National Security

Radioactive Decay

We can't keep relying on a Vietnam-era treaty to stop nuclear proliferation.

In a recent Foreign Policy piece Mark Hibbs offered a unique "fly-on-the-wall" perspective into the Byzantine internal machinations of the International Atomic Energy Agency as it seeks to update its safeguards procedures for nuclear materials in various countries. Though well intentioned, it appears such ad hoc tinkering with the architecture of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty safeguards system is fast running into a brick wall: many member states, citing the prerogative of national sovereignty, do not wish to extend the scope of the safeguards to which they have already agreed. And, really, no one can legally force them to.

Instead of trying to coax new tricks out of a tired old dog, what is now needed is a fresh grand bargain -- an NPT 2.0 -- that cuts through the thicket of the convoluted and endless eye-watering legal debates and actually brings about greater global security. One such idea would be to offer swift and truly massive arms reductions by the states that have nuclear weapons in exchange for much stricter curbs on the types of nuclear activities permitted in states without nuclear weapons. And instead of helping developing nations with just 1960s-era nuclear power as the current NPT prescribes, an NPT 2.0 could also encourage technologically advanced states to assist with energy efficiency and modern renewables.

The NPT has three main tenets, or "pillars" in the lingo: the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology by all signatory states; eventual nuclear disarmament by the "nuclear haves"; and the recognition of the inalienable right of signatory states to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The treaty also calls upon the technologically advanced nations to promote the further development of peaceful nuclear energy in lesser developed nations. These pillars are commonly seen as a simple bargain: in the words of Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., "the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals."

Over the years, for reasons good and bad, this bargain has become increasingly skewed. Aside from the non-weaponization obligations -- which apply only to states without nukes and which are ever more aggressively interpreted -- the United States, and most other nuclear-weapon states, no longer appear enthusiastic about the other tenets of the NPT. To the extent that the nuclear haves are interested in disarmament, this is completely divorced from any pressure they perceive from the NPT. Such nuclear arms reductions are typically negotiated bilaterally between the United States and Russia and proceed at their own sweet pace. (Between them, the United States and Russia possess roughly 18,000 nuclear weapons -- 95 percent of the world total.) This is despite the fact that the International Court of Justice interprets the NPT's nuclear disarmament clause as a legally binding obligation -- although, admittedly, it too does not impose any timeframe to accomplish this goal.

Advanced states are also no longer particularly eager to help develop nuclear energy in developing nations -- and this is actually a good thing. It is a dangerous and inherently dual-use technology and there ought to be no imperative to disseminate it world-wide, as there is in the NPT. It may have been seen as a panacea technology back when color television was still a novelty, but its dangerous underbelly -- in terms of safety, security, and waste -- has since been amply exposed.

Basically, the NPT encapsulates some dangerous and outdated prescriptions to proliferate dual-use nuclear technology while simultaneously not really having the teeth to hold nuclear-weapons states to their disarmament obligations. The one thing that those (politically powerful) states -- who also just happen to be the U.N. Security Council nations -- can seem to agree on, and one of the main reasons the treaty continues to be championed by these influential nations, is that it does still provide some legal barriers to help prevent other states from building nuclear weapons. But only some.

The articles of the treaty are sufficiently vague that the actual implementation of the NPT's "non-proliferation" and "peaceful uses" articles is done via very precise Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements negotiated bilaterally between the IAEA and individual states; more than 140 such agreements exist. These safeguards agreements spell out exactly the purpose and scope of IAEA inspections in various states. In order to preserve national sovereignty, such agreements are typically very narrowly focused and don't give the IAEA much legal scope to carry out wide-ranging investigations into nuclear-weapons related activities.

For instance, the IAEA-Iran safeguards agreement's "exclusive purpose" is to verify that nuclear material "is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." Nothing else is covered. It does not cover computations possibly relevant to nuclear weaponry, nor does it pertain to conventional weapons testing, even if such research may be relevant to nuclear weaponry. This may be why Iran feels fully justified in denying the IAEA access to its Parchin military base, about which allegations of conventional explosives work in the 1990s, possibly related to future nuclear weaponization plans, have been made. As the former U.K. ambassador to the IAEA, Peter Jenkins sums up, "it's questionable whether all the activities for which Iranian cooperation has been sought imply with adequate credibility the possibility of undeclared nuclear material."

The limited legal authority of the IAEA to carry out inspections is definitely a flaw -- from the perspective of the IAEA, at least -- but such restrictions on the IAEA were purposefully introduced to preserve a measure of national sovereignty. Even if a state has no illicit nuclear work to hide it may not be comfortable with inspectors traipsing all over the country inspecting all and sundry. This restriction on the IAEA's legal purview is similar to the limits placed upon the police. The police have a mandate to stop crime, but they do not have the legal authority to inspect your bedroom at 3am. As a society we have delimited the police's legal authority in many ways. The same was done with the IAEA. Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director of safeguards at the IAEA, summed it up well: "The [IAEA] Department of Safeguards doesn't have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate and to provide the assurances the international community is expecting."

In order to partly redress this shortcoming, the "Additional Protocol" was introduced: this voluntary measure allows the IAEA to conduct more intrusive inspections than are normally permitted. But the operative word here is "voluntary": if nations do not want to subject themselves to enhanced IAEA inspections -- such as Iran, Brazil, Argentina, and many others -- they need not do so. As the IAEA itself states, without an Additional Protocol in place, "absent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency's legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited."

Besides proposing the optional Additional Protocol to try to tamp down on illicit activity, the agency has also become increasingly reliant on intelligence information provided by third-parties to ferret out clandestine nuclear activity in certain signatory states. Unfortunately, this provision can and has been misused by third parties repeatedly, and also opens up the IAEA to accusations of politicization. There is also an obvious danger that the intelligence flow may become two-way, with the IAEA providing information to some member states' intelligence services. This has been a problem in the past: in pre-war Iraq, members of the U.N. weapons inspection agency, UNSCOM, often provided information back to their intelligence services. David Kay, the agency's chief weapons inspector, later admitted: "Well, I think it was a Faustian bargain. The intelligence communities of the world had the only expertise that you could use if you were unmasking a clandestine program.... I realize it was always a bargain with the Devil -- spies spying. The longer it continued, the more the intelligence agencies would...decide that they had to use the access they got through cooperation with UNSCOM to carry out their missions."

Now, as Mark Hibbs reports, the IAEA seems to have unilaterally informed members that under new "State-Level" safeguards each country will be subject to a unique but also non-negotiable safeguards regimen. The entire safeguards system appears to be morphing into a bizarre extra-judicial Rube Goldberg contraption that even signatory nations don't understand.

There is obviously a limit to how far the non-nuclear-weapon states will allow themselves to be placed under such increasingly onerous and labyrinthine (and at times, even contradictory) safeguards requirements while the nuclear-weapon states show little interest in taking their own disarmament obligations seriously. That limit is now being reached. This is not because most states without nuclear weapons have any interest in acquiring them -- or even acquiring nuclear energy for that matter -- but because the perception of the equitable bargain at the heart of the NPT has been destroyed. It's simply a matter of dignity and fairness even before any legalese is parsed.

The so-called "gang of four" -- George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn -- put it well: the "continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the principal element for deterrence is encouraging, or at least excusing, the spread of these weapons, and will inevitably erode the essential cooperation necessary to avoid proliferation."

So what's the way out -- what would an NPT 2.0 look like? A bold new bargain would offer a "more-for-more" deal. The nuclear-weapon states -- or at least Russia and the United States, with a hefty 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons between them - would offer swift and drastic reductions in their weapons stockpiles in exchange for the outright elimination of nuclear fuel processing activities (such as dual-use uranium enrichment and plutonium processing) in non-nuclear weapon states.

The chief of the Air Force's Strategic Plans and Policy Division recently argued that the United States could easily go down to 311 nuclear weapons -- instead of the 8,000 or so (deployed and reserve) we now hang around our neck as "bling," out of little more than Cold War inertia. Russia and other nuclear-weapon states could also make similar dramatic cuts in their arsenals without affecting deterrence one iota. In fact, such cuts ought not be seen as a concession at all: as Prof. Martin Hellman has persuasively argued, nuclear deterrence is not risk-free -- the 60-odd years of no accidental or unauthorized nuclear war only places very weak limits on how much longer our luck will hold out. Offshore oil drilling was also considered very safe for 50 years until the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Nuclear deterrence is perfectly safe until it isn't. The point is that any more nuclear weapons than the absolute bare minimum entails extra risk for us -- not to mention cost. It is in our own self-interest to dispose of them as soon as possible.

And, in return for such cuts, instead of individual non-nuclear-weapon states processing their own nuclear fuel, multinational fuel banks could be set-up to centralize and control nuclear material transfers. With the enormous amounts saved by slashing the budgets for nuclear weapons upkeep, the United States and Russia and other nuclear-weapon states could also help fund the IAEA to run and oversee such fuel banks. There would also be plenty of money left over for boosting the budget of the IAEA safeguards department so that it could better monitor nuclear transfers from the fuel banks in signatory nations. While certain non-nuclear-weapon states may be hesitant to give up fuel cycle activities altogether, inducements could be offered to reduce such activities to research-level programs.

A notable difference between the NPT and NPT 2.0 would have to be that the updated version would not encourage the propagation of nuclear power. Aside from a few spectacular disasters, nuclear power has been reasonably successful in most advanced nations -- but only because of overt and covert government subsidies. However, these subsidies and the attendant political favoritism have in fact harmed the nuclear industry by perpetuating subpar and, in some cases, outright dangerous reactor designs.

In the United States -- the biggest user of nuclear power -- the industry continues to receive enormous insurance bail-outs under the ancient 1957 Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability of the nuclear industry in case of a major nuclear accident and artificially cheapens the price it pays for insurance. As a result, nuclear power itself appears artificially cheap, one among several reasons that it continues to displace renewables and other energy sources in the not-so-free-market. If the nuclear industry had to buy its own insurance on the free-market, nuclear power -- at least the current incarnations of it -- would be unaffordably expensive. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that many nuclear suppliers have explicitly said that "without Price-Anderson coverage, they would not participate in the nuclear industry." Another covert subsidy is that governments worldwide underwrite nuclear waste disposal.

If an industry that has benefited from massive government research and development and other subsidies for more than five decades, and which creates staggering unresolved waste disposal problems, raises proliferation issues, and poses serious risks to human health, cannot survive without government support, then perhaps it should be left to its fate in the free market.

And the same goes for all energy sources: removing subsidies and pricing all types of power right will make them all more expensive, which will encourage much needed conservation and innovation all-around. In fact, a truly free market may well come up with cost-effective and safer new nuclear power reactors, but not if the dodgy old designs simultaneously continue to be heavily subsidized. One thing that certainly does not make sense is to have a treaty to force-feed a flawed and dangerous Beatles-era technology to developing nations, as the NPT now does. Just as there is no treaty to send landline rotary phone technology to developing nations in the era of cell phones, there's also no pressing reason to pass on outdated nuclear technology to non-nuclear-weapon states.

Nuclear power advocates often claim that the imperative of climate change argues for "zero carbon" nuclear power. But life-cycle carbon emissions from nuclear power are far from zero: the uranium has to be mined, milled, and transported, and the plant itself has to be constructed and decommissioned, and the waste disposed of -- all of which are carbon intensive steps. A study published in Energy Policy found that nuclear power emits roughly twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, and six times as much as onshore wind farms. And as the available uranium ore grades progressively decline this equation will only worsen for nuclear.

So the current NPT provision that technologically advanced nations and the nuclear-weapon states provide nuclear know-how to lesser developed states could be augmented -- or even replaced -- in a NPT 2.0 by a clause encouraging the transfer of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology as well.

The bottom line is that, although the NPT has done its job well for 40-plus years, it is already many years past time to critically examine its fundamental tenets to see if they still make any sense. Nuclear power is not the panacea it was thought to be back when cars had tailfins. And the states that have nuclear weapons -- especially Russia and the United States -- don't have any need for their vastly bloated and hyper-expensive nuclear stockpiles.

The 1960s-era NPT has been a swell ride, but the wheels are now coming off -- we need to stop tinkering with the dangerous old jalopy and get a new, safer, ride.

National Archives


Spoiler Alert

I know counterterrorism and the CIA -- and almost everything in Homeland is ridiculous. But I'm still watching.

Every era needs its heroes and villains. Eighty years ago, gangsters and G-men were the Depression's meme and the funny pages of newspapers across the country had comic strips devoted to the dispensation of law, order, and justice. The standard story arc involved pillars of probity like the lantern-jawed lawman, Dick Tracy, whose one mission in life was to bring to justice a variety of nefarious malefactors. Invariably, these criminals had evocative names like B.B. Eyes, Prune Face, Lips Marlis, and Flatop Jones. And their pursuit claimed every waking moment of Dick Tracy's life -- at great personal cost and to the exclusion of any amorous relationships. Over the course of weeks, and sometimes months, a series of three or four black and white panels on weekdays (and double that on Sundays) conveyed the cleverly executed, but flawed crime; the investigation and epiphany; the criminal's desperate flight and lawman's relentless chase; before climaxing with the inevitable denouement of the arrest or death of that strip's reprobate lawbreaker.

In 21st-century America, however, no one reads the papers anymore and while crime dramas are still a staple of cable television, gangsters and crooks are no longer America's public enemy number one. Today, even in our post-Osama bin Laden world, it's terrorists who embody our worst fears -- and stereotypes. Although some come from this country, their ringleaders are invariably shadowy foreigners with dark skin, heavy beards, bushy eyebrows, and strange sounding names like "Abu Nazir." Nor are they any longer pursued exclusively by stalwart, upstanding, manifestly WASP males. Instead, emotional, mentally unstable women and brainy Jews -- commanded by an appropriately diverse melting pot of Americans representing a variety of races and creeds (some of whom are as morally compromised as the terrorists they are hunting) -- are our flawed heroes. This, at least, is what the hit Showtime television series, Homeland, would have us believe.

It is ironic that, at a time when most Americans are bummed out by the war on terror, have largely forgotten about Iraq, and desperate to turn their collective backs on the Middle East and focus on nation building at home, this series ceaselessly reminds us of what most of us would so dearly like to ignore. Like a child's need to believe in monsters or ghosts, perhaps, Americans are riveted by Homeland and captivated by the prospect of terrorist blowback -- mostly because of the series' two maddeningly compelling central characters, the über-CIA agent Carrie Mathison, magisterially played by Claire Danes, and the U.S. Marine sergeant turned terrorist, Nicholas Brody, brought believably to life by British actor Damian Lewis.

But as much fun as Homeland is to everyone (critics, bloggers and the inside-the-Beltway set alike), it is also profoundly annoying to anyone who has studied terrorism or worked at the CIA, given the fantastical depiction of both terrorists and the intelligence officers who pursue them. Homeland's implausible plot twists and hackneyed story lines, cartoonish characters, and contrived cliffhangers are already a staple of Internet blogs, virtual newsmagazines, and discussions around the office water cooler. But living and working in Washington, D.C., it's the cardboard terrorists, conniving bureaucrats, and all the other attendant caricatures of the war on the terror's dramatic personae that, until this past Sunday's season finale, would elicit the greatest sighs and most audible moans on Monday mornings.

Take Abu Nazir, the series' arch-villain. The actor Navid Negahban looks more like a GQ model than any of the al Qaeda terrorists who have surfaced -- and, in many cases, have also been killed -- over the past decade. Contrast his nattily-knotted keffiyeh (men's headscarf) and sharply tailored salwar kameez, his svelte and cerebral appearance and haughty demeanor, for example, to the well-known photograph of the bedraggled, unshaven slovenly-looking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 112001, attacks who was captured in 2003 wearing a dirty white t-shirt that barely covered his protruding pot belly. Or how about his maniacal nephew, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, whose mug shot depicts nothing grander than a mindless, homicidal fanatic? Crazed killer, yes. Suave, articulate terrorist intellect like Abu Nazir? Not quite.

Even Homeland's female American turncoats are far more presentable and persuasive than their real-life counterparts. The incompetence and flippancy of an abject fool like Coleen LaRose, the self-described, "petite, blond, blue-eyed" suburban Philadelphia house-wife turned terrorist wannabe, with the moniker, "Jihad Jane," whose half-baked plans and poor OPSEC got her several decades' incarceration in a U.S. penitentiary, stands in marked contrast to Abu Nazir's nefarious American operative, Aileen Morgan -- the monomaniacal, relentlessly driven, white-bread American terrorist, who browbeats her college professor husband into serving (and dying for) Nasir's cause.

Alas, though, there is an uncomfortable kernel of truth in another of Abu Nazir's U.S.-based minions, the television news reporter, Roya Hammad. It was two al Qaeda terrorists posing as a Belgian television news crew, of course, who effected the assassination of the Afghan warrior Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001 -- thus paving the way for the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. two days later.

But there's a lot here that doesn't register. In real life, male terrorists have to martyr themselves in a suicide bomb attack to ascend to heaven and partake of the pleasures of the houri -- the fabled, beautiful 72 dark-eyed virgins. In Homeland, however, you just have to sign on with Abu Nazir's crew, get hooked up with his bagman, Prince Farid Bin Abbud, and gain access to a yacht-full of babes pre-screened and pre-selected both for their libidinous desires and kinky inclinations. Bin Laden and crew, by comparison, had to make do with pornography downloaded onto computers in their joyless, landlocked lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The heroes in Homeland are even more ludicrous than the bad-guys. In Dick Tracy's day, the job was everything and catching criminals was a full-time vocation: true love be damned. For example, Tracy and his long-suffering girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, dated for 18 long years before they married. Tracy was just too busy chasing and catching criminals. One assumes, too, given 1930s mores, that their love for each other remained unconsummated until their wedding. Now, we're all aware that affairs do happen at the CIA, but at times Homeland resembles a James Bond romp more than it does a supposedly serious drama -- with randy sex either regularly trumping saving the country from terrorists or being conflated into one and the same thing. The audible manifestation of Carrie and Brody making it on the dresser in a cheesy motel room, with her avuncular mentor, Saul Berenson, and the creepy black-ops CIA hit man, Peter Quinn, listening in, was among the more stomach-churning scenes captured on the flat screen in recent memory. Even this year's entire run of the trashy 1970s TV series Dallas, reprised on cable rival TNT, evidenced more class and taste than that gratuitous, revoltingly voyeuristic scene.

Carrie, clearly, is no Maya -- the highly believable, equally driven, and apparently libido-less heroine of Kathryn Bigelow's masterpiece film about the hunt for bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. And, barring the occasional helicopter shots of Langley, the CIA digs that Carrie works out of bear no resemblance to the real-life locale. The elegantly appointed Homeland depiction of the CIA -- offices with picture windows, cherry-wood desks, and imposing credenzas -- may exist on the seventh (read: director's) floor of Langley: but not in the windowless, GSA-gray cubicles that populate the crypt-like Counterterrorist Center. But it's not just the luxury office parks around Charlotte, North Carolina, where the series is filmed, that are a poor stand-in for Langley -- it's literally everything else.

Honestly, the only persons in Langley or any of the other non-descript office blocks that comprise the intelligence community's vast bureaucratic archipelago in Northern Virginia, who sport ID badges clipped to their suit lapels or silk blouses are visitors -- and most always either infrequent ones or those who do not merit special "No Escort" badges. Most visitors in fact are smart enough to know to bring their own lanyards.

Indeed, in the anonymous U.S. intelligence community, individual verve and style is most frequently displayed by the type of fabric, color, and words emblazoned on one's lanyard (ranging from the obvious "CTC" or "U.S. Embassy - Kabul" to "Michigan State" and "I ? Disneyland"). Similarly, anyone who counts is adorned with more than one badge: thus necessitating a lanyard and clip full of different ID badges issued by a withering multiplicity of agencies, indicating a variety of clearance levels, arrayed around one's neck. Only the non-cognoscenti wear clip-on badges -- since the alligator clips affixed to them are known to pulverize silk tops and desecrate worsted wool suits.

And what's with the cell phones regularly used on Homeland to discuss all kinds of sensitive and highly classified information? Don't the creators and writers know that cell phones -- along with iPods, iPads, MP3 players, etc. -- are not allowed into any classified facility, much less used by agents to communicate with headquarters? But then two seasons-worth of Homeland has not featured the use of even one SCIF -- the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities ubiquitous throughout the intelligence community: thus completely negating any claim to veracity or semblance to real-life. Don't even get me started on how Brody's car could end up on the sidewalk at Langley parked in front of a room full of the country's biggest VIPs.

One could continue to poke holes in the show and its premise (speaking of, here's a big one: the CIA legally cannot operate on American soil so therefore it is the FBI's responsibility to track terrorist threats to and in the homeland), its characters and plots -- but that would be disingenuous. Virtually all those who pretend to sneer at the series (including me) are eagerly awaiting Season Three: anxious to learn whether Carrie and Brody are re-united, if Brody is exonerated and, most critically, whether Dana finally out-grows her monumentally annoying adolescence.

But to wantonly criticize Homeland is also to ignore its one, true shining virtue -- its depiction of the brave men and women who, often on multiple occasions over the past decade, left their loved ones to fight in the war on terror through serial deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. What the series does effectively capture is the trauma and pain suffered by our returning soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and intelligence operatives -- as well as their families. In this respect, the two most believable and, not coincidentally, likable, characters in the series, are Jess -- Brody's wife played by the incomparably beautiful and talented Morena Baccarin -- and Mike Faber, Brody's Marine captain and best friend, played by the superb Diego Klattenhoff. If the series sheds even a small ray of light on the experiences of these selfless men and women, their spouses and their families, then even this thin sliver of illumination and understanding is sufficient justification to keep watching.

Meanwhile, Brody is on the run, a mole has surely tunneled into the CIA at Abu Nazir's behest, a new villain has taken shape to claim responsibility for the carnage inflicted at Vice President Bill Walden's memorial, and it's up to Carrie to save America from further bloodshed. A straight arrow like Dick Tracy would have the bad guys sorted out in no time. Given that this is cable television and not a cartoon-strip, it will doubtless take the unstable and mercurial Carrie from September to December 2013 to do so. And yes, despite my reservations, I will be watching.

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