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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Priorities Completely Off Kilter

WASHINGTON -- There are crates in Russia full of fences, surveillance cameras, motion sensors and other security tools, all purchased by the U.S. government as a gift to the Russian people -- and lying unused. These supplies, provided under the Nunn-Lugar Act, were meant for security improvements at nuclear facilities; instead they sit unopened, gathering dust.

Why? The Russians say they can't afford to install the equipment. The Pentagon says it would be happy to help, but that this must be done by the book; Federal Acquisitions Regulations prevent the U.S. government from paying for work it can't inspect. The Russians counter they can't have the Pentagon snooping around "inspecting." So, stalemate.

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The existence of the unopened crates was confirmed by current and former Nunn-Lugar officials, though no one would share much detail. And unopened crates are an exception: Nunn-Lugar has upgraded security around a third of Russia's weapons-grade uranium and plutonium; it has dismantled or destroyed more than 5,000 Soviet warheads, along with hundreds of ballistic missiles, bombers, submarines and silos.

But mindless bureaucratic roadblocks are also part of Nunn-Lugar and oddly there's no sign they are being swept away by the winds of Sept. 11.

This spring, for example, as preparations loomed for the Moscow summit, the Pentagon quietly "unplugged" its Nunn-Lugar work -- because it wants more information about Russia's chemical and biological weapons programs. As Assistant Defense Secretary J.D. Crouch II testified before the Senate in March, one of the "emerging opportunities" for Nunn-Lugar work is that it "can be leveraged to increase transparency." In other words: We can take our ball and go home if the Russians don't like our rules. (Never mind that doing so hobbles the Bush-Putin arms control deal -- Nunn-Lugar money has dismantled Russian weapons reduced under all recent agreements, and now it can't. So, the Kremlin will store nukes it would prefer to destroy.)

It's not enough to be able to cut up Russian nukes for pennies and to protect America from the clear and present danger of, say, unsecured plutonium? No, the Pentagon says, we need to something extra.

Consider a facility in the Ural Mountains town of Shchuchye to destroy thousands of tons of sarin, the gas used in Aum Shinri Kyo's 1995 assault on the Tokyo subway. (Many trace Aum's sarin to Soviet stocks.) Congress has allocated the money to build Shchuchye, but the Pentagon won't spend it. According to Jon Wolfstahl, a former Energy Department official, the Pentagon is using Shchuchye to "leverage transparency" by demanding 24-hour access to any facility of any kind anywhere in Russia (!) to look for chemical weapons -- including, presumably, in Putin's sock drawer. With demands so extreme, it's hard to see how the Pentagon keeps a straight face.

All this monkeying around seems unforgivable in a post-Sept. 11 world. Where are the presidents of Russia and the United States? Why aren't they demanding harsh new security for bomb-grade uranium, pushing the destruction of sarin stocks, and opening those crates?

Laura Holgate, a former head of the Pentagon's Nunn-Lugar programs, says crate-opening compromises have been debated -- such as having someone hold a day's newspaper up next to a newly installed fence and take a Polaroid -- but to little result. "FAR rules were never designed to govern assistance to disarm a former enemy. Yet there's no authority to ignore them," says Holgate, who is now with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private group set up by Ted Turner and run by former Senator Sam Nunn.

The NTI will spend 250 million of Turner's dollars on nonproliferation work in Russia. But, the Pentagon warns, they'd better be careful -- we don't want them subsidizing the Rooskies! As Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Marshall Billingslea -- a former staffer for Senator Jesse Helms and avowed skeptic of the Nunn-Lugar work -- told Congress, the NTI represents, among other things, a "challenge for the U.S. government." Yes, they can help, but they best not "wind up inadvertently subsidizing weapons programs."

Are we really resurrecting this long-dead "subsidy" argument? Let's be clear: gazillion-dollar cash drops to the Kremlin from the IMF? Yes, that subsidizes all sorts of marginal behavior, including war in Chechnya. But paying contractors to perform concrete jobs, like putting up fences and cutting up ICBMs -- jobs the Russians have shrugged at and neglected for years? That's merely buying our own priorities. It frees up no new money for "weapons programs" because the Russians aren't spending any on this to begin with. (Intriguingly, candidate-for-president Bush got this right: He slammed IMF loans as subsidizing corruption, but praised the well-audited Nunn-Lugar work.)

Nunn-Lugar spending comes to about $1.3 billion annually -- or, as Senator Richard Lugar noted in a March speech, less than three-tenths of a percent of the Pentagon's annual budget. Compare that to, say, the estimated $21.2 billion over 10 years in tax giveaways to the oil and gas companies Bush's party advocates -- or the $7.6 billion the White House seeks for a national missile defense that probably won't work -- and the administration's post-Sept. 11 priorities seem staggeringly off kilter.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].