Congressional Panel Says Nuclear Proliferation Is at a ‘Tipping Point'

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The development of nuclear arsenals by both Iran and North Korea could lead to "a cascade of proliferation," making it more probable that terrorists could get their hands on an atomic weapon, a congressionally chartered commission warned yesterday.

"It appears that we are at a 'tipping point' in proliferation," the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States said in an interim report to lawmakers that was released yesterday.

The bipartisan panel, led by former defense secretaries William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger, added that actions by Tehran and Pyongyang could lead other countries to follow, "and as each nuclear power is added, the probability of a terror group getting a nuclear bomb increases."

Congress established the commission this year to "examine and make recommendations" on strategic policy and force structure, as well as to consider other ways to counter the nuclear threat. The final report and recommendations were due this month, but after a slow start to its work, the panel pushed that date back to April.

In the interim report, the commission called for a global nonproliferation strategy as the best way to keep nuclear materials out of terrorists' hands. Such a U.S. effort "would require intense cooperation with other nations, especially other nuclear powers" and with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the panel added. It called for strong U.S. financial, technical and political support to the IAEA, a target of criticism from the Bush administration.

At the same time, the commission called for the United States to begin discussing with allies how to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That pact, the commission said, provides a legal framework but lacks the tools to make it work. "Its effectiveness has been undermined by errors in how it has been interpreted and by failures of enforcement by the U.N. Security Council," the panel said.

The interim report took no position on the Bush administration's effort to produce a new nuclear warhead under the now-deferred Reliable Replacement Warhead program. Instead, the commission said, its final report will "define the most efficient and effective way to maintain a credible, safe, secure and reliable deterrent for the long term."

Eliminating nuclear stockpiles should remain a national goal, the panel said, although it conceded that nuclear weapons may be needed into "the indefinite future," albeit at a size "appropriate to existing threats." The commission added: "The U.S. deterrent must be both visible and credible, not only to our possible adversaries, but to our allies as well."

The panel also encouraged the incoming Obama administration to consider resubmitting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification, but not until the nation's nuclear laboratories and U.S. Strategic Command submit "clear statements" on the risks involved by such a measure.

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