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Critics Charge US Proliferation Policy Inadequate - 2001-12-02

The Bush administration is defending its efforts to crackdown on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But critics say there is no well-coordinated U.S. policy on preventing nuclear material from the former Soviet Union from falling into the wrong hands.

Critics testified at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing that American non-proliferation policy lacks clear goals.

"Agencies have said and articulated their own priorities, resources have not always been aligned with those priorities even within agencies, and differences among agencies, rhetoric and programatic actions have created perceptions of inefficiency and contradiction, which are exploited by opponents of the programs and missions," argued Laura Holgate, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based non-profit organization working to reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Leonard Spector of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies here in Washington had similar criticism, saying "the administration is still 'reviewing' U.S. nonproliferation programs in Russia, and it is apparently unable to decide whether or how to pursue a number of the critically important initiatives that are already underway."

Such concerns have prompted one Senator, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, to propose creating an interagency committee to coordinate nonproliferation efforts relating to Russia other former Soviet states.

But administration officials, concerned the proposal could intrude on President Bush's powers, said it is not needed because the administration has taken the steps outlined in the legislation.

"First and foremost we seek to destroy weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery if possible at their existing location," said Defense Department official Marshall Billingslea in testimony before the Senate panel Thursday.

"If it is not possible to destroy such weapons, as is sometimes the case with [biological] pathogen stocks that might be needed for disease research, then we will seek to consolidate and secure them. Further, we seek to prevent weapons of mass destruction materials and knowledge from leaving the territory of the former Soviet Union," said Mr. Billingslea. "The Department of Defense has worked closely with the National Security Council, and other agencies such as the Departments of State, Energy and Commerce to ensure effective execution of these programs."

Mr. Billingslea acknowledges the administration is concerned that Russian nuclear weapons could be stolen by enemies of the United States. He says the Defense Department is working with Russia to make security upgrades at key sites and create an inventory of existing nuclear weapons pending their eventual dismantlement.

Another U.S. official, Deputy Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen, expressed his concern about the possibility of rogue nations offering to buy the services of Russian weapons scientists. He says the State Department is helping redirect these scientists toward sustainable careers in what he called "peaceful, transparent, civilian endeavors in their home countries."

The administration officials testified as U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow to discuss closer cooperation in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.