Chemical Reactions


WASHINGTON—Speaking at a chemical and biological weapons conference here last week, newly appointed federal antiterrorism czar Richard Clarke stridently declared that the United States “will not tolerate terrorist organizations acquiring or maintaining stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.”

Paul Walker, director of Global Green USA’s Legacy program, finds this amusing. You see, Walker has seen an actual stockpile of weapons of mass destruction that’s potentially terrorist-friendly—and is, intriguingly, tolerated by the United States.

When Walker first came upon the stockpile in question he was horrified. As a former House Armed Services Committee staffer, an ex-soldier, and head of a Cold War military cleanup organization, Walker is not unfamilliar with chemical weapons depots. And he has no real concerns about the physical security of the weapons in this country: stored on military bases in half-buried igloo bunkers of reinforced concrete, behind steel doors and one-ton cement blocks—and further protected by fences, electronic surveillance systems, security lights, and routine patrols—the possibility of perimeter penetration, let alone theft, is virtually nil.

But as Walker stood in Shchuch’ye, Russia, just miles from the Kazakhstan border, he appreciated that the same cannot be said of such weapons under the guard of the Russian military. There, in the middle of a wooded glade, sat 50-odd dilapidated metal-and-wood warehouses behind nothing more elaborate than an aging barbed-wire fence punctuated by a guard shack. Some of the warehouse windows, Walker observed, were broken. He saw that the doors were secured with rusting padlocks or bicycle locks. The handful of guards who occasionally sauntered by hadn’t been paid in months.

And they didn’t seem terribly zealous, Walker noticed, about their mission: guarding approximately 6000 tons of deadly VX nerve gas (one drop of which can kill a person instantly) in ready-for-use artillery shells and midrange missile warheads. In a country where the question is not “Will things unravel?” but “How quickly are they unraveling?” Abutting a region that is not only similarly unstable, but also home to various armed Islamist groups.

Four years later, the situation at Shchuch’ye remains largely unchanged. Though the facility is slated to get an on-site chemical weapons destruction system courtesy of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, Congress sent a bill to the president last week that throws up several obstacles to that system. As one defense budget analyst told the Voice, the administration “can spend the money [on the weapons destruction machinery] only if they send lots of paperwork to Congress—it can still be done, but it’ll be harder to do.”

Outside the relatively insular and arcane world of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), few have ever heard of Shchuch’ye. And within that world, not everyone believes it’s a potential problem. But to many, the site is a metaphor for an utterly confused and inconsistent approach—mired in political and philosophical squabbling—by the United States to countering the possibilities of WMD proliferation and terrorism.

“With regard to chemical weapons under CTR, the adjectives I would use are, for Congress, ‘wrongheaded,’ and for the Clinton administration, ‘ineffectual,”‘ says John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. “The main threat we face today is not a nuclear attack by a country, but a chemical attack by terrorists. If you look at the size of the former Soviet CBW [chemical and biological weapons] program, it utterly dwarfs anything Saddam Hussein could have dreamed of doing. The amount of the Russian chemical-weapons stockpile that would have to go missing to keep a terrorist organization in business for some time is a trivial fraction of what Russia has on hand.”

When the General Accounting Office (GAO)—Congress’s investigative arm—tried to make heads or tails earlier this year of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism, it concluded that they have, indeed, been underwhelming. The reason was simple: “[A]n apparent lack of consensus on the threat of terrorism, particularly weapons of mass destruction.”

While this conundrum may be new to a plethora of government agencies, it merely mirrors a contentious debate that’s been going on in terrorism-research circles for years. At one end are experts who take it as an article of faith that given the means and opportunity, terrorists and/or “rogue states” will unleash nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons on a large population in acts of “superterrorism.” According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Ehud Sprinzak, this view is more or less reflected in the Clinton Administration’s budget requests (worth hundreds of millions of dollars) for everything from domestic vaccine and antibiotic supplies to a multitude of federal law enforcement and intelligence programs.

At the other end are set of experts who believe that while some terrorist groups will probably use WMDs, it will be on a much smaller, more tactical scale. This faction feels that the most effective countermeasures include smaller, more efficient response units, better intelligence and research, and less alarmism. While most acts of terrorism involve death and destruction, these analysts point out, they’re directed at individual targets—an embassy, an office, a barracks, or residential building—because their goal is to draw attention and create fear based on the randomness of an attack. Or, as one ex-CIA terrorism analyst says, “Simply put, if a country or group poisoned a water supply of a whole city, it would bring the wrath of the world down upon them. Poisoning a building, on the other hand, would get attention and scare the hell out of people.”

The FBI and other federal agencies have grown more and more concerned in recent years about potential chemical and biological attacks—large-scale and small—because of the relative ease with which the weapons can be obtained. In terms of chemicals, it can simply be a matter of knowing how to mix the right stuff. Do-it-yourself chemical weaponry is, however, less than reliable; not only can dispersing the stuff be very tricky, but few lay chemists can whip up a potent brew. (Despite having money, material, and actual scientists, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult, which released deadly Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, failed to produce a truly effective batch.)

If the chemistry-set method is shunned, ready-made armaments are available in large supply—and they’re often overseen by unstable governments. “I’m not saying it’s necessarily likely, but if someone really wanted the good stuff, Russia would be a possibility,” says a former government counterterroism specialist. “While we can’t track every individual who makes his own, I’d like to think it’s not an unreasonable proposition that we should destroy vulnerable stocks of military-grade material we know of so terrorists who can afford the stuff can’t get to it.”

Instead of dispensing resources to do this, however, the U.S. government decided last year that money—over $100 million, to be precise—would be better spent on…civil defense. Called Domestic Preparedness Training (DPT), the program was run by the Pentagon and was supposed to train local police and emergency agencies how to respond to a CBW attack. Testifying before Congress two weeks ago, senior GAO analyst Richard Davis characterized the program as an ineffective part of a “fragmented and wasteful proliferation of federal efforts to cope with terrorist attacks.”

While some cities got money to buy CBW equipment, they didn’t necessarily get any training. In fact, whole swaths of the country didn’t even qualify for the program. “Twelve states have no cities in the program,” Davis told the House panel. It never occurred to DPT’s administrators to look at U.S. cities through a terrorist’s eyes.

Now the Justice Department is poised to take over the program, to be renamed the “National Domestic Preparedness Office.” Clarke, the antiterrorism czar, told a conference last week that it would be different than the Pentagon project: “We will not,” he said, “write checks and say, ‘Go and buy whatever turns you on.”‘

In the foreign realm, however, Shchuch’ye probably won’t be getting a check at all. While the government’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program has been well-regarded in arms control circles for its role in whittling down the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, Congress continues to use the bulk of CTR funds just for nukes. But according to mass destruction weapons specialists, it even does that grudgingly.

“CTR is still controversial in this Republican-controlled Congress, because the very conservative members see it as a form of foreign aid, or handout,” says Jonathan B. Tucker, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “It’s not, of course, and it’s in our interest to get rid of all WMDs—but try to explain that to the Cold War idealogue.”

Indeed, Tucker’s analysis was reflected in this year’s Defense Authorization Act—the budget for military spending. While CTR funding did get a moderate expansion, the bulk of it will go to nuclear disarmament. Elsewhere in the defense budget, hundreds of millions of dollars in increases were assigned to a variety of antimissile defense systems in the Star Wars vein. Yet the House shot down a Clinton administration request under CTR for $53.4 million to help build a chemical weapons destruction system at Shchuch’ye: “Unlike strategic nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, which pose a direct threat to U.S. security,” said a committee report, “the Russian chemical weapons stockpile poses more of a local environmental threat than it does a security threat to Americans.”

“There are, unfortunately, a number of members of Congress who still view Russia as the Evil Empire, and take the attitude of, ‘Why should Americans pay to destroy their chemcial arsenal?”‘ says Dr. Amy Smithson, a researcher at the Henry L. Stimson Center who has extensively investigated Russia’s CBW programs and facilites. “Well, I know the answer: if we don’t, it’s quite likely to end up here or fall into the wrong hands.”

However, Smithson notes, the opponents of funding for Russian chemical weapons destruction do have some valid policy points: though Russia has claimed it discontinued its chemical weapons program, there are indicators to the contrary, and the notion of giving a country that claims poverty money to destroy arms it’s still producing doesn’t strike some as a good investment or sound national security policy.

But Tucker and others point out that this is merely another layer of American hypocrisy and myopia on counter-proliferation matters vis-à-vis the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which is geared toward the gradual elimination of each nation’s chemical weapons stockpile. “While we ratified the CWC, Congress still hasn’t passed the required implementing legislation for it,” says Tucker. “We’re in a very weak position to be pointing fingers because we’re not even a member in good standing of the CWC. But conservative members of Congress never liked the CWC anyway, and are perfectly happy to see it neutralized.”

When the 1999 Defense Authorization Act emerged from the conference committee last month, senators had managed to revive the Shchuch’ye funding provision. But the money will go through only if the Clinton administration is able to produce evidence that Russia is complying with specific fiscal and policy commitments. Some, however, see the need for more urgency. A report last week in the London-based al-Hayat newspaper quoted reliable diplomatic sources saying that Osama bin Laden—the alleged mastermind behind the East Africa embassy bombings and the target of a recent U.S. bombing run—has obtained low-grade tactical nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Two intelligence community sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that while they believed the al-Hayat report to be inaccurate, “there is no doubt” that bin Laden has tried to acquire those weapons.

“But there is a big difference between using nukes and chemicals, ” one source said. “And I would say the likelihood of bin Laden having a chemical, rather than nuclear, capability is much greater. To say that there is a greater danger in terms of [the Shchuch’ye] chemical weapons facility is not unreasonable.”

Research assistance: Lauren Reynolds