Bush fails to appoint a nuclear terror czar

President leaves unfilled a congressional mandate backed by the 9/11 panel

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

WASHINGTON - Ten months after Congress passed a law establishing a White House coordinator for preventing nuclear terrorism, President Bush has no plans to create the high-level post any time soon, according to the National Security Council.

The provision - suggested by leading members of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - was contained in 2007 legislation designed to improve homeland defenses. Congress passed it by a wide margin, with bipartisan support.

Some congressional leaders said Bush's failure to fill the job nearly a year later marks an outright evasion of the law, and called on the president to fill the position swiftly, even though his administration has only seven months left in office.

"Congress and a range of bipartisan experts, including 9/11 commissioners, clearly judged that such a position would help strengthen the effectiveness of the administration's handling of [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation matters," the office of Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said in a statement. "The Congress passed and the president signed into law this requirement."

When asked this month why the position remains unfilled, the National Security Council described it as an internal matter still under deliberation.

"There has been no decision as yet on how best to implement the coordinator position," the council said in a statement.

The White House opposed creating the position from the start. In a January 2007 letter to Congress - six months before the law was adopted - the Bush administration wrote that the appointment of a nuclear antiterrorism chief "is unnecessary given extensive coordination and synchronization mechanisms that now exist within the executive branch," citing a 2006 strategy document that lays out the responsibilities of numerous government departments.

But in the past, Bush has tried to bypass provisions of laws he disagrees with by issuing "signing statements," documents singling out those parts of statutes that White House lawyers advised would infringe on his constitutional powers as chief of the government's executive branch. Bush has used this practice more than any prior president.

This time, however, the White House seems to be ignoring the nuclear terrorism coordinator requirement not for constitutional reasons but simply because the administration thinks it is a bad idea. It is a stance some legal scholars called an even more blatant disregard of the checks and balances on presidential power.

"It is one thing when the president claims it infringes on his constitutional authority," said Phillip J. Cooper, a Portland State University law professor who specializes in separation of powers issues. "It is something else altogether when no such argument is made."

"Congress has the authority to create by statute different responsibilities in executive departments," he added. "You can't ignore a valid statute. I don't think he has the authority to do that."

National security analysts have long advocated for a top presidential adviser focused solely on organizing the government to prevent terrorists from acquiring catastrophic weapons, such as a nuclear device, a radioactive "dirty bomb," or biological agents. They contend that the current arrangement - in which that responsibility is spread across the Departments of Energy, Defense, State, and Homeland Security - is not fully integrated and has gaps in preparedness.

Calls to create such a post date to before the 9/11 attacks. A January 2001 task force - headed by former Senate majority leader Howard Baker, a Republican, and Lloyd Cutler, a former White House aide to Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - called for a similar position and additional resources to lock down former Soviet arsenals and vulnerable nuclear stockpiles worldwide.

Under the law at issue, which Bush signed on Aug. 3, 2007, the nuclear antiterrorism coordinator would serve as the "principal adviser to the president on all matters relating to the prevention of weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorism."

That official - which the legislation stipulates must be "full time" and carry no other responsibilities - would draw up budgets and strategies for securing and detecting materials around the world that could be used in weapons of mass destruction. The president would appoint the coordinator pending Senate approval, and he or she would command a small staff that would participate in the deliberations of both the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council, the law states.

Advocates say the post is needed now more than ever, pointing to growing evidence - documented by international intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency - that terrorist groups are actively seeking nuclear or radiological weapons and the know-how to make them.

Meanwhile, a government-funded report released this month concluded that some of the current efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism are not fully coordinated.

The review by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Pentagon office that helps secure nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, found that the current practice of having individual executive departments propose their own budgets for nuclear security programs "risks creating gaps and redundancies."

The review pointed out that the White House budget examiner who is responsible for approving Department of Defense and Department of Energy programs is not responsible for the State Department's related efforts. It also found that the Pentagon agency - which employs some of the preeminent antiproliferation specialists - often is not consulted on critical decisions related to stopping nuclear proliferation.

Senator John F. Kerry, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes a presidential adviser with the power to track and coordinate the nation's efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism is critical to national security.

"There needs to be someone with a clear line of authority whose full-time job and only job is this," the Massachusetts Democrat said in a recent interview.

During a debate between Kerry, the Democratic nominee, and Bush during the 2004 presidential election, Kerry declared that a terrorist attack involving a nuclear or radiological device poses the greatest national security threat. Bush readily agreed.

But without a single person coordinating the government's prevention efforts, the necessary urgency is lacking, said Charles Curtis, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Washington, and the former deputy secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.

"I believe that until there is a senior official with direct access to the president who has specific and singular responsibility for coordinating efforts to keep nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction out of terrorist hands, we will not get the action we need," he told the National Defense University Foundation in Washington last month. "We need a centralized means in the office of the president to set priorities, assign responsibilities, ensure resources, and hold people to account."

"It's the law," he added. "But it's not enough to have a law."

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