In early December, the former National Commission on Terrorist Attacks in the United States, now called the 9/11 Discourse Project, said the government had failed to heed key recommendations made by its group in 2004 on terrorism preparedness and security.
“Preventing terrorists from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction must be elevated above all problems of national security. Why? Because it represents the greatest threat to the American people,” commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said in a statement. “The commission called for ‘a maximum effort’ against this threat. Given the potential for catastrophic destruction, our efforts fall far short of what we need to do.”
Despite the searing critique from the 9/11 review panel, which is set to dissolve at the end of the year, and amidst calls from nonproliferation groups for the government to quicken control of the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile, the Bush administration has launched several initiatives in recent months aimed at reducing the threat of terrorists acquiring unsecured weapons abroad, preventing such weapons entering the United States and securing facilities that house nuclear materials.
“While we have clearly not solved all the problems, we are taking on the problems very directly, with realism and determination, and in league with our international partners,” the State Department’s Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph told the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in November.
Among the chief programs President Bush has touted in response to criticisms from the 9/11 panel is the creation of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office or DNDO.
Opened in April 2005 under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security and headed by former director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency Vayl Oxford, the office serves as an intelligence, research and development clearinghouse for officials focusing on nonproliferation issues at agencies including the Department of Energy, FBI, CIA, Department of Justice and the National Research Council.
“The main focus is to be the central, strategic policy and operational focal point for nuclear detection within the U.S.,” DNDO spokeswoman Valerie Smith said. “There are so many agencies with partial responsibility — NNSA might do more overseas, NRC might guard our domestic nuclear facilities, DOE deals with leftover nuclear waste. The creation of DNDO is to really create a strong interagency link.”
According to Smith and the agency’s Deputy Assistant Director Tracy Tiell, one of the DNDO’s first initiatives has been the testing — at the Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas — and distribution of radiation detection devices used by border patrol agents, as well as the development of smaller, portable detection devices for use between ports of entry.
“Immediately after Sept. 11 we armed our federal agents with radiation detection pagers. We wanted to expand that capability to state and local agents,” Smith said. “We’re working with these state and local partners and border states to determine what their needs are. After portable detection devices what do they need next.”
At the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, the agency at the Department of Energy charged with maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile and stopping the international spread of nuclear weapons, officials say their current work focuses on securing Russian sites that house nuclear materials.
The Natural Resources Defense Council roughly estimates that 18,000 nuclear warheads and more than 1,700 tons of nuclear material — including highly enriched uranium (1,500 tons) and plutonium (200 tons) — remain in Russia, vestiges of the former Soviet Union’s Cold War programs.
Fueled by an agreement struck by presidents Bush and Putin at the February 2005 Bratislava Summit, the NNSA has claimed progress in efforts to secure that material, stored primarily at Russian military sites.
According to the NNSA, 80 percent of 51 sites have received security upgrades. No figures have been provided about the amount of material left unsecured. The agency says it expects to secure the remaining sites by 2008.
“What we wanted to do was get the most vulnerable sites done first, sites that were out in the [Russian] countryside,” NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes said. “We went to these smaller sites that have less material and secured those first and then to the larger sites that have more material and more security.”
Two of Russia’s main sites containing some 40 percent of the country’s nuclear material, however, have yet to be secured.
The problem, according to Wilkes is access; coming to an agreement with Russia that allows the United States to help secure the facility without compromising Russian security.
“It’s really these last two large Russian sites holding this enormous amount of material that we are currently negotiating with them to gain access to,” he said.
The NNSA also is negotiating with 22 nations to place radiation detection monitors at their airports as a first line of defense. The program goes hand in hand with the State Department’s 2004 Proliferation Security Initiative that allows the government to seize illegal weapons material or technology from other countries. Among the countries participating in the program are China, the Philippines, Ukraine, Oman and most recently Israel.
While the 9/11 panel agrees the administration has made some strides in securing borders, the group says more should be done faster.
“They are making progress, there’s no question about it. The question again is how fast and how much of a sense of urgency is there,” project spokesman Alvin Felzenberg said.
Felzenberg defended the project’s “D” grade. “It’s a snapshot as to where we are in time. Grades can be raised. The way to raise a grade is to move quickly.”
“In 2004, when these 41 recommendations were made, they were immediately hailed — by the administration, by the two candidates,” Felzenberg added. “Well, 17 months later we gave a list about how these proposals that were universally hailed have progressed through the system and it’s not a very happy picture.”
Government officials complain that no explanation accompanies the grades on the list.
“We strongly dispute [the D] grade,” the NNSA’s Wilkes said. “Since there was zero backup, we’re taking that with a grain of salt.”
Other analysts give the government a mixed review, saying progress has been made, but adding more action is necessary.
“There are federal programs involving all of the issues that should be addressed with regard to terrorist use of nuclear weapons material,” said Tom Cochran, a nuclear physicist, environmentalist, and current director of the NRDC’s nuclear program. “They are moving too slowly. Whether that’s the fault of NNSA or whether there are roadblocks that have been put up by the federal government, that’s difficult to answer.”
Cochran argues that rather than make radiation detectors a priority, the government should focus on eliminating the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a fuel that if used by a terrorist could cause catastrophic damage.
“The government as a whole — its highest priority and resources are in trying to intercept materials at the border. Because radiation detectors can’t reliably detect HEU at the borders your priority must be eliminating this material at the source,” Cochran said.
The NNSA says it already has converted at least one research reactor in Prague from one that uses HEU to one that uses low-enriched uranium and is negotiating with many more countries — the names are classified according to NNSA officials — to convert more.