Keeping Us Safe

I wanted to highlight one other bit of the GQ story on Rumsfeld. The author writes:

“What Rumsfeld was most effective in doing,” says a former senior White House official, “was not so much undermining a decision that had yet to be made as finding every way possible to delay the implementation of a decision that had been made and that he didn’t like.” At meetings, he’d throw up every obstacle he could. “Rumsfeld would say, ‘Golly, we haven’t had time to read all of these documents! I mean, this is radical change!’” the official adds. “And then, if you suggested that maybe he should’ve read all the documents when everyone first got them a week ago, he’d say: ‘Well! I’ve been all over the world since then! What have you been doing?’”

What a charmer. Here are some specific examples involving Russia:

“Rumsfeld’s office cut against Bush’s pledge of cooperation and transparency with Russia on “a whole host of things,” says this official: the proposed Russian-American Observation Satellite, the Joint Data Exchange Center, plutonium disposition. By 2005 the Bush-Putin partnership had soured for a variety of reasons, including Russia’s growing economic swagger and America’s Iraq-induced decline in global prestige. But, the official observes, Rumsfeld “did not help the relationship; that’s clear.” Russia came to believe that the U.S. wasn’t interested in cooperating, and Rumsfeld’s actions “devalued what the president had originally said. It made the Russians believe he lacked credibility.””

If you’re not an arms policy wonk, you might not recognize some of these examples. That would be a shame, since what this paragraph actually means is that Donald Rumsfeld slow-walked proposals designed to do two things that might strike the casual observer as quite important: keep weapons-grade plutonium out of the hands of terrorists, and prevent the accidental launch of nuclear weapons at our cities.

“Plutonium disposition” is part of the general attempt to secure and destroy Russian nuclear material. If you’re worried about al Qaeda getting nuclear weapons, securing Russian loose nukes is the most obvious place to start: so obvious that our failure to prioritize this always struck me as one of the abiding mysteries of the Bush administration. There are nuclear weapons sitting around in enormously insecure locations. (Howard Baker: “I’m talking about finished weapons that are barely protected. I’m talking about doors that have an ordinary padlock on them and sometimes not even that.” Quoted in Allison, Nuclear Terrorism, p. 74.)

Plutonium disposition is one part of securing loose nukes: the part where you take weapons-grade plutonium and render it unusable. As of mid-2003, here’s what we had done:

“The entire nine year program to date has been focused on investing to prepare for beginning to reduce excess plutonium stockpiles in the future.”

“Investing to prepare for beginning to reduce” — that sounds promising! As of April 2007, things had not improved much:

“Although the original agreement called for each side to start off at a rate of two tons of plutonium a year and seek to move to four tons a year, the four-ton objective appears to have been largely abandoned, and the planned Russian program now stretches to 2040. (…)

A wide range of other obstacles have contributed to these slowing schedules and escalating costs. After delays resulting from a year-long Bush administration policy review, the Bush team delayed matters further by demanding that Russia accept liability provisions that would make Russia liable even for damage caused by intentional sabotage by U.S. personnel, a provision Russian negotiators predictably rejected. Because construction of the U.S. and Russian MOX plants had been linked, this dispute resulted in years of delay in both countries. A liability protocol for plutonium disposition, in which the Bush administration effectively abandoned its earlier demands, was finally signed in September 2006, ironically not long after the linkage between U.S. and Russian construction was dropped.”

So that’s what Rumsfeld dragging his feet on plutonium disposition meant: not helping to destroy weapons-grade material that was often stored in insecure locations, and which a terrorist might use to build a bomb. Thanks, Don.

Here’s a description of the Joint Data Exchange Center from the joint US/Russian press release announcing it:

“This agreement (…) establishes a Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) in Moscow for the exchange of information derived from each side’s missile launch warning systems on the launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.

The exchange of this data will strengthen strategic stability by further reducing the danger that ballistic missiles might be launched on the basis of false warning of attack. It will also promote increased mutual confidence in the capabilities of the ballistic missile early warning systems of both sides.”

Basically, the fact that the US and Russia have nuclear missiles pointed at one another means that it’s rather important to ensure that neither side mistakenly concludes that the other has launched a nuclear strike to which it must respond. After all, you don’t want to get into a nuclear war over something like this:

“In 1995 the Russians mistakenly interpreted a Norwegian meteorological missile launch as a launch of a military missile, and the black case of the Russian President was activated for the first time since the end of the Cold War.”

The JDEC is basically designed to help prevent that sort of needless catastrophe. But guess what?

“The agreement regarding the JDEC was first signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Putin at their June 2000 meeting in Moscow. Over the next several years, implementation of the center fell prey to bureaucratic issues between Moscow and Washington such as the question of which side would pay for upgrading the school building that had been selected for the site. In addition, the general disinterest of the Bush administration toward negotiated agreements with Russia, especially when negotiated by earlier presidents, served to shelve the JDEC further. The agreement remains intact, however, and the center could be rapidly established as a venue for confidence building on missile defenses.”

The next time you hear Dick Cheney talk about how the Bush administration kept us safe, don’t just think about 9/11, the people who have died in the Iraq war, etc. Think about the fact that this administration slow-walked things like mechanisms to keep us from being incinerated because of a mistake and measures to destroy Russian weapons-grade plutonium so that it didn’t fall into the hands of terrorists.

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