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Sen. Pete Domenici — apparently having given-up on President Clinton
– is asking the next president of the United States to seriously
confront what continues to be the No. 1 threat to U.S. national security
– namely, Russian “loose nukes.”

A bill (S. 2492) he introduced on May 1 will likely be incorporated
– as was the predecessor Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Amendment in 1996 — into
the pending annual National Defense Authorization Act. It asks the next
president to finally appoint — as was required four years ago by the
Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act — a weapons-of-mass-destruction czar, who would
be responsible for developing and aggressively implementing an
integrated, interagency multi-year program to prevent loose-nuke attacks
on the U.S. homeland.

Unfortunately, as a consequence of the actions taken — and actions
not taken — by the Clinton-Gore administration, it may now be too late
to prevent a loose nuke attack; there was a window of opportunity,
beginning in 1992, when the original Nunn-Lugar legislation was passed,
when it might have been possible to prevent. But President Clinton has
subverted for his own purposes many congressionally mandated programs
and completely ignored the 1996 Nunn-Lugar-Domenici mandate that he
appoint a WMD czar. More importantly, he has been derelict in his
constitutional duty to see to it that an integrated interagency program
plan was developed — and funds sought — for meeting the
weapons-of-mass-destruction threat. (Domenici’s current bill also
authorizes funding for various congressionally mandated loose nuke
programs that President Clinton didn’t ask Congress to adequately fund.)

Congressional Nunn-Lugar mandates were always properly focused on
Russian loose nukes but, for completeness, chemical and biological
agents — as well as some delivery systems — were also included as
weapons of mass destruction. They aren’t, and their inclusion was a
mistake. President Clinton has taken advantage of this WMD definition
blurring to take with great fanfare some actions — such as stockpiling
vaccines — which are supposed to ameliorate or mitigate the after
effects of a chem-bio attack. But he has done almost nothing to prevent
nuke (or chem-bio) attacks from occurring in the first place.

Perversely, when it comes to terrorist or rogue state WMD attacks on
this country, it is only the loose-nuke attack that can probably be
prevented. Whereas chem-bio agents are easy to make — the ingredients
being cheap, readily available and low-tech — a nuke requires several
kilograms of very expensive and very hi-tech fissile material — either
Plutonium-239 or Uranium-235 — which is not readily available. In
fact, there are very few sites in the world where nuke-useable fissile
materials are now being produced.

And, although the U.S. has tons of nuke materials in a secure and
safeguarded stockpile, we are not making, nor have we made for more than
a decade, any new nuke materials, nuke components or nukes, themselves.
That is, unlike Russia, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan, India,
and who knows else, we couldn’t produce a new nuke from scratch today
even if we wanted to! (Our entire nuke infrastructure is not merely
idle; it is broken beyond repair! But that will be a subject for
future columns.)

The nuke situation is very different in Russia. Russian nuke
infrastructure is still operating at Soviet Cold War levels, three times
greater than our Cold War peak ever was. The Russians also have, as do
we, tons of nuke fissile materials in stockpile — enough to make tens
of thousands of new nukes — but that Russian stockpile is neither as
secure nor as safeguarded as ours. Therein lies the No. 1 threat to
U.S. national security: all that loose, unsecure, unsafeguarded Russian
nuke material and the still operating hi-tech technological
infrastructure that produced it.

The Russians themselves are acutely aware of the Russian loose-nuke
problem. When Sens. Nunn, Lugar and Domenici quickly rushed through the
initial legislation just weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union in
the fall of 1991 — offering U.S. technical and financial assistance to
the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union to help them get
control of all nukes and nuke materials and to dispose of all their
excess weapons useable fissile materials — the offers of assistance
were eagerly accepted, especially by Russia, which had 90 percent of the
problem within its borders.

So why, as we near the end of the Clinton-Gore administration, when
billions of dollars of U.S. appropriated funds have been given to the
Russians to help them solve their loose-nuke problem, why is the problem
worse now than at the beginning?

It is worse chiefly because of the subversion of Nunn-Lugar-Domenici
loose-nuke programs into vehicles for commercial exploitation by the
Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (also a subject for future columns). But
now Chernomyrdin is no more, Yeltsin is no more and it appears that –
because of Clinton-Gore inaction on Nunn-Lugar-Domenici and Clinton-Gore
actions in Yugoslavia — the Russian loose-nuke window of opportunity is
all but closed.

All that can be done at this late date is what Senator Domenici has
done — namely, try to get the next president’s attention and hope that
it is not too late to prevent a loose-nuke attack here in the United
States.

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