- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

On Feb. 24, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Bratislava, Slovakia, to discuss a variety of issues. Defying predictions that they would accomplish nothing of substance, the two presidents inked an agreement on nuclear security. They vowed to “focus increased attention on the ‘security culture’ in our countries, including fostering disciplined, well-trained, and responsible custodians and protective forces, and fully utilized and well-maintained security systems.” To describe this as a welcome move understates matters. To prevent nuclear terrorism at home, American leaders must look abroad — in particular to Russia, a country awash in the makings of nuclear weapons.

Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s vast network of nuclear power plants, weapons facilities and storage sites. Because of security problems at these sites, Russia could unwittingly supply terrorists with the means to carry out an attack.

As they come to terms with this problem, the Bush administration and Congress must resist Americans’ usual temptation to simply throw money and hardware at a vexing problem. They must keep their gaze riveted on the human element of security.

The perils of loose nukes — nuclear weapons that lack adequate protection from theft — are well known. Indeed, farsighted American leaders began grappling with the loose-nukes problem shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For instance, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, intended to ameliorate the perils of nuclear proliferation, funded the dismantlement of thousands of nuclear warheads. Hundreds of tons of fissile material — the building blocks for additional thousands of nuclear weapons — have been safeguarded from outside attack or theft. And yes, U.S.-funded fences, alarms and cameras have helped.

But material fixes are not enough. Building a corps of skilled, motivated nuclear workers to use security hardware is as important as the hardware itself, if not more so. People, not machines, provide security.

That’s where U.S. policy has fallen short. Its achievements notwithstanding, the Nunn-Lugar program pays scant attention to the problem of insider theft or diversion, meaning the unlawful removal of sensitive materials by technicians or guards to whom these materials have been entrusted. Nor does it address the problem of simple negligence.

In short, current U.S. assistance doesn’t take into account the pivotal human element of security. Good security is 20 percent equipment and 80 percent people, says Gen. Eugene Habiger, a former commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces. Alarmingly, visitors to Russian sites from the U.S. General Accountability Office have reported seeing guards disable alarms, admit personnel to sensitive areas without clearing them properly or cut off power to critical gear to save money.

Problems abound. Theft and diversion are commonplace in this lax environment.

These are failures not of machinery but of culture. Workers who doubt the worth of security precautions or fail to grasp that such precautions serve the nation’s greater good are prone to negligence.

Worse, Russia’s lingering economic woes create a financial incentive for impoverished workers to divert and sell weapons-related materiel. The well-being of one’s family could trump security, aiding terrorist groups in the process.

So, the Bush-Putin agreement had it right. Now the U.S. and Russian governments must follow through on the presidents’ joint pledge.

To cut down on failures stemming from human frailty, the Bush administration must, first of all, work with Congress to widen the purview of Nunn-Lugar to include measures that bolster the security culture within the Russian nuclear complex.

Second, the administration must work with Russia’s leadership to nurture a culture that endows managers, technicians and security guards not only with technical skills but also with esprit de corps, a sense of professional responsibility, the discipline to obey procedures and the ability to improvise when unexpected events occur as they will, given the limits on human foresight.

Third, now that Moscow has seemingly embraced the importance of security culture, Washington must now supply the resources and the sustained attention necessary to propagate this ideal throughout Russia’s nuclear sector. Winning over nuclear personnel to the ideal of security poses a leadership challenge of the first order.

Russia must remake its professional culture, and it needs American help. To do otherwise would forfeit the security of both countries.

James Holmes, a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security, co-edited “Nuclear Security Culture: The Case of Russia,” a major peer-reviewed report sponsored by NATO and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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