New Partnerships for Combating the Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Rose Gottemoeller
Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Joseph Rotblat Memorial Lecture, Hay Festival
Hay-on-Wye, Wales, United Kingdom
June 10, 2012

“Above all, remember your humanity.” Sir Joseph Rotblat recalled these words from the 1955 Manifesto of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, on behalf of the International Pugwash Movement. For Jo, they reflected very well the frame of mind we must have when we confront the problem of nuclear weapons.

I was honored to know Joseph Rotblat, and these words have stuck with me. When we talk about creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, we are not talking about some remote utopia, we are talking about preventing the use of the most powerful weapon ever conceived by man. We are talking about protecting humanity.

The idea of a world free of nuclear weapons is nothing new. It was upon us almost as soon as scientists realized the feasibility of nuclear weapons. Sir Joseph was one of this community. As a leader of the Pugwash Movement, he was instrumental in making nuclear elimination a legitimate topic for policymakers around the world. When he was pushing for reductions at the height on the Cold War, Jo saw an opening for conversation – not one in English and Russian across the negotiating table, but one in the universal languages of math and science, a conversation among scientists. This open forum for scientific dialogue, which became the Pugwash Movement, led to some of the first arms control and nonproliferation treaties.

Through his work, Sir Joseph played a big role in making the goal of “zero” an acceptable goal of security policy. Two years after his death, four venerable Cold Warriors – former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn – published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for a world without nuclear weapons. The group, often called “the Four Horsemen” saw it as “a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.” Two years later, President Obama spoke to thousands of people in Prague, stating that the United States would seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. That speech was the foundation for what we in Washington call the Prague Agenda.

Even with the massive shift in accepting nuclear elimination as a policy worth pursuing, Sir Joseph warned us, “the Cold War is over, but Cold War thinking survives.” When it comes to the next steps in nuclear reductions, this is undoubtedly true. In order to dismantle this dangerous legacy, we have to change the way we think about these weapons. And we have to be ready to challenge our notions of how they might be eliminated.

We are entering unknown terrain. As we steadily reduce nuclear weapons toward zero, the more cheating matters. Consider, if you will: if a country can stash away just a few nuclear weapons while others continue to eliminate them, that country can spring a significant and dangerous surprise on the world community. To counter this possibility, we will need innovative approaches. Finally to achieve zero, we will need a truly global effort involving thousands and thousands of people. I am guessing you are asking yourself, “How on Earth can an ordinary person such as I help with a problem like this?”

Joseph Rotblat considered this challenge decades ago. He developed the concept called “societal verification,” which he defined as the involvement of whole communities in monitoring compliance with treaties, in contrast to using the highly specialized teams of experts such as we use to verify the New START Treaty. Sir Joseph argued that technological verification of the New START kind was sufficient for reducing arsenals to lower numbers. However, the prospect of a state clandestinely acquiring only a few nuclear weapons in a disarmed world requires greater confidence and verification. Sir Joseph believed societal verification would bring us this increased confidence. Such a societal regime, he said, would be essential in achieving the goal of zero.

Today, we have the information revolution to lend to this task, and Sir Joseph’s concept is closer to reality. Our enviornment today is a smaller, increasingly-networked world where the average citizen connects to others in cyberspace hundreds of times each day. We exchange and share ideas on a wide variety of topics. Citizens are armed with more information tools than ever before. Why should we not put this vast problem solving entity to good use?

Think about this: Any event, anywhere on the planet, has the potential now to be broadcast globally in mere seconds. The implications for arms control monitoring and verification are compelling. It is harder to hide things nowadays. When it is harder to hide things, it is easier to be caught. The neighborhood gaze is a powerful tool.

The Possibilities

Open source information technologies can improve arms control verification in at least two ways: either as a way of generating new information, or as analysis of information that already is out there.

Let me give you some examples, to give you an idea what I’m talking about.

In 2009, in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Internet, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a competition where 10 red weather balloons were moored at visible fixed locations around the continental United States. The first team to identify the location of all 10 balloons won a sizable cash prize--$40,000. Over 4,300 teams composed of an estimated 2 million people from 25 countries took part in the challenge. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the challenge, identifying all of the balloon locations in an astonishing time of 8 hours and 52 minutes. Of course, to win in such a short time or complete the challenge at all, the MIT team did not “find” the balloons themselves. They tapped into social networks using a unique incentive structure that not only incentivized people to identify a balloon location, but also incentivized people to recruit others to the team. Their win showed the enormous potential of social networking, and also demonstrated how incentives can motivate large populations to work toward a common goal.

Social networking is already being incorporated into local safety systems. RAVEN911—the Regional Asset Verification & Emergency Network—is a multilayer mapping tool that supports emergency first response in Cincinnati, Ohio. RAVEN911 uses live data feeds and intelligence gathered through Twitter to provide details that cannot be given on an everyday geographic map, such as the location of downed electric power lines and flooded roads. Authorities are cooperating with communities in Southwestern Ohio, Southeastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky to develop and implement this emergency management system, in order to help fire departments assess the risks and potential dangers before arriving on the scene of an accident. This open source system gives emergency responders a common operating picture, to better execute time critical activities, such as choosing evacuation routes out of flooded areas.

In addition to collecting useful data, the ability to identify patterns and trends in social networks could aid the arms control verification process. In the most basic sense, social media can draw attention to both routine and abnormal events. We may be able to mine Twitter data to understand where strange effluents are flowing, to recognize if a country has an illegal chemical weapons program; or to recognize unexpected patterns of industrial activity at a missile production plant. In this way, we may be able to ensure better compliance with existing arms control treaties and regimes such as the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The synergy is stunning: private citizens may contribute to monitoring for illicit weapons of mass destruction wherever they are found.

Now, how could approaches such as this work specifically in the arms control context? I’ve been thinking about the notion of verification challenges.

Let’s just imagine that a country, to establish its bona fides in a deep nuclear reduction environment, may wish to open itself to a verification challenge, recruiting its citizens and their i-Phones to help prove that it is not stashing extra missiles in the woods, for example, or a fissile material production reactor in the desert. Of course, some form of international supervision would likely be required, to ensure the legitimacy of the challenge and its procedures. And we would have to consider whether such a challenge could cope with especially covert environments, such as caves or deep underground facilities.

Sound far-fetched? Just consider that even today, tablets such as your iPad have tiny accelerometers installed – that’s what tells the tablet which way is up. But the accelerometers also have the capability of detecting small shakes, like an earth tremor.

Now, imagine a whole community of tablet users, all containing an “earth shake” app, dispersed randomly around the country, and connected into a centralized network node. An individual shake could be something as simple as bumping your iPad on a table. But a whole network of tablets, all shaking at virtually the same time? That tells you that something happened; knowing where all the tablets are and the exact time they started shaking can help you to geo-locate the event. It could be an earthquake, or it could be an illegal nuclear test. Of course, other sensors and analysis would have to be brought to bear to figure out the difference.

This is called “ubiquitous sensing,” that is, collecting data and basic analysis through sensors on smartphones and other mobile-computing devices. These sensors would allow citizens to contribute to detecting potential treaty violations, and could build a bridge to a stronger private-public partnership in the realm of treaty verification.

Would private citizens be willing to participate in such a community? We’ve never tried it in the arms control setting, but consider the SETI on-line community – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence community – with somewhere between 300,000 and 3 million active users worldwide. It may not be an accident that the scientist who proposed the tablet seismography concept to me is an astrophysicist who worked with SETI. He knows the value of citizen participation.

The Challenges Ahead

Of course, for any of this to work, there are technical, legal and political barriers ahead that would need to be overcome—no easy feat to be sure.

On the technical front, it would be necessary to work together to make sure nations cannot spoof or manipulate the public verification challenges that they devise. We also have to bear in mind there could be limitations based on the freedoms available to the citizens of a given country.

On the legal front, there are many questions that must be confronted about active vs. passive participation. How can we prevent governments from extracting information from citizens without their knowledge, or manipulating results collected in databases? Further, in some circumstances, how can active participants be sheltered from reproach by authorities? It may be possible, through careful handling and management, to mask sources, even if locations are public.

On the political front, we cannot assume that information will always be so readily available. As nations and private entities continue to debate the line between privacy and security, it is possible to imagine that we are living in a golden age of open source information that will be harder to take advantage of in future. In the end, the goal of using open source information technology and social networks should be to add to our existing arms control monitoring and verification capabilities, not to supersede them.

It is also important to remember that while we spend a lot of time focusing on nuclear weapons, the other weapons of mass destruction—particularly biological weapons—pose even greater challenges for arms control policy, because they are inherently dual use assets and, thus, difficult to disentangle from normal industrial or commercial processes. Here, too, we need creative thinking about how to facilitate transparency in the biotech sector without compromising sensitive research and industrial practices, or proprietary information.

Joining Forces

Even with the great ideas and fool-proof planning, another issue that we have to consider is how do we create, organize and, when necessary, fund efforts such as these. Developing partnerships among government, civil society groups, philanthropic organizations and private businesses will be the key to moving ahead.

These alliances, sometimes surprising and uncommon, can produce some extraordinary results. The makers of the first artificial heart worked with National Air and Space Administration ( NASA) engineers to develop the technology. Surgeons created arthroscopic methods for heart surgery by talking to engineers who fix jet engines.

We are now just starting to brainstorm about ideas for our partnerships in the arms control arena. The idea of public verification challenges needs developing by considering a straightforward question: Can a government actively enlist its public to help prove it is in compliance with its arms control and nonproliferation obligations?


Since this is an ideas festival, I have come to the right place. We need your ideas. We need your ideas if we are to take the dream of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Sir Joseph Rotblat, and so many more, and turn it into reality. We need scientists, diplomats, teachers, religious leaders, soldiers and advocates working together, but most importantly, we need young people. Young adults finishing their undergraduate studies this year have lived their entire lives in the years since the Cold War ended, yet they have inherited thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons. We need to spur their interest–and creativity– in solving the problem of combating weapons of mass destruction. Approaching the rising generation on this issue through the lens of the information age may be one way to engage them. I do believe that our young will rise to the occasion and respond to President Obama’s words, spoken in Seoul earlier this year:

“I see the spirit we need in this endeavor -- an optimism that beats in the hearts of so many young people around the world. It’s that refusal to accept the world as it is, the imagination to see the world as it ought to be, and the courage to turn that vision into reality.”

I think he is right, and I intend to help them on their way.

Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your questions.