While on vacation, the editor is re-running old posts that have retained their timeliness.

David Kay has “very bad news for you.” You may recall that he’s the man who led two teams to Iraq: one, after the Gulf War, determined that Iraq had a nuclear program; the other, before the Iraq War, that it then had no WMD program. Despite supporting the Iraq War anyway, Kay remains a credible voice on nuclear weapons.

His bad news, though, is about Iran, where, he recently wrote in the National Interest, “a weapons-inspection regime. . . will not work. Inspections themselves are most effective when both the state being inspected and the inspecting countries are fully on board — and even then there are limits.” For example, the “number of inspectors and level of intrusiveness necessary to ensure that [there are no nuclear weapons] in a country Iran’s size is far greater than anything that can be contemplated.”

That said, “The aim is not the unachievable — detecting all cheating [but only] to create the equivalent of a strong plate-glass window that Iran would have to shatter if it were to embark upon a [nuclear-weapons] program — and that inspectors could be reasonably expected to detect that shattering.” All things considered, according to Kay, “Inspection and verification are often thought of as ways to prevent a state from developing nuclear weapons [but that] would be well beyond the capabilities of any conceivable inspection regime.” 

Inspection is only one element of verification, which is the process of verifying, or checking, the number and types of nuclear weapons (if any) allowed a country by the treaty(ies) it’s signed. Verification is also conducted via satellites, telemetry (data transmission), radar tracking of missiles launches, and seismic monitoring of underground tests.

If there’s any issue with which no one should have a problem, it’s got to be verification, right? Alas, as we’ve learned in recent years, no issue escapes the all-seeing jaundiced eye. Raise the issue and a disarmament advocate may find him or herself burned by hawks and independents — policy wonks and the public both.

Verification has been called a trap by the Topos Partnership, “communication strategists” hired by the Union of Concerned Scientists to devise the most effective “messaging” for taking disarmament to the people. Among other things, Topos utilized focus groups to produce, jargon aside, a helpful report titled From Asset to Liability: Developing a Message Strategy on Nuclear Weaponsin January 2009. It actually advises avoiding the subject of verification (same with nuclear terrorism, about which more in a future post).

A conversation on verification can easily result in a strong default view that we can never know what other actors/countries are doing when it comes to nuclear weapons, and can’t effectively monitor/verify what they are doing. Focusing on the topic usually leads to counterproductive conversations [such as. . .] “I think a worldwide ban. … will only create situations where countries will lie to each other.” [31-year old woman, Florida] “It’s foolish to assume that without 100% accuracy, we would be 100% safe.” [40-year old man, Massachusetts]

To hawks, verification is another hammer with which to bludgeon disarmament, along with deterrence and “deproliferation.” (A term coined by Amitai Etzioni, deproliferation, he writes, “calls for removing the access to nuclear arms. . . first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”) We asked Christopher Ford, who served as United States Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation during much of the Bush administration, to clarify the conservative position on verification. As nuanced a spokesman for his cause as you’ll find, he actually refrains from wielding verification like a blunt instrument as some conservatives do. . .

To my eye, the last few decades of U.S. political history suggest that conservatives tend to have a bit less trust in the good faith of an adversary — and to put less stock in the idea that violations will be deterred in part simply because they are “illegal.” As a result they tend to worry a bit more about verification than liberals, who seem to assume that treaties have a compelling force simply because they are treaties.

Bear in mind that conservatives are notoriously treaty-averse. Ford continues:

That said, everyone also seems to agree, at least in principle, that verification isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. … Even conservatives didn’t feel the need to have special verification procedures in the Moscow Treaty of 2002, because it was assessed that both the United States and Russia wanted to reduce (and would be reducing) their numbers of warheads anyway. Given that reductions seemed likely whether or not there was a treaty, and since START [the U.S.-Russia treaty, currently being renegotiated, that limits warheads and missiles — RW] verification measures then provided at least some (highly indirect) window upon deployed warhead numbers, the Bush Administration felt perfectly comfortable without verification provisions in the Moscow Treaty. In circumstances in which the other side is perceived to have both incentives and the capability to cheat, however — as with denuclearization in North Korea — I’d expect conservatives to be much more hard-core on verification. And I’d hope they wouldn’t be alone: liberals’ faith in arms control depends upon it actually controlling arms! Everyone should care about verification.They’d better — without it, arms control and disarmament wouldn’t exist.

Conservatives, though, worry that the Obama administration, for example, will offer concessions on verification in order to conclude a treaty. But what if “sweeteners,” as Ford calls them below, are, in fact, an acknowledgment that verification — in the spirit of the Moscow Treaty of 2002 to which Ford alludes above — don’t need to be onerous?

In a recent Arms Control Association Threat Assessment Brief, New START Verification: Fitting the Means to the Ends, Greg Thielmann details just how the new START treaty might not require as severe a verification regime as in the past. [Emphasis added.]

The treaty’s verification provisions are means to providing confidence that the sides are complying with [lower nuclear-weapons] limits. Although the goal is to establish the high confidence levels [instilled by] the original START. . . the successor agreement will achieve that goal with more focused and up-to-date methods. [The original] START’s. . . elaborate verification measures. . . were born of the Cold War. New START verification can be streamlined in accordance with the new, simplified limits and in response to post-Cold War realities.

Is Less Really More?

Thielmann elaborates:

[The original] START was negotiated when Moscow could command the full resources of all 15 Soviet republics, [for instance] the prodigious missile production and design facilities of Ukraine. [In the interim, the] sophistication of . . . technical means such as imagery and signals intelligence has taken a quantum leap [along with dramatic] advances in commercial optical imagery systems. … Fifteen years of treaty implementation. . . have likewise broadened and deepened the knowledge base of the two sides concerning each other’s strategic systems and operating procedures, and it has raised the level of mutual understanding and trust.

Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating, “Trust, but verify.” Has the time come to turn his saying inside out and instead declare: “Verify, but trust”? Even David Kay believes that for a weapons-inspection program to work, “a prerequisite is trust.” Ford, who reminded us above that conservatives tend to be less trustworthy, responds:

Thielmann places great faith in overhead imagery [which] can tell you things about numbers of missiles in silos, but it is somewhat less useful with mobile missiles of the sort in which Russia is now investing (you have to know where to look), and it isn’t really helpful at all with regard to questions such as the number of warheads that could be or are loaded on them, or issues of missile performance. If the Russians encrypt key aspects of the telemetry signals they use in missile testing and play games with on-site inspections of missiles themselves [you] can have all the GeoEye snapshots you want, but I can still hide a warhead in an oil barrel in my driveway, and you’ll be none the wiser.

He adds: “The era of reductions that are easy because both sides really want them will soon close: how low will Russia be willing to go before it wants to put on the brakes? This is not good news for the verification world. . . except, I suppose, with regard to job security.” Then he echoes Kay’s “strong plate-glass window”:

Traditionally, U.S. officials have tended to approach verification from the perspective. . . that you don’t have to have perfect detection, but you do need to be able to detect violations that would have a significant impact upon the military balance. … But things change in this regard as numbers get lower, and especially at “zero.” … Washington already knows full well how important it can be to have a mere handful of atomic weapons in what is otherwise a world of zero: that was our situation between 1945 and 1949. … As numbers get lower, in other words, the demands upon verification become vastly more stringent.

But Ford actually feels that Thielmann’s streamlined verification for the new START treaty “can probably handle the [treaty’s] modest demands. … (After all, the top of President Obama’s proposed range for deployed warheads is a paltry 25 weapons below the bottom of the range President Bush adopted in the 2002 Moscow Treaty. …) That is not to say, of course, that I can guarantee. . . that too much will not be conceded on ancillary issues or “sweeteners” in the Obama Administration’s political desperation for an arms reduction deal.

If you think it’s bipartisanship that prompts a conservative to agree that verification that’s been streamlined is sufficient for START II, bear in mind that Ford defines the treaty’s demands as “modest.” It may just be that he deems the treaty too watered down to constrain the other party, in this case Russia. Why waste time then worrying about its verification? On the other hand, to a conservative, the up side of a weak treaty is that it’s the next best thing to no treaty.

There is one way of course to exponentially enhance the effectiveness of verification. Barry Blechman, the co-founder of the Stimson Center, explains in a New York Times  op-ed[emphasis added]:

Critics cite cheating as the main reason to dismiss disarmament, ignoring that, even without cooperative verification, American intelligence has detected every past national effort to develop nuclear weapons before those weapons became operational.

Furthermore, elimination is simpler to verify than any reduction in the number of warheads. In a disarmament regime, the entirety of the nuclear complex would be monitored, shielding nothing from inspectors’ eyes. Discovery of a single warhead or kilogram of fissile material in an undeclared location would blow the whistle.

In other words, the smaller a state’s nuclear-weapons program, the less time and money the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) need to spend on verification.