Reading Room

Congressional Commission Releases "Disappointing" Report

After deliberating for a year, the bi-partisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States finally released its report in May.

Upon reading it, the first three words that come to mind are: "disappointing," "mishmash" and "regressive." Here's why... (click in)

First, a little context. The commission was initiated by Rep. Ellen Tauscher and established through the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008. It "stood up" in April 2008. The commission's makeup was "bipartisan," meaning that the Democrats chose half the members and the Republicans chose half. While this makes sense conceptually, the outcome did not.

For example, the Democrats chose former Livermore Lab director Bruce Tarter to fill one of the "D" slots. The Republicans countered with former Livermore Lab director Johnny Foster. Thus, in a very real way, the nuclear policy debate was between one former nuclear weapons lab director and another. Big surprise, then, that one of the key recommendations of the report is for Congress to increase the funding for the nuclear weapons complex. Big surprise, too, that transitioning Livermore Lab out of the nuclear weapons complex and into civilian science initiatives appears to have never been considered. (Click into the link at the bottom of this analysis for the commission's report and full membership list.)

Given the commission's makeup, it is understandable, though still regrettable, that this new report reads like "old news." It provides no bold vision for the United States in the 21st Century. It fails to fully support, let alone advance, President Barack Obama's stated objective of orienting U.S. policy toward a nuclear weapons free world. Its policy recommendations break no new ground and flounder repeatedly on the crosscurrents of old arguments.

On the plus side, the report does contain a few good, albeit tepid, recommendations. It endorses a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. In general terms, it recommends some reduction in the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles, suggests strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, and contains good-sounding words about stemming nuclear proliferation and providing global leadership on nuclear weapons issues.

On the negative side, the report endorses the Dept. of Energy (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) "Complex Transformation" plan to revitalize the nuclear weapons complex. One interesting aspect of the commission's analysis is that it disagrees with the NNSA that "Complex Transformation" can be implemented without increasing the agency's annual weapons budget. The commission says that "Complex Transformation" will be costly. Then, it essentially says that Congress should guarantee the NNSA however much money the agency might want for its new bomb plants.

Absent from the commission's report is any analysis of alternatives to "Complex Transformation." Tri-Valley CAREs submitted detailed comments on an alternative approach that would shrink the weapons complex -- including an extensive analysis of how "Curatorship," an alternative to stockpile stewardship, would lead to closure of dozens of current nuclear weapons facilities and not require the new bomb plants outlined in NNSA's "preferred alternative." (Click here for Part One of our public comment, and here for Part Two.)

Many across the country also provided comments. During the public comment period on the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for "Complex Transformation" a record number of people, about 140,000 strong, opposed the scheme.

Yet, page 49 of the commission's report blithely states, "NNSA issued a formal record of decision adopting plans to modify the weapons complex according to a 'preferred alternative' which has been subject to extensive review and public comment. This plan would maintain all of the existing sites."

Based on this wording, the casual reader might easily believe that the people had endorsed NNSA's plan, rather than the opposite!

It is difficult to overstate the commission's failure to critically examine "Complex Transformation." The commission lauds all of NNSA's proposed new bomb plants and then goes on to specifically prioritize construction of a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos Lab. Not exactly what the American people said they wanted. Nor the direction in which the country's nuclear policy should be moving.

Another set of wrong-headed recommendations involves the commission's idea that NNSA suffers from too much, rather than too little, regulation. Their prescription? Untether NNSA from DOE and make it into its own agency, eliminating as much outside oversight of NNSA as possible in the process. If anything, this recommendation demonstrates that if one fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem, then one's solution is not likely to be helpful.

The report is equally misguided on a number of other nuclear weapons issues. It promotes the idea of "extended deterrence," whereby U.S. nuclear weapons "protect" our allies, which provides a rationale for keeping our nukes far into the future and also serves to legitimize U.S. nuclear weapons when we should be doing just the opposite.

The report downplays and rationalizes U.S. programs that "modernize" our nuclear arsenal and then sounds the alarm about Russian and Chinese "modernization" programs, in particular. The specifics of the commission's analysis on this topic are debatable. On a more basic level, the report's overall failure to provide an even-handed analysis feeds into an unfounded paranoia that the U.S. is about to "fall behind" these other countries, when that is demonstrably not the case.

One of the most interesting chapters in the report involves the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the U.S. signed but has yet to ratify. President Obama has said that securing the treaty's ratification by the U.S. Senate is a priority of his Administration. The commission's report fails to support the President's policy objective, declaring that the commission was split on the merits of the CTBT. While the commission's stance is disappointing, the report nonetheless provides a useful glimpse into the thinking of CTBT opponents.

Overall, perhaps the best thing that can be said about the commission's report is that President Obama's goal of moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons has vastly overshadowed it.

Global nuclear disarmament is a popular idea on the rise. Obama has captured the public's imagination and support. In this environment, the commission's report is receiving less public and media attention than it might otherwise have gotten.

However, the Obama Administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has only just begun. The new NPR is scheduled for completion in December 2009 and release in January 2010. We can only hope that the commission's backward-looking report is engendering the same yawn from the Defense Dept. that it is getting from the public.

Click here for a PDF of the commission's report.

Click here for a newsletter article and here for a PDF of a nuclear posture and policy report by 6 non-governmental organizations that provides a more cohesive, positive and forward-looking vision.