15 July 1998
15 July 1998
(From USIA electronic journal "U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda") (3180) (The continued existence of terrorist threats -- coupled with the increasing availability of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons -- "makes the world a much more dangerous place" for everyone, says John D. Holum, Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs and Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. And there is the added threat of information warfare, he warns, which could harm the elements of a functioning modern society "through unconventional kinds of attack." The following interview appears in the July 1998 issue of the USIA electronic journal "U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda," which deals with "U.S. Security Policy in a Changing World." The interview was conducted by journal Contributing Editor Jacqui Porth.) QUESTION: U.S. security requirements have changed a great deal in the post-Cold War era. Where there was once a single, identifiable threat -- the Soviet Union -- there are now many threats demanding U.S. attention. Would you address a few of those and the challenges they pose to U.S. security? HOLUM: These threats really have changed our whole outlook on the world, and I hope the new reality has fully permeated our security thinking. The sarin (gas) attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 is an example of the kind of problems we could face. It is not the danger of a missile from the Soviet Union anymore; it is the danger of a terrorist bringing in something in a suitcase, or injecting something into the water supply, and endangering large segments of the population. The continued existence of terrorist threats -- coupled with the increasing availability of nuclear, chemical, and biological technologies -- makes the world a much more dangerous place for all of us. If you think of the World Trade Center bombing or the Oklahoma Federal Center bombing or the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, and consider how much more awful the suffering would have been had there been even primitive weapons of mass destruction involved, you get an idea of what we might be facing. Q: You have touched on the threat of terrorism from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, but how seriously do you take each of the three, and what is the United States doing to address each threat? HOLUM: They are all serious. I think, given the challenges, that the least likely threat of the three is nuclear. On the other hand, the potential consequences are probably the greatest from nuclear terrorism, so it is something we have to devote a lot of attention to. It is true that, with the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons are being dismantled and the materials that are critical to nuclear weapons are being removed. However, they are not being stored as securely as we would like. And the control systems over those storage sites, and over nuclear research reactors in the former Soviet Union, are much less rigorous than they used to be. So we are working very energetically to develop, there and elsewhere, much more effective control systems, inventories, consolidation of sites, and security systems, in order to prevent the theft or diversion of the critical ingredients for nuclear weapons. That is an issue of high consequence, and despite its relatively low probability as a threat, it is still significant. I think chemical weapons are the easiest for terrorists to use because they can be made in a relatively small space and do not require a great deal of technical competence. And the raw materials needed for them are fairly widely available. Biological weapons fall somewhere in the middle in terms of likelihood of use because they are somewhat more technologically challenging. But again the consequences could be horrendous. The common view is to group chemical and biological weapons together, setting nuclear weapons apart. But I think biological weapons are closer to nuclear weapons in terms of their destructive potential, because chemical weapons will disperse and become less lethal in the atmosphere. Biological weapons, in the right environment, can multiply; they are living organisms. And it takes a much smaller quantity to inflict a fatal illness. They also strike me as something particularly outrageous when you consider that humanity has been laboring for generations to wipe out dreaded diseases -- anthrax, the plague, and botulism -- and now there are perverse people deliberately preserving and culturing and protecting foul organisms for use as weapons of terrorism. Q: What are U.S. plans for responding to these potential threats? HOLUM: On all three we have aggressive international efforts to build global norms of behavior against their production and use. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and efforts to enforce its implementation through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are well advanced. The Chemical Weapons Convention has just gone into force and the implementing body (the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) is being set up. The Biological Weapons Convention needs to be strengthened. It is very strong in terms of its prohibitions, but it is almost entirely voluntary. We need to have a better enforcement mechanism. The president has set 1998 as the time for us to complete a framework agreement. Negotiations have been underway since 1995, and we are working on that effort very aggressively. That's dealing with the external part of it. There is also a great deal that needs to be done internally. And there have been Presidential Decision Directives dealing with our ability to respond through law enforcement systems, crisis management, and tracking down perpetrators. The most recent of these is Presidential Decision Directive 63, which deals with critical infrastructure and non-conventional threats and terrorism. Q: What about the nature of the information warfare threat, not only in terms of unauthorized access to American computer systems but also disruption of satellite services, and what can the United States hope to do to avert this threat? HOLUM: There is the threat of what has come to be known as "info war" or "cyber war," and this is the possibility that very dedicated computer hackers could get into our systems and turn off power grids or air traffic control systems, or destroy our ability to operate large systems, or even transfer money out of peoples' bank accounts. There are new dangers coming in the future, new technological capabilities that we're going to have to deal with that people have been calling "weapons of mass disruption." Some of our major concerns include the evolution of hacker tools that can cruise the Internet and can stay on line waiting for the target, and then dive in and corrupt a system either by overloading it, by giving it false instructions, or otherwise disabling it. This can be done through international phone lines. It could come through an innocent-looking source so it hides the tracks of the intruder. And we have very little capability to deal with it. We know that countries like Iran, Iraq, and Libya are pursuing information warfare. We know that our own Department of Defense is under assault -- I think 600 times a week -- by efforts to hack into its computer systems. Some may be through so-called "innocent pranksters," although there is nothing funny about it, and some may be deliberate attempts to corrupt. Recognizing the international dimensions of this, there is also the possibility that we would collaborate with others -- first, in raising consciousness about the problem and, second, in designing international conventions for protection of information systems. Not because, as is the case in arms control, the convention itself solves the problem, but because it gives a tool for cooperative efforts to deal with the offender. Q: You mentioned risk to water supply, but how realistic do you think threats of environmental terrorism are? I recall the Gulf war where Iraq used oil well fires. HOLUM: I think it is very realistic, and that is a good example of where it has actually been used. I was actually in the private sector at the time working as an attorney representing a company that was involved in the cleanup, so I had some very close exposure to the oil field fires. It was hard for me to imagine how anyone could deliberately cause such an appalling physical disaster: the smoke and the fumes and the pollution of water and air were just incredible to behold. And you can imagine any number of fairly easy steps that could be taken to inflict similar damage, whether it is through introduction of toxic agents like disease, biological weapons, or just despoliation. Q: What are U.S. priorities in the ongoing effort to eliminate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? HOLUM: It's really the three I've mentioned -- nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons -- plus missiles. We have active efforts underway in all of those areas. I would like to focus attention on the frontline work of non-proliferation -- something that is rarely seen in public, but which goes on consistently and very aggressively. That is the laborious process of sifting through intelligence reports, of identifying shipments of dangerous material -- whether a chemical weapon ingredient, a growth medium of biological weapons, nuclear materials, or specialized steel that could be used for missiles -- and interrupting those shipments and then going to the source and saying, "Somebody in your country is going to sell Iran some speciality steel that is destined for its missile program. You should stop it because you have an international political obligation under the Missile Technology Control Regime not to allow this." That's where the day-to-day work of non-proliferation is done, and it illustrates all of the elements of a successful strategy. You have to have a legal or a political obligation, at a minimum, so that you can go to the country involved and say: "You have a responsibility to stop this." You have to have technology and detection equipment so you learn about it. It may be through intelligence sources; it may be through radiation detectors that are set up at borders. The technology is advancing. And you need diplomatic resources to be on the ground to try to intercept shipments. Q: Why is the United States promoting a ban on fissile material for nuclear weapons? What is the U.S. strategy and what does the U.S. government want other nations to do? HOLUM: The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is the way to confirm, for us and for the other nuclear weapons states, that we can't renew an arms race. It's another step in the direction of the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine how we could effectively control and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons if we are still producing the basic ingredient. So for us, it is a limiting factor, a means of locking in the steps that we have taken so far in nuclear disarmament. It is also the way to prevent the problem from getting bigger in, for example, South Asia. If India and Pakistan were to join such a regime, we wouldn't have the nuclear problem solved there, but we would have a means to make sure it didn't get any bigger than it is. It is a way to help prevent an arms race. We have been pursuing these negotiations since 1995 in the Conference on Disarmament. Thus far, we haven't been able to get negotiations underway, even though the United Nations General Assembly has endorsed a negotiating mandate, in significant part because India has blocked negotiations. They have recently given some indication that they are prepared to proceed. Q: Is that diplomatically or publicly? HOLUM: Publicly and diplomatically. Pakistan has made the argument in the Conference on Disarmament that the limitation should cover existing stocks of fissile material. That would be very hard to do in an international regime because you would have to have the international community involved in deciding how much each country could have. Dealing with existing stocks is really something that needs to be done regionally or bilaterally. But we are still hopeful that there will be a mandate that will allow negotiations to proceed in the Conference on Disarmament. Meanwhile, we are pursuing our own efforts, both bilaterally with the Russians and trilaterally among Russia, the United States, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to remove excess material from our own weapons program and put it under IAEA safeguards. We have identified more than 200 tons of material. Some of it isn't in the form yet where it can be put under IAEA safeguards, but we have made 12 tons available for IAEA safeguards and more is on the way. Q: In terms of regional threats, to what extent is the United States prepared to take on those challenges alone and under what circumstances should coalitions of nations be working together in a crisis? HOLUM: I think it's always crucial to have the maximum possible international participation. For example, in the Bosnia situation, and as we approach the current crisis in Kosovo, it is certainly highly desirable that we have a coalition of forces. The United States has to be prepared to act unilaterally where the conditions warrant, but as you have seen in our practice of international security policy, we work scrupulously to build and maintain coalitions. Q: What is the United States doing to counter the perception that, as the world's sole remaining superpower, it has become "arrogant" in its exercise of power? HOLUM: It's a very complex problem because there is a temptation internationally, sort of reflexively, to say that we are engaging in hegemony. I think the answer is that we pursue our international interests based on values and ideals. I think, by and large, we can explain our approach in those terms. If we're advancing the cause of democracy or the importance of combating weapons of mass destruction, if we are trying to serve the role of peacemaker, obviously that affects our interests, but it also serves a higher purpose than simply national interest. That more than anything else will help us to be seen as a constructive influence in the world, rather than a country that is trying to throw its weight around. It is also important that we craft our dialogue with other countries in a respectful way. From what I have seen in the time that I have been back in the government since 1993, there really is a very conscious effort to do that. There isn't much of a tendency in our diplomacy to suggest that countries should do things because we say so, rather than because it is in their national interest. I think we make very careful efforts to ensure that our relations are based on respect for the country's point of view and security needs. Q: Would you assess the role of conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy in terms of formulating U.S. security policy? HOLUM: It is a major aspect of our international presence. One of the things we're engaged in, routinely, is trying to develop dialogues between potential antagonists long before a conflict begins. The kinds of diplomacy we have undertaken in the Middle East, Bosnia, and other regions of tension are well known. There is a less visible but no less important effort, wherever there is a potential for conflict, to act as a facilitator to help the parties engage in direct dialogue: in the Aegean, for example; in Ethiopia and Eritrea; and in a variety of other places. One area that I am very much involved in relates to the risk of arms competitions that involve conventional weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction. We have placed a very high priority, for example, on basic confidence-building steps in Latin America -- declarations of military holdings and advanced notification to neighbors of major weapons acquisitions, which by their nature imply the need for some discussion with your neighbors about why you are doing this. And security dialogues between civilian and military authorities can be a way to lessen the danger of existing military resources and other future unforeseen moments of tension. Q: The Partnership for Peace program has been a great success for the former Warsaw Pact countries and others. How has the partnership concept become a basis for strategic relationships elsewhere? HOLUM: At the China summit in June, the term "strategic partnership" was used quite extensively. This partnership is obviously of a different character than what we have developed in the Partnership for Peace in Europe, but it has a similar connotation: we are looking for ways to get on the same side of the table in a number of countries, recognizing that we have differences in many cases, but nonetheless trying to unite and pursue a common objective, whether it is non-proliferation, economic progress, or protection against climate change. So I think the concept of partnership has very broad application internationally. In fact, it is one of the valuable counters to the proposition that the United States is trying to run things its way. What we are really looking for are ways to create a common cause with like-minded countries on specific high-priority needs. Q: What implications does a purely economic phenomenon like the Asian financial crisis have for U.S. security interests? HOLUM: There are some immediate implications in that countries that find themselves in economic distress -- that has certainly been the case in East Asia -- tend to reduce their defense modernization. Because of our defense relationships, that is worrisome. In addition to that, there is a concern that economic collapse can create security problems by leading to regional instability and possible international conflict, and certainly to internal dysfunctions in key countries. So there is an important security dimension. That is why we tend to argue that events like those in Thailand or Indonesia aren't purely economic phenomena, because they have political and security dimensions. Q: What will be the primary concerns in the 21st century for U.S. security policy? HOLUM: I always tend to think of security as what affects the average American citizen and then look at the international dimensions of that. I think unfortunately we will continue to live with the dangers of drugs and terrorism. We need to reach a political understanding in the United States regarding the importance of issues such as the environment and climate change, which will have enormous future impact. I think weapons of mass destruction will inevitably be on the agenda. I think we are making headway. We have made considerable headway in the last four or five years, but the difficulty is that technology also has advanced. Technology is more accessible, so the risk -- despite our gains -- is still very prominent. And there is a whole new realm of danger to our critical infrastructure -- whether it is information systems or transportation systems or energy structure. All of the ingredients that make a modern society function could be at risk through unconventional kinds of attack.