Weapons of Mass Destruction Easier to Get Than Ever

At a Nov. 27 New York University conference on weapons of mass destruction, Paul Walker of Global Green's military waste cleanup program, told a scary story. It went like this:

A short time ago Mr. Walker was visiting a chemical weapons depot near the Kazakhstan border in Russia. The depot holds 500,000 tons of nerve agent and other chemical weapons material and a couple million rounds of artillery topped with the stuff. The depot is above ground and constructed from aging corrugated metal and wood. It abuts a day care center and military living quarters and is protected by a couple of officers, one of whom circles by jeep the forest road that surrounds the depot.

Mr. Walker asked his Russian host, "How do you protect the facility?"

"We keep the door locked," he responded.

"What if five rounds were, say, missing?" pursued Mr. Walker.

"We would know," said the host. "We keep the door locked."

With that, the host secured the facility with a large bicycle lock and left Mr. Walker standing outside with his mouth agape, at which point he turned to the young officer guarding the bicycle-locked building, and asked:

"When were you last paid?"

"Just before the American delegation arrived," said the officer with unconcealed irony.

"And before that?"

"Six months ago."

This story was among the most instructive -- and frightening -- of the many instructive and frightening tales told at the NYU conference, "Weapons of Mass Destruction: Cold War Legacies in the Post-9-11 World," which gathered together military experts from New York, Washington and Moscow.

Let's just say the conversation was lugubrious. For the consensus was that whereas the post-9-11 world has taken the veil off a manifold of problems -- Islamic hostility toward modernization, U.S. greed, Middle East corruption, widespread poverty and the failures of globalization -- a shroud remains over the slippery spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Here's the news: Iran is two to three years away from becoming a nuclear power. Nuclear wastes are not being adequately disposed of in Russia or the U.S. Arsenals of biological and chemical weapons are in the hands of "known terrorist states," such as Libya, Iran and Iraq. And arms reduction treaties, namely the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, are being disbanded by the U.S. with the result that nuclear weapon-seeking states can more freely seek nukes and strides in international law are in the toilet.

"The crazy part of the post-9-11 world," said Nation correspondent Jonathan Schell, "is that the line between conventional and nuclear war is blurring. The post-Cold War era did not end the old U.S.-Russia arms race. What it signaled was a new period of proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to states like India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq."

Of chief concern at the conference was the status of arms reduction treaties of the START and SALT variety, which were once considered the bedrock of deescalating the arms race. "No equivalent for these treaties exists today," said Michael Klare, director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies. "The Bush administration is making it clear they have no interest in negotiating mutually restrictive agreements."

Indeed, in July on CBS's Face the Nation, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said, "The arms control treaties of the 1970s and 1980s came out of peculiar, abnormal relationship between the United States and Russia. [Today] Russia is not a strategic adversary of the United States. We are not enemies. So the process can look different." In an August Fox News interview Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it more succinctly. "Arms control treaties are not for friends," he said.

But is Russia really our friend? Kimberly Zisk, a professor at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, said at the conference, "We shouldn't have too high expectations of Russia," given that the Russian government is "limited in its ability to control dissemination of weapons of mass destruction."

Zisk warned that brain drain among Russian scientists is a very real problem -- 15 percent surveyed by the Carnegie Foundation this year said they would "go anywhere and work for anyone" -- and that Putin is in a struggle with the military to restructure the Russian weapons regime and armed forces. Meanwhile, the state is also under pressure to monetize its nuclear expertise. On Nov. 26 Russian energy officials began moving components of two 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactors to Iran.

"The problem with this," said Zisk, "is that Iran might be able to divert expertise for a nuclear reactor program to a nuclear weapon program." In a Dec. 3 article in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported that American and Israeli intelligence believe Russian scientists have already provided enough expertise to help Iran build a bomb. (Israel has had a nuclear arsenal for decades, although it has never publicly acknowledged this.)

According to the conference speakers, the above security risks from Russia are reason enough to abide old treaties and write new ones. Referring to the gentlemanly terms of the recent Crawford Summit agreement, in which Presidents Putin and Bush promised to a three-fold reduction of nuclear warheads based on a handshake, William D. Hartung of the New School's World Policy Institute, said, "Given the risks of relying on a handshake and a smile, President Bush should think twice before renouncing arms control agreements. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the president's credo should be "trust, but codify."

Hartung added Putin may have been smiling soulfully at his new American ally at the Crawford ranch, but he has been arguing for codifying reduction commitments in treaty language. Hartung also noted that the Crawford agreement, whereby Bush promised to reduce U.S. inventory to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads in a decade and Putin promised a goal of 1,500, were reiterations of agreements made by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in 1997 as part of the START III talks. Said Hartung: "Nothing is new here. And 1,700 warheads is still enough to obliterate large swaths of the world."

Speaking from Moscow by video teleconference, General Vladimir Dvorkin, chief of the Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces, commented, "If the U.S. will not abide by the ABM and other treaties, we will find ourselves in an international legal vacuum. Russia is willing to further cuts, but it needs incentives." No one could say for certain how concerned the Bush administration is with such incentives. Recent actions indicate not very much at all.

Then there is the question of Star Wars, Reagan's dream project to defend the United States from a nuclear attack with a National Missile Defense system that leading scientists say is unworkable for at least 10 years. The word on National Missile Defense has been, up until Sept. 11, that it was Bush's main military priority -- and the reason for abolishing the ABM Treaty. But according to Frances Fitzgerald, who has documented the Star Wars' saga in "Way Out of the Blue," the U.S.'s disdain for the ABM treaty is no longer linked to National Missile Defense.

"A January 2001 National Institute for Public Policy report lays it out," said Fitzgerald. "Its authors, who are Bush's nuclear advisors, argue treaties prevent U.S. flexibility." In other words, deep reductions may be made, but they should be made unilaterally, so that the U.S. is not bound to any one treaty. By the same token, should China become a nuclear state, the U.S. can increase its nuclear assets. "The report implies," concluded Fitzgerald, "that U.S. security is best assured by unfettered autonomy."

There is some good news within this morass of bad, however. The 8-year-old U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, designed to help Moscow implement its arms control obligations, has made great strides. By spending $400-500 million a year for a total of $4 billion, the U.S. has helped Russia destroy 5,000 warheads, 4,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 19 nuclear submarines. The CTR program also has given the U.S. some inkling of Russia's vast chemical weapons arsenal and helped hundreds of Russian scientists, once employed in the Soviet Union's closed military cities, find jobs.

But Amy Smithson, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Project of the Henry L. Stimson Center, argued the CTR program has not gone far enough. She said the CTR program is not adequately reducing threats from Russia's biological weapons program, which has weaponized 50 diseases like smallpox, anthrax and Marburg and put them on ICBMs facing the West.

"It costs $380 million to develop and test a gas mask for a U.S. soldier," she said. "Putting this kind of money toward preventing Russian brain drain is a no-brainer," especially when thousands of Russian weaponeers have lost their jobs and those still employed are getting paid wages equal to $1 a month. Smithson said she has interviewed Russian weaponeers who knew of colleagues who accepted offers to "teach" in Iran and North Korea. Others, she said, may have gone to China and Iraq.

So nukes are loose. There's nothing new in this. Both India and Pakistan, neighbor states of the tinderbox that is Afghanistan, have the bomb. By the end of the decade, the list of nuclear states will likely rise to nine. Chemical and biological weapons will be practically ubiquitous. And the U.S. will probably still have the greatest lethal capacity, and with that the greatest conviction of its safety.

"Now is the balloon mortgage of the nuclear age," said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, "when the chickens are coming home to roost, regardless of National Missile Defense systems and deterrence."

Nonetheless U.S. leaders seem determined to pursue what Michael Klare called "unipolar dominance" -- or "supremacism," a combination of economic and military power not seen since the Roman empire. Klare said people like himself must now work on two fronts: they must deal with legacies of the Cold War in terms of nuclear and biological weapons, and "face a whole new raft of problems arising from unipolarity and globalization."

"The latter will be the hardest task -- the most difficult to persuade the American public of," said Klare. "Because of the dangers of National Missile Defense, abrogated treaties and supremacism are widely seen as sources of protection."

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.

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