Preventing WMD Proliferation

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Thomas Countryman
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Deepti Choubey, Senior Director for Nuclear & Bio Security, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Washington, DC
July 31, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to Conversations With America. Today, we’re here to discuss preventing weapons of mass destruction proliferation and how the U.S. Government and NGOs are working to accomplish that goal.

Now let’s introduce the experts that are here joining us for today’s discussion. We are joined by Thomas Countryman, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation here at the State Department. Thank you so much, Tom, for joining us.


MS. BENTON: We’re also grateful to be joined by Deepti Choubey, Senior Director for Nuclear and Bio Security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Thank you for joining us here today.

MS. CHOUBEY: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: As acquiring the technology and knowledge to develop nuclear weapons becomes easier, the threat of a nuclear attack has emerged as a legitimate concern. With advances in science and communications, increased multilateral cooperation, and a growing interest by the next generation to solve complex security issues, the Department has placed its focus on creating new possibilities to fight weapons proliferation.

Tom, I’ll direct the first question to you: What are today’s most urgent security challenges, and why, really, should we be concerned?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thanks very much, Cheryl. It’s a pleasure to be here. As President Obama said when he delivered an historic speech in Prague three years ago, the United States is addressing the security challenges all around the world. And in a number of ways, our security is becoming ever stronger. But one concern he focused on in that speech was the threat of weapons of mass destruction – that is, nuclear, chemical, biological weapons. He noted that there remains a possibility that, not only other nations, but individual actors or terrorist groups could get hold of these weapons. And he wanted to focus his Administration on that particular aspect of our security challenges.

This is what my bureau, the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, does within the State Department. I have to say after 30 years of working on a number of topics all around the world, I find this the most important and most challenging one for the United States future.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Deepti, could you give us your thoughts on that same question?

MS. CHOUBEY: I would agree largely with Tom. I mean, at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, we focus on how do we strengthen global security by reducing nuclear, biological, and chemical threats. One particular area of focus for us is the threat of weapons-usable nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands, particularly those of terrorists or criminal organizations that are looking to sell these materials to those that want to use it and do harm to citizens and countries.

And for us, a concern is that in approximately 30 countries around the world there is at least a kilogram or more of these materials that you could use to create an improvised device, and that could annihilate the heart of a city. So for us, we think that, although some people say it’s low probability, it’s high consequence.

MS. BENTON: Oh, totally, totally. It’s kind of scary. So, a follow-up to that, Tom. What role does the State Department play in addressing these concerns, very specifically?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Sure. The State Department seeks to bring together all the elements of the United States Government’s very considerable capabilities in order to address this issue across the world and break it down into levels. At the global level, we help to negotiate and to implement the key treaties that nearly all countries in the world have signed up to. And that’s particularly the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. We work not just globally but with likeminded partners who share our goals and our concerns. So for example, we have more than 40 partners who work with us on a voluntary basis around the world to prevent the export of technology and goods that could contribute to building nuclear, chemical, or bio weapons.

And finally, we work bilaterally with countries. My bureau has programs with more than 60 countries around the world that helps them develop their capability to keep nuclear materials or biological materials secure, to detect any smuggling of such materials across their borders, and to build up their ability to control strategic trade – that is, exports of sensitive technology. So we work on all levels simultaneously to try to address this problem globally.

MS. BENTON: Good. Deepti, I was curious: What approach has the Nuclear Threat Initiative taken to address these important security concerns?

MS. CHOUBEY: Well, NTI was founded 11 years ago, and our mission is to – we are cognizant that governments have the most resources and authority to confront these issues; however, we’re also cognizant that our ability to implement projects in the real world that can influence governments to do more on these issues. And as an example, we look at where there are capacity gaps and try to fill them so we can basically do direct action projects where we demonstrate what needs to be done, and, either because of political will issues or resource issues, government may not be taking the lead, but we can pave the way for them.

And as just a few quick examples of that, we help facilitate the creation of a low-enriched uranium fuel bank that is administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We’ve stood up an organization called the World Institute for Nuclear Security, which is all about sharing the best practices around nuclear security from government officials down to the operators of nuclear power plants. We’ve created an early disease surveillance system in high-conflict areas like the Middle East. And then we also do analytic work to really help shape and influence governments to do more and allow them to prioritize where their actions would really matter.

MS. BENTON: Gotcha. Go ahead, Tom. Did you want to comment on that?


MS. BENTON: On June 4th, the Department held the Generation Prague Conference to engage the next generation in addressing security challenges. Can you talk a little bit, Tom, about the purpose of and outcomes of this conference? And then I wonder, Deepti, if you would chime in as well?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Sure. President Obama’s speech in Prague in April of 2009 really energized a lot of young people not only in the Czech Republic, but around the world. He laid out a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and free from the constant threat of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. He acknowledged that we may not achieve these goals within his lifetime, but he challenged the young people of the world to seek to achieve those goals within their lifetime. And I think it struck a very responsive chord among people who see great progress in the world, but still see this overhanging threat. So we seek to reach out to them to keep up their energy, to reach out to their representatives in government, and to ensure that we don’t lose the focus. We realize the potential of what an entire generation across the globe, demanding real progress in this security area, what we could achieve with that kind of energy.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Could – Deepti, can you talk about the importance of engaging the next generation of leaders in nuclear security matters? And then I wanted to follow up very quickly and – weapons of mass destruction, that’s such an incendiary phrase. Give us your thoughts on that as well.

MS. CHOUBEY: Sure. I mean, I’ll also agree with Tom here that the President’s Prague speech was really a mobilizing discourse for a generation of people who are – who I think sometimes think that these kinds of weapons and these kinds of issues are entirely in the purview of governments. And I think one of the challenges with these kind of seemingly esoteric security issues is that citizens abdicate responsibility for these issues. They think the government’s got it handled. And the truth is is that these are unbelievably complicated issues.

When we think about what we’re taught in school, people talk about how the Cold War era was a really simple time; it was a far more black and white world. We’re now talking about this post-9/11 generation. I think they understand complexity; I think they understand how difficult some of these issues are. And my hope is that anybody from that generation that’s even looking at this conversation amongst us, they’re the kinds of leaders that we need. They’re the ones that have this kind of global understanding of how we’re interconnected, that security begins with governments, it certainly doesn’t end at the edge of our territories, and that we have investments abroad that matter and how do we kind of really think through that?

In terms of weapons of mass destruction – (laughter) – as a policy term, I don’t particularly like it because I think it muddies the water on what we’re actually talking about. So WMD is usually used as a term that includes nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Although certainly these are all weapons that we should be concerned about, we should also acknowledge that they have very different consequences, were they ever used. Chemical weapons, relatively speaking, have – are more containable in a sense in terms of the kinds of destruction it would wreak on a population or a territory. Biological weapons is entirely different in its nature, when we start thinking about how something like that could create a global pandemic. And then nuclear weapons, I think we all know from Hollywood and watching documentaries about what the explosive power of these weapons are is in this whole other league.

And again, as I’ve said before, although some of these are lower consequence events, although I think with recent event in Syria and the issue about will the government use chemical weapons, kind of that brings us to – brings that to the forefront of our minds that it’s not some abstract possibility. But I think it’s worthwhile that we kind of separate out these terms, because they have very different policy responses.

MS. BENTON: And very different consequences as well.


MS. BENTON: So, curious, how significant is the role of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the fight against weapons proliferation.

Tom, if you could take that one.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Sure. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or the NPT is really the cornerstone of global efforts to fight nonproliferation. It is one of the most universal treaties in the world, the most universal treaty in the area of arms control and security.

It has three key elements. It says that states that do not have nuclear weapons will not acquire them. It says states that do have nuclear weapons will reduce their inventories, and every state is entitled to the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. What President Obama did three years ago was not just to restate those three elements; he reaffirmed them and has given a genuine action plan so that the U.S. and the Russian Federation have moved ahead on significant reductions of nuclear arsenals without harming our security. We are spending additional money and raising additional money globally so that every country in the world can benefit from peaceful uses of nuclear energy and medicine and agriculture and water resources. And finally, we continue to build the broadest international consensus and coalition that we’ve ever seen to push back against efforts by states such as Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. The legal and logical underpinning, the argument at the very center of those efforts to prevent those two states from moving ahead is the nonproliferation treaty.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Good deal.

So – go ahead.

MS. CHOUBEY: Yeah. I would just add to that. I mean, despite some of the weaknesses or challenges to the NPT that grab the headline, like Iran and North Korea, I think it’s worthwhile that we also remember the successes of the NPT. President John F. Kennedy made this prediction that by the 1990s that we would have over 20 nuclear weapons states. That’s not the case. We have nine today.

MS. BENTON: That’s good news.

MS. CHOUBEY: Right. So that is a good news story that I think sometimes gets lost. We have the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states that happen to also be the veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council by happenstance. But what hasn’t come to fruition is that broader prediction that there would be more nuclear weapons states. And instead, we have the examples of South Africa, which had secretly developed nuclear weapons, renouncing them, and completely dismantling their program. We have the example of the former Soviet Union states after the fall of the Soviet Union giving back those weapons. And I think we really need to take heart from those examples. We don’t have to reach into ancient history for those examples. They happened near the end of the last century. So --

MS. BENTON: So that’s the bit of good news.

MS. CHOUBEY: That’s the bit of good news.

MS. BENTON: Okay. We have received a number of questions from our blog, DipNote, and Facebook on today’s topic. So I wanted to go to those.

Melissa in Maryland writes: Is WMD proliferation a big threat, or is it just used to fear-monger?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Well, as the President pointed out in Prague, you need to break down the threat among several different actors. There are a few nations in the world, as we’ve already discussed, actively pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. There are fewer that are actively developing biological and chemical weapons. But these remain a concern.

In addition, what the President pointed out is that even as the threat of an all-out nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States continues to fall, becomes ever less likely, the possibility that a single actor or a terrorist group could develop with fairly simple technology a biological or a chemical weapon capable of spreading mass panic in the United States or in another country, this possibility keeps rising. That’s what we have to fight against. It’s not a question of fear-mongering. It is a question of alertness. And I think Americans would be proud to know how many dedicated individuals all across this government in every department and agency are committed to ensuring that we don’t face such an attack in the future.

MS. BENTON: Well, that’s good to know. So our next question comes from Facebook.

Syed Ali writes: What safeguards have been put into place so as to ensure that nuclear fuel and/or weapons do not end up in the hands of terrorists through black market sales?

So Deepti, I want to go to you with that.

MS. CHOUBEY: Sure. Well, I think that that question actually highlights that our concerns around nuclear things are more than just weapons. It’s about the materials that are used that can help create a weapon, but they’re also used in an assortment of civilian applications like research reactors, nuclear energy programs, et cetera.

One of the things that exist out there are from the International Atomic Energy Agency. All countries – the nonnuclear weapons states have safeguards over their materials. One thing to be very clear is that safeguards are not about safeguarding. They are about ensuring the detection of whether material has been diverted to military purpose. So they’re –

MS. BENTON: Very important distinction.

MS. CHOUBEY: Right. It’s not about, oh, are these materials properly secured. We have, however, particularly from the United States Government since the end of the – sorry, since the beginning of the 1990s, programs that are all about trying to provide assistance first to the former Soviet Union and now other countries in the world to help them secure these materials. And if they’re vulnerable and they were originally given to these countries by the United States, there’s a program to help secure them and bring them back to the U.S.

That said, one of the things that we’ve done outside of government at NTI is we’ve created an index of how well countries are doing at securing weapons-usable nuclear material, so this is highly-enriched uranium and separated plutonium. And what we looked at was a range of regulations or other kinds of actions that governments could take that showed us what is their commitment to their nuclear material security conditions. And our hope is that this kind of assessment, which is the first-ever public benchmarking, will help inspire states to take steps on where there may be some weaknesses, and it also helps us chart the progress that is occurring within this realm, and particularly sparked by President Obama’s nuclear security summits, that there are states that have taken actions to secure these materials and make sure that they don’t get to bad actors. And some of those steps would not have been taken, I think, without the nuclear security summits.

MS. BENTON: Okay. That’s fantastic. Ana in New York writes: In the late 1980s through the early ‘90s, South Africa voluntarily underwent nuclear disarmament. The African country stands as the first and only country to build nuclear weapons and then voluntarily give them up. You just referred to that. So what can we learn from this case and apply today in terms of prompting other countries to do the same?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: It’s a great question. Thank you. South Africa – every country is unique, but in many ways, South Africa could be the most unique, if you could say that. As in so many other areas, South Africa has shown itself to be an example that countries not only in Africa and not only in the developing world, but around the world could learn something from. In the case of South Africa, the decision to give up nuclear weapons capability was a cost-benefit analysis. They realized that the damage to their international reputation, as well as the direct economic cost, was not worth the marginal security benefit. And it was the right decision for them.

To encourage other countries to make that decision or to continue to make the right decision, we want to continue to drive that kind of cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate the benefits of being a responsible member of the international community, fully benefitting from all the benefits of either nuclear power or nuclear science, and at the same time, we want to drive up the costs that any country, whether Iran or someone else, must consider.

So I – you have to salute South Africa and say there’s absolutely a lesson here for the rest of the world.


MS. CHOUBEY: I would just add to that. I mean, I think now that there’s a lot more discussion about a world free of nuclear weapons, that what South Africa demonstrates is getting rid of and completely dismantling a nuclear weapons program is not unprecedented; it has been done. And I think we should take inspiration from that that this is actually possible. We always talk about you can’t put the nuclear genie back into the bottle, you can’t uninvent nuclear weapons, but you can marshal the political will to make this decision and show that it doesn’t undermine your security interests.

One of the interesting other parts of the story for South Africa is while it was an apartheid state, it was a pariah in the international community. After undertaking a lot of these steps to dismantle its secret weapons program, it has actually become a leader in the nonproliferation world. It took a lead in negotiating a nuclear weapons-free zone in Africa. So I think it’s just this really inspiring example of how you can transform who a state is in the international community to really great effect.

MS. BENTON: Particularly if the costs are so great, then the carrot is you get some goodies when you come into alignment with some of the treaties, et cetera.

We have Molly in Washington, D.C. who writes: How has WMD proliferation become a problem? Aren’t governments the only ones who can own these types of weapons?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: It certainly is very hard for anyone below the level of a well-funded state government, national government, to construct a nuclear weapon, but it’s no longer impossible. The technology is well known, although very difficult to master. And if we are not successful in the major effort of this Administration to secure nuclear materials around the world, it is conceivable that a terrorist group could develop an improvised nuclear device.

It is even easier to imagine that an individual or a group could develop chemical or biological weapons. Biology in particular, which has the incredible potential to revolutionize healthcare as more and more research is done in microbiology, in gene synthesis – it also poses this danger that an individual in a room no bigger than this with the advanced equipment that’s readily available may be able to synthesize a very dangerous biological weapon. It’s not easy, but it’s conceivable.

In all these cases, we need to keep our eye, as the President said in Prague, not just on national governments but on individual actors, not with fear mongering but with alertness and with thinking ahead about the question: If there’s another attack on the United States, what will we wish we would have done previously? That’s the answer we try to get – find every single day.

MS. CHOUBEY: And to that, I would just add the concern here isn’t just about nuclear weapons that are in the hands of governments and militaries; it’s about materials. And those materials are found not only in government control, but also in civilian control. And that’s why, again, we really focus on all key actors that have a stake in the nuclear enterprise, be it civilian or military, that they are really taking the steps necessary to make sure that they don’t fall into bad hands.

And I absolutely agree with this idea of imagine that there was an attack; what do we wish we had done. To that, I would add only one other question, which is: Why didn’t we do it before? And that’s what we’re very much focused on at NTI, is getting governments to take those steps now.

MS. BENTON: Where is the will to get that done?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: And the U.S. Government welcomes the fact that there’s a lot of think tanks and organizations like NTI who constantly push us, who constantly generate new ideas that we need to think about. It’s an essential part of the policy process.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. I found it very interesting – you and I were chatting a little bit before – you have a large NGO constituency base that understands the issues, supports the issues, and sometimes they push against it, but that’s okay too, right?


MS. BENTON: Yeah. So how large – I know you were also talking about – you had just come back from negotiating a treaty. Tell us a little bit about that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Well, in addition to weapons of mass destruction, we’ve been working for the last month in New York – the entire month of July – on negotiating an arms trade treaty that would regulate the international trade in conventional weapons. As advocates have pointed out, we have international rules on trade in bananas or iPods, but we had no international rules for trading in conventional weapons.

The U.S. has the most advanced system in the world for carefully studying and deciding before we sell or export weapons – conventional weapons – to any other country in the world. We tried to negotiate a treaty that would raise the standards of every country around the world on this topic. We didn’t quite succeed last week; we ran out of time. But the United States remains committed, first of all, to making sure that our exports of non-WMD – that is, conventional weapons, everything from machine guns up to aircraft carriers – is consistent with our obligations and with international human rights practice. And we’re looking forward to the day soon when the entire world embraces a similar standard.

MS. BENTON: Very good. This is the time in the broadcast where I – that I hate the most because we’re at the end of our session. And I wanted to first ask, Deepti, if you would share your final thoughts and then we’ll go to you, Tom, and you can do that.

MS. CHOUBEY: Great. I think what I would say is it’s fantastic to have this kind of conversation not only amongst us, but essentially, it’s a dialogue with the American public.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

MS. CHOUBEY: And one of the reasons I think that’s important is we need public engagement on these issues. The public helps create a sense of urgency around this issue, and one of the things that we try to do at NTI is a range of public education and outreach initiatives. We have a website which is, where you can get all kinds of information about all the issues that we’ve talked about here today. We made two films called – there’s Last Best Chance and The Nuclear Tipping Point, which were all about trying to animate what are the real consequences of these issues.

And then on top of that, we’d really ask that people engage their members of Congress. With real stalwarts like Senator Lugar retiring, we are losing a generation of leaders who think very thoughtfully about these complicated issues. And I think that if other members of Congress saw that there was public support for them to really take leadership on this, that we could see even further advances in our government’s policy as well as other changes that can happen in the international community.

MS. BENTON: Terrific, thank you. Tom, would you give us your final thoughts?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Sure. This kind of web conversation, for an old dog like me, is a new trick. But we have tremendous potential to reach out to help every citizen in the U.S. and beyond who has an interest in this topic to learn more and to have a voice. And I especially want to encourage young people to take advantage of everything they can find not just on the website about nonproliferation, but through all the NGOs as well.

And one more point for young people today as they think about careers: I’m very impressed that today in the United States and around the world, there are more and more universities that offer the possibility of studies concentrating in the field of nonproliferation or disarmament. These are incredibly specialized fields, but what you need is a good, solid introduction to the science and the law and the politics of these issues. And I would hope that we see more and more students take advantage of those programs at the undergraduate and graduate level and get into this field, whether in government or in nongovernmental organizations. There’s important work to be done. We need the best minds in it.

MS. BENTON: Very nicely said. First, I’d like to thank you, Assistant Secretary Countryman, and Deepti Choubey for sharing your work and your knowledge with us. And I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again very soon. Thank you.