Selling Self-Destruction: The Perils of Perry & Co.

The Washington Post
February 6, 1994, p. C3

Are They Soft on Nuclear Proliferation for the Sake of the Arms Industry?

“Sensible and safe.” That was the verdict of the New York Times and almost everyone else when President Clinton nominated William Perry last month to be Secretary of Defense. In fact, for all the impression of blandness he conveyed as he sailed through last week’s Senate confirmation hearings, some of Perry’s views are deeply troubling – especially those on the spread of nuclear arms.

Perry makes no secret of his hostility to export controls. When he was being confirmed a year ago as Les Aspin’s deputy, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it was a “hopeless task” to control technology that is “dual-use” – capable of making nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, bit also having civilian applications. Perry said “it only interferes with a company’s ability to succeed internationally.”

But dual-use technology is precisely what Saddam Hussein imported from the West during the 1980s to build his nuclear, chemical and missile programs. This puts Perry’s views in opposition to those of, for example, U.N. inspectors in Iraq. Without “strict maintenance of export controls by the industrialized nations,” the inspectors have warned in their reports, Saddam will revive his war machine.

The Iraqis, for example, claimed that they needed high-performance vacuum furnaces to cast artificial limbs for soldiers injured in the war with Iran. But U.N. inspectors found that the Iraqis used these furnaces to cast nuclear bomb components.

Almost everything needed to make a nuclear weapon is dual-use and current export laws reflect that fact. The Iraqis bought dual-use isostatic presses to shape nuclear bomb parts, dual-use mass spectrometers to sample bomb fuel, and dual-use electron beam welders to increase the range of Scud missiles. There is no hope of stopping development of an Iraqi bomb without controlling such exports.

Curiously, Perry and his line-up of ex-academics make the Pentagon weaker now on the proliferation issue than it was under Presidents Reagan or Bush. During the tenure of Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, the Pentagon listened carefully to industry–a natural thing for Republicans–but never agreed to junk export controls. It even dug in its heels and blocked deals that State and Commerce wanted to approve.

Now, under Perry, there appears to be no institutional counterweight to the pro-export pressure of industry and its allies in the Commerce and State departments. A Pentagon expert on clandestine trade complains that “under Perry, the Pentagon is de-controlling things faster than we can track the ships carrying them.”

“We are trying to figure out how to bomb the things the United States is now exporting,” says one long-time Pentagon arms control specialist. A key congressional aide asserts that Perry, a former electronics executive, “wants to protect the defense industry, so he is trying to cushion the blow from the current budget cuts. Unfortunately, that translates into lowering the gates for exports.”

Perry’s office last week was called repeatedly for a response, but declined to comment.

None of the several Pentagon staff members interviewed for this article agreed to be named, but they did agree, in the words of one, that “we now have four layers of bosses who don’t believe in export controls.” The reference is to the Perry team: Frank Wisner, an undersecretary; Ashton Carter, an assistant secretary, and Mitchell Wallerstein, Carter’s deputy.

For the past year, Wisner has been scaling back the export controls on missile technology–controls laboriously built up under Reagan and Bush. The new policy is to sell large rocket technology immediately to Australia, Italy and Spain, and eventually to Argentina, South Korea and Taiwan.

The rockets are meant to be used as satellite launchers, and their sale is supposed to entice more countries to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, a pact among the major industrial countries to curb missile exports. But Pentagon rocket experts ridicule the idea; they call it “missiles for peace.”

The Pentagon fought the idea under Bush, for good reason. Selling other countries rockets in exchange for a promise not to sell missiles is like giving people donuts to join the health club. Space rockets can perform the same missions as ICBMs.

Nor do countries without missile industries need to acquire launchers: It is much cheaper to hire another country’s launcher to put up satellites than to build one’s own. This point is beyond dispute–it was amply supported in a Pentagon-sponsored RAND study in mid-1993. Finally, there is the risk that U.S. rocket technology could wind up in Iran, Iraq or Libya because buyers like Spain and Italy cannot control their own exports.

In August, the Senate’s five leading experts on arms control protested Wisner’s plan in a letter to the White House. In the letter, Sens. Jeff Bingaman, John Glenn, Jesse Helms, John McCain and Claiborne Pell warned that space launchers “are essentially indistinguishable” from missiles and predicted that Wisner’s plan would “eviscerate the Missile Technology Control Regime.”

The senators have picked up support recently from the CIA. In a secret study declassified last November, the CIA found that a space launcher “could be converted relatively quickly by technologically advanced countries (in about one or two years) to a surface-to-surface missile.” This bit of caution applies precisely in the case of Spain, which, according to Defense News and Jane’s Defence Weekly, is developing a three-stage missile capable of reaching Morocco or Algeria.

Ashton Carter, a former Harvard professor, has been named assistant secretary for nuclear security and counter-proliferation. “Counter” rather than “non” proliferation is the new Pentagon credo. It emphasizes high-tech military solutions to cure proliferation after it happens, rather than diplomacy and export controls to prevent it in the first place.

In a September briefing, Carter tried to explain this idea to congressional aides who specialize in defense issues. After saying in effect that he was not interested in export controls, one of these aides recalls, he shocked his listeners by proposing that the United States give nuclear weapon safety devices (the electronic “locks” that make warheads safe to handle) to nuclear weapon aspirants like Pakistan.

Carter, asked last week to comment on the reported conversation, declined to do so. Carter, according to one of his staff, apparently did not know that such aid to Pakistan would violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bars the United States from helping other countries build the bomb.

According to members of his staff, this mistake was typical of Carter, whom they term naive. In a recent discussion of India’s two reactors at Tarapur, Carter proposed that the United States start selling them nuclear fuel. The reactors are in jeopardy of shutting down this year because France, which is now fueling them, is cutting off supplies to countries like India that reject the Nonproliferation Treaty. Carter apparently did not know that the United States itself fueled the reactors until 1982, when further U.S. supply became illegal under the U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation Act.

Counter-proliferation also means targeting new countries with U.S. missiles and bombs – not a promising idea. U.S. planes did not destroy a single operational Scud missile during the Gulf War, despite around-the-clock trying. Nor did U.S. Patriot missiles knock down many Scuds in the air. Nor did U.S. planes destroy Saddam’s nuclear weapon program–the Pentagon did not know where it was. And if war should erupt on the Korean peninsula, our pilots will have no greater chance of hitting Pyongyang’s stock of nuclear fuel. Instead of an effective strategy, counter-proliferation appears to be mostly a ploy for rescuing the Pentagon’s Cold War budget.

Carter was not a hit at the Capitol Hill briefing; the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees refused to find his counter-proliferation project. A member of Carter’s own staff used a colorful phrase to describe the policy: “the Clinton people believe the cure for proliferation is an enema delivered by a B-52.”

Carter’s deputy is Mitchell Wallerstein, formerly at MIT, whose new job is to figure out how to target U.S. nuclear warheads on third world bomb makers. But Wallerstein has no background in nuclear weapons or strategy. His only relevant experience was at the National Academy of Sciences, where he led industry-dominated studies decrying export controls.

In the opinion of a senior Pentagon analyst, the new policy contains a “logical disconnect.” Outgoing Secretary Les Aspin warned in October that if rogue nations get the bomb, they “may not be deterrable” by U.S. nuclear weapons. But, says the analyst, “if these nations are ‘undeterrable,’ we should be willing to pay a high price to stop them from getting the bomb. Yet we are not willing to pay the price of export controls, which is one of the best ways to stop them.”

Industry appears to have convinced the Clinton administration that dropping export controls will create jobs, but export controls have only a microscopic effect on employment. The total American economy was about $6 trillion in 1992. Of that, only 7.5 per cent ($448 billion) was exported as goods. And of the exports, less than $24 billion, four tenths of one percent of the economy, even went through export licensing. Finally, only $790 million worth of export applications were denied–that is about one hundredth of one percent of the U.S. economy and less than half the cost of a B-2 bomber.

The real impact of export controls is strategic. They can buy the time needed to turn a country off the nuclear weapon path. Argentina and Brazil agreed to give up nuclear weapons mainly because of the costs that export controls imposed upon them. And in Iraq, secret documents found by the U.N. showed that export controls on dual-use equipment seriously hampered the Iraqi nuclear weapon design team. Dual-use controls are now hampering India’s effort to build an ICBM.

At last week’s brief confirmation hearing, Perry should have been asked why he is abandoning export controls, as well as these questions: If regulating dual-use exports is as “hopeless” as he says, why is the U.N. monitoring such exports in Iraq? Why did the Bush administration decide to deny such exports to Iran? Why has Perry ignored the objections of the five Senators who want to stop the spread of missile technology?

We are now passing the third anniversary of the Gulf War. Have we already forgotten its lesson? U.S. pilots died to bomb equipment that Western companies sold Saddam. As one Pentagon official puts it: “When you talk about export controls, you’re not talking about politics, you’re talking about body bags.”