Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn

  • Full interview (11:40)
  • CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative says the number one threat to America is everyday people who can make nuclear weapons to threaten the world.
    Clip (1:43)

Tavis: Sam Nunn is a former U.S. senator from Georgia who now serves as the co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit designed to reduce threats from nuclear weapons. He joins us tonight from New York. Senator Nunn, good to have you back on the program, sir. n Sam Nunn: Thank you, [...]

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Sam Nunn is a former U.S. senator from Georgia who now serves as the co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit designed to reduce threats from nuclear weapons. He joins us tonight from New York. Senator Nunn, good to have you back on the program, sir.

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Sam Nunn: Thank you, Tavis, great honor.

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Tavis: Let me start by asking what is the threat these days and how serious is it?

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Nunn: Well, we have a lot of threats, but in my view the number one threat is a group of people who can figure out how to make a bomb, a nuclear weapon, getting enough nuclear material to make that weapon and then using that to basically terrorize a country and indeed the world by exploding that weapon, which could take out a large portion of a city, even if it was a crude weapon.

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It wouldn’t come in likely by a missile, it wouldn’t come in by a bomber, it’d probably come in the back of a truck, and a group perpetrating such an act would not have a return address, so deterrents on the threat to retaliate, and particularly in the case of people who are willing to give their own lives and, in effect, suiciders, would not deter or prevent this from happening.

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So the bottom line is the threat has fundamentally changed since the Cold War. We’ve got to understand that threat has changed, the Russians have to understand it, as well as other countries in the world that have nuclear weapons, and understand that we have to have a high degree of cooperation to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

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So the message is the threat has changed and that message is coming from four people — George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn, who have been through the Cold War and who believe in a very strong national security, always have, and still do, but believe that we have to respond to the facts that we are confronted with.

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Tavis: So I hear you, the threat has changed dramatically, but is it a greater threat now than during the Cold War?

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Nunn: It’s a different kind of threat. During the Cold War we had the threat of all-out war, Armageddon — the exchange of thousands of nuclear weapons. If we got into a war with the Soviet Union it could have come out of a conflict in Europe or elsewhere that escalated up the ladder to nuclear weapons.

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So because of that realization on both sides, we had a horrible type of danger but more stability. Today, we don’t have that kind of threat of all-out war unless it’s an accident or a miscalculation, and we have to deal with that continuously. But we have a lot less stability because we have more danger of a limited nuclear attack, which could have an extreme set of consequences — not just consequences to human beings and property, the most important, but also even to our ability to maintain some semblance of economic stability in the world, because it would indeed shake the confidence of the world.

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We would think that not only there was one weapon that could explode, but whoever perpetrated it would probably claim, whether they did or not, that they had other weapons. So deep stabilization would be the order of the day.

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Tavis: When you use words and phrases like “whoever” and whoever might not have a return address, when you use those kinds of words and phrases it makes me think, at least, that you want to suggest that this threat is potentially coming from anywhere, from any particular group of people, rather than some contained list of folk that we’re looking at. Is that what you mean to suggest?

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Nunn: Well, I think al Qaeda is certainly at the top of everybody’s list because the al Qaeda leaders have made it plain that they would like to get nuclear material and they would not hesitate to use it. But there are other groups out there.

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Really, the Aum Shinrikyo group in Tokyo that carried out the chemical attacks in 1995 trying to start a war between Japan and the United States, of all things, they had never come up on our radar scope. Our FBI and CIA didn’t even know about them at that time. When I was in the Senate we conducted an investigation of that.

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So it’s not limited to al Qaeda, but they’re certainly at the top of our list. The main message is we’ve got to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, we’re going to have to work with the Russians in other countries in the world, including former adversaries, to make sure that we keep that material out of the hands of terrorists.

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We’ve got to prevent proliferation, we’ve got to deal with the problems of Iran and North Korea because that sets a terrible example and is a danger in and of itself.

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So all of those things require cooperation. The bottom line is, Tavis, if we can’t protect America without taking a lot of steps in this regard, and we can’t take those steps without cooperation, and in my view we’re not going to get that cooperation unless we basically make it clear to the world that nonproliferation treaty commitments to step-by-step get rid of nuclear weapons by everybody is going to be our operating premise.

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To his credit, President Obama has made that clear. So we’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go.

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Tavis: What about that notion argued so many years ago that many still believe in — the notion of mutual deterrence, that if they have it and we have it we’re all better off because we are mutually deterred?

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Nunn: Well, I don’t think deterrents works in the case of terrorists, and it may not even work in the case of some particular countries. I believe it is more likely to work in the case of a country because they know that if they use a nuclear weapon they’re going to be destroyed.

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So I think deterrence still has a role as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world. But we’re trying, we and the Russians particularly, but not limited to us, we have 90 to 95 percent of all the weapons in the world and most of the materials between our two countries. We’re basically trying to — we’ve been riding a tiger for a long time and that tiger has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger and we’re trying to figure out how to dismount, and we’re trying to figure out how to dismount together, and we’re trying to figure out how not to get eaten up as we dismount.

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So all of those things mean it’s very difficult, and it’s going to be step by step, but we have a mutual stake in working together to predict nuclear materials, we have a lot of other things U.S. and Russia should be working together on, and for that matter we do need to bring China and Great Britain and France and other countries into the loop too as we move along, but U.S. and Russia have to lead the way, and that’s why the START treaty that has been negotiated and signed by the president of the United States and the president of Russia pending before the Senate, that’s why that’s enormously important.

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It reduces nuclear weapons but it is also the backbone and foundation of the confidence that we need to work with the Russians on things like verification and things like confidence-building.

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So the treaty in and of itself is modest in terms of reducing weapons, but it has enormous psychological importance and for people to really want to get involved, I think they should study the START treaty, the new START treaty, and if they have strong feelings about it, which I do, they ought to let their senators know about it because that’s a matter that’s pending now. I think it all connects.

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Tavis: To your point now, what are the politics as you see them on this issue in the Senate?

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Nunn: Well, I think the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of John Kerry and Senator Lugar working together, Democrat and Republican, are probably going to vote on that treaty very soon in committee, bring it to the floor.

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The Armed Service Committee is going to — they’re having their own set of hearings. I believe that the nuclear weapons lab directors are testifying this week, the intelligence community is testifying on our ability to verify. All of those things are important, but you have to get two-thirds of the Senate to vote for it. That’s always a steep hill to climb.

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We ought to have a bipartisan consensus on this, but who knows where the politics are now? I hope that people will put aside politics and decide what’s in the best interest of the country, and I believe that working with the Russians to reduce these dangers is in the best interest of the United States.

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Tavis: You mentioned Iran earlier. It may very well be that Iran ends up, if they are not already, ends up being the most sanctioned nation in the world, specifically around this issue, and yet for many it does not seem like the threat from Iran has lessened. What do you make of that?

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Nunn: Well, Iran has embarked on a program that we think has a high danger of ending up with Iranians having nuclear weapons. We’ve seen that that has happened in North Korea already. Both of these are grave dangers. In the case of Iran, if they end up with nuclear weapons, and we don’t think they have them yet, but if they continue down this path, then they won’t be the only country in the Middle East.

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There’ll be other countries that will have nuclear weapons and we believe and George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and Bill Perry and I have said this in articles and speeches, we believe we’re entered into the precipice of a new era of great danger, and the Iranian equation, the North Korea equation both play a big role in that.

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So the whole world has a stake in this. It’s a mistake to think it’s just U.S. versus Iran. The Iranians have breached their obligations under the nonproliferation treaty. A treaty is a sacred document and if you’re not going to be part of a treaty you shouldn’t sign it or you should get out of it in accordance with the treaty. But if you’re under the treaty, you ought to abide by it.

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The United States has a real stake, but so does the globe, in enforcing international law and enforcing this treaty, so we’ve got to come together and work together and put tough, meaningful sanctions on the Iranians until they change their direction.

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We’re not saying the Iranians cannot have nuclear power. They have the right to nuclear power. But we’re going to have to understand that in my view, in the long run, every country or every entity or business that produces highly enriched uranium or low enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium is going to have to be under international safeguard.

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We’re all going to have to understand that protecting against the spread of material that could be used for a nuclear weapon is a global issue and the whole world has a stake in it.

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Tavis: Got just a minute and 30 seconds here to go, but to the point you’re making now, Senator Nunn, how do you respond to countries, be it Iran, North Korea or anybody else, who would ask the following question: Why is it that the U.S. and Russia can have access to nuclear weapons and until and unless they get rid of theirs, if we have the capacity, the science to build our own, why should the U.S. and the USSR be the only ones who have access to nuclear capacity?

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Nunn: Well, the nonproliferation treaty which was signed in 1968 and which has been subscribed to by every president of the United States since that time, Democrat and Republican, has three pillars. One pillar is the weapon states at that time will step by step get rid of their weapons. That’s the United States and that’s other countries that had weapons at that time.

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Number two, the countries that signed the treaty that did not have weapons will not develop those weapons. That includes Iran and North Korea. And number three, every country has the right to civil nuclear power. So there are three legs on that stool, and we all have to move together enforcing and living up to the obligations of all three legs of those stools, or that stool.

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Director ElBaradei of the IAEA is fond of saying that you can’t tell people to stop smoking while you’re chain-smoking yourself, so we have to understand that this kind of all goes together, and everybody has to live up to their obligations, including the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers.

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Tavis: Former Senator Sam Nunn. Good to have you on, thanks for sharing your insights, sir.

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Nunn: Thank you, Tavis.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm