- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

In Iraq, the United States has a problem with weapons of mass destruction: It wants to eliminate them, but first it has to find them. In the former Soviet Union, it has the opposite problem: It’s knee-deep in these weapons, but it’s not quite up to the task of eliminating them.

Two years after the worst terrorist attack in history, an even bigger danger still looms: violent anti-American groups getting their hands on weapons more lethal than box cutters and commercial aircraft. Eight months before the destruction of the World Trade Center, a bipartisan task force warned that “the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home.”

No one paid much attention to such fears at the time, but September 11, 2001, should have put an end to cheerful complacency. Those atrocities were nothing compared to what terrorists could do with an atomic bomb. The chance that al Qaeda might get one from Saddam Hussein was one of the chief justifications for invading Iraq. Yet elsewhere, the U.S. government is doing far less than it should to avert the unthinkable.

Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently returned from Russia and reports there is still a huge amount to be done. In 1997, the Russians ratified the international treaty banning chemical weapons. At the time, they had 40,000 metric tons of nerve gas, and today, they still do. In the past six years, they have destroyed a grand total of 100 pounds — pounds, not tons — of that stockpile.

Mr. Lugar and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia visited a site that houses some 2 million shells and warheads containing chemical agents. “The smallest of these,” notes Mr. Lugar, “can easily fit into a suitcase and be carried out of the facility. Just one briefcase could carry enough agents to kill thousands of people.”

There have been hundreds of documented attempts at smuggling nuclear or radioactive material. Osama bin Laden himself has declared a fervent desire to acquire the bomb. But many weapons sites in Russia and its former sister states have less security than the average American high school. At others, accounting is so lax that if a weapon were stolen, it might never be missed. At least not until it went off in an American city.

The chief American effort to defuse the danger, known as the Nunn-Lugar program, provides funds to help the Russian government secure weapons sites and destroy munitions. But it’s rarely gotten the urgent priority it deserves. The Bush administration wanted to cut the program when it took office. Congressional Republicans have often balked at giving money to the Russians.

After a budget increase last year, the administration proposes to reduce funding for this effort by $35 million in 2004. Even last year’s outlays look skimpy next to, say, the cost of the war in Iraq, not to mention the cost of failure. The federal task force recommended $30 billion in funds over 10 years just to safeguard and destroy nuclear materials in the former Soviet republics. We’re nowhere near that goal, and our leaders apparently aren’t interested in meeting it.

Why not? Part of the resistance comes from the less-than-perfect reliability of Russia, where corruption often diverts money from its intended uses. Another complaint is that while we’re paying Moscow to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Russia, the Tehran government is paying it to build a nuclear reactor that could spawn weapons of mass destruction in Iran.

But even if not all the money we’re spending is being spent appropriately, reducing the flow of dollars wouldn’t help. We don’t cut spending on defense just because programs suffer cost overruns. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown some flexibility on the Iranian project, and the danger it presents is less immediate than that of Russia’s own loose nukes.

Nunn-Lugar has been undeniably effective in its overall purpose. It’s paid for the deactivation of some 6,000 nuclear warheads, employed 22,000 weapons scientists who could be working for al Qaeda instead, and upgraded security for hundreds of tons of nuclear material. Which one of those achievements do the critics think was unnecessary?

Nearly three years ago, the task force said, in words that remain true today, “The existing scope and management of the U.S. program addressing this threat leave an unacceptable risk of failure and the potential for catastrophic consequences.” There’s a word to summarize what we face if Nunn-Lugar fails: Doom.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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