclear-terrorist danger at the National Press Club last March, calling it "America's greatest unmet threat." Now, he said, "it must be apparent to everyone that keeping weapons of mass destruction away from terrorists is our most urgent security need."

Lugar agrees. "After 10 years," he told me, "we are at the point where the Russians are ready to push the Nunn-Lugar program further. It is clearly in our interest and theirs to avoid the fatal intersection of nuclear weapons and terrorist groups."

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III told me, "I can't think of a better use of our funds. It is probably some of the best money we could ever spend."

Harvard's Graham Allison, a former Clinton Defense Department official, lays out the case at length in the latest edition of The Economist.

All this makes it mind-boggling that Congress and the administration are haggling over the minuscule sums involved. The recently passed Energy Department appropriations bill brought the money for Nunn-Lugar to within $10-million of last year's figure, but conferees rejected a move by Rep. Chet Edwards, a Texas Democrat, to boost the program by $131-million.

The issue faces the House Appropriations Committee again this week. With bipartisan support for expanding the program, Chairman Bill Young, a Florida Republican, was prepared to put $45-million for Nunn-Lugar into the supplemental spending bill. But when Bush read the riot act to legislators last week about staying within his overall budget limits, even threatening his first veto, Young cut back the proposal to $18-million.

Spending discipline is important. But if, God forbid, a terrorist ever slips a suitcase nuclear weapon, with stolen Russian materials, into the United States, we will rue the day the government decided this was a good place to economize.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group