A threat we must eliminate

September 20, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Even as President Bush pushes for war to keep weapons of mass destruction in Iraq out of the hands of terrorists, some House Republicans are jeopardizing as much as $70 million in U.S. aid for destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles in Russia next year.

Among the projects imperiled is the destruction of a massive amount of such weapons at a storage facility at Shchuchye in Siberia. Congress has prohibited the use of federal funds on grounds the Russians are not coming clean on what they have. Also, Mr. Bush lacks authority to waive a congressional requirement that he certify the Russians are in compliance with arms control treaty obligations.

The matter is tied up in a House-Senate Appropriations Committee conference, where the presidential waiver authority is a sticking point with House Republicans despite the Bush administration's desire for it. Unless this authority is extended to the president, millions intended for chemical weapons destruction will be lost, according to Sen. Richard Lugar, the chief proponent.

Although the United States and Russia ratified a Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 with pledges to destroy all chemical weapons in 10 years, the Indiana Republican says "virtually none of Russia's declared 40,000 metric tons have been destroyed to date" and the program "remains stalled by congressional requirements."

Holding up administration certification of Russian compliance with arms control agreements, according to Mr. Lugar's office, are concerns over the openness of four former biological weapons facilities and lack of information about former chemical weapons programs.

The Bush administration, while not ready to certify Russian compliance, would use the new waiver, if available. But the administration, Mr. Lugar says, hasn't been able to get it from the House, "even in the midst of the war on terrorism and the horrendous danger posed by small shell proliferation."

Mr. Lugar is co-author of a program under which about $400 million a year over the last decade has been spent destroying weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. He says that unless the congressional impasse is broken, the U.S.-financed program will face a "standstill" for many months in the next fiscal year.

Mr. Lugar visited the Shchuchye facility in Russia in May and says he was told the chemical weapons stored there in simple barn-like structures could kill the world's population 20 times over.

The problem of congressional inaction appeared to be much more serious earlier this summer. Also in jeopardy was the broader program of weapons destruction, including nuclear weapons, that was fashioned by Mr. Lugar and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia in 1991. It is known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

The Bush administration held up more than $300 million in funds for this fiscal year, also on grounds of Russian noncompliance, after nine years of presidential certification. But Congress recently approved the spending for all but the chemical weapons destruction, with key House Republicans balking on grounds of Russian noncompliance in this one area.

According to Mr. Lugar, congressional requirements have halted the destruction of nearly 2 million modern chemical artillery shells and Scud missile warheads at the Shchuchye facility. The weapons, he said, "are in excellent working condition. ... Many are small and easily transportable, and could be deadly in the hands of terrorists, religious sects or paramilitary units."

Mr. Lugar ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 in part to spotlight the problem of Soviet weapons of mass destruction. One of his campaign television ads depicted terrorists hijacking a plane carrying a nuclear device. His campaign went nowhere.

He and Mr. Nunn remain in the forefront of the effort and have been instrumental in the removal of all nuclear weapons from the former Soviet states of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakstan, but the problem remains in Russia.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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