CNS Feature Stories

Special articles and reports on timely nonproliferation issues by CNS staff.
Updated: Feb 18, 2009

New WMD Coordinator Has the Right Stuff, But Will He Have the Right Staff?

President Obama's new WMD Proliferation/Terrorism Coordinator will watch over a vast array of activities. But whether he will be given the stature and staff to do the job right remains an open question.
Author(s): Anya Loukianova, Leonard Spector

Posted: February 13, 2009

President Barack Obama has reportedly selected Gary Samore, the veteran Senior Director for Nonproliferation during the Clinton Administration, to become the first U.S. Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.[1] The position was mandated by the 2007 Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act (Public Law 110-53), but the Bush Administration declined to establish it.[2] In his new capacity, Dr. Samore will serve not only as the chief advisor to President Obama on all aspects of weapon of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation and terrorism, but will also lead the formulation, advocacy, and oversight of a comprehensive U.S. counter-WMD policy and strategy. [3] Contrary to the requirements of Public Law 110-53, however, Samore's position will not be subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

If Dr. Samore is to oversee all aspects of U.S. policy formulation and implementation with respect to WMD, his responsibilities would be far-reaching, indeed. While the Obama Administration has yet to decide on the contours of the job, the Bush Administration characterized the key elements of the portfolio in its 2002 National Strategy to Combat WMD, declaring that U.S. strategy rests on three pillars:

  • counterproliferation activities to combat use of WMD (interdiction, deterrence, defense and mitigation),
  • strengthened nonproliferation efforts to prevent the spread of these weapons (active nonproliferation diplomacy, arms control, multilateral regimes, threat reduction cooperation, controls on nuclear materials, nonproliferation sanctions, and export controls), and
  • consequence management to respond to the use of WMD.[4]

While this summary is succinct, in practice, U.S. non/counterproliferation activities cover an enormous spectrum that encompasses dozens of important negotiations; the maintenance of multilateral nonproliferation regimes for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems; substantial programs to secure nuclear weapon materials and dangerous pathogens in the United States and abroad; the gathering of intelligence on a world-wide basis and its effective use; domestic and global coordination of technology controls; a multi-billion dollar, multi-agency research budget; the management of public health preparedness, including the development and manufacture of vaccines against bio-weapon agents; and major elements of U.S. defense policy, including the U.S. deterrence posture (important to reassure allies they do not need nuclear weapons of their own), the development of missile defenses, and, ultimately, the possible use or threatened use of force.

The chart included in this Feature Story, ("Principal US Government Agencies Combating Nuclear Proliferation"), while simplifying reporting lines within the individual agencies, attempts to convey the breadth of the nuclear component of what might be termed the U.S. non/counterproliferation "enterprise."[5] The chart depicts both the agencies and offices primarily responsible for day-to-day management of U.S. non/counterproliferation activities, as well as offices whose responsibilities, while not primarily focused on this area nonetheless play central roles on specific issues from time to time.

At the Department of State, for example, principal responsibility for non/counterproliferation is within the purview of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. However, during the latter part of the Bush Administration, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs had the lead in managing efforts to slow Iran's nuclear program and in concluding the agreement to permit peaceful nuclear cooperation with India, while one of his subordinates, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was the chief negotiator working to eliminate North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

At the Department of Defense, similarly, the uniformed services play a limited role in non/counter proliferation diplomacy but obviously were the central actors in Operation Iraqi Freedom, whose underlying purpose was to enforce UN Security Council Resolutions banning Iraq from developing WMD. The services are also actively involved in efforts to interdict WMD cargoes, have important homeland security functions, and would be central in planning any military operations directed at Iranian nuclear facilities.

The support of the Intelligence Community is critical for non/counterproliferation policy development and implementation. Many elements of this community report both to their respective agencies and to the Director of National Intelligence. On the chart these components are shown with a diagonal pattern to reflect this special status.

Foreign assistance programs to secure nuclear and radioactive materials, as well as related expertise, are administered by the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State. The Department of Justice and the Commerce Department are leading players in enforcing U.S. technology controls, which are administered by the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and State (with the support of the Department of Defense) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Department of Homeland Security has a leading role in consequence management and in working to reduce the risk of nuclear or radiological attacks by non-state actors against the United States, areas where the Department of Energy also makes important contributions. Important responsibilities for research on technologies for detecting, defending against, and attributing WMD, as well as for post-event clean-up, are found within the Departments of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, and Justice.

As complex as the chart appears, however, it describes only the basic components of this mammoth undertaking. Space does not permit a detailed depiction that includes the level of the individual functional unit or office or of many specific initiatives, such as the State Department's Export Control and Border Security assistance program or the Energy Department's Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors program aimed at reducing the presence of weapons-usable nuclear materials in the civilian nuclear sector. Nor does the chart incorporate the numerous interagency coordinating bodies that are crucial to the day-to-day operation of the enterprise.

U.S. efforts to constrain Iran's nuclear ambitions illustrate the great breadth of non/counter proliferation activities now being pursued to address this single challenge. These efforts encompass:

  • Multilateral diplomacy to sustain and strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits Iran from developing nuclear weapons and reinforces the global norm against proliferation;
  • Budgetary support and diplomatic initiatives to sustain and strengthen IAEA safeguards (inspections and accounting procedures), which seek to verify Iran's compliance with this ban;
  • Engagement at the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of sensitive nuclear capabilities without satisfying IAEA inspection requirements, along with associated efforts to implement these sanctions globally;
  • Imposition of unilateral and multinational sanctions against Iran apart from the UN Security Council process, including on Iran's banking sector;
  • Pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the crisis by working the G-6 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and previously supporting European Union and Russian initiatives;
  • Gathering and sharing intelligence from all sources regarding Iranian intentions and its progress in developing nuclear arms and missiles;
  • Restricting Iran's access to sensitive nuclear technology and equipment through implementation of U.S. and international export controls, including strengthening relevant international rules, providing export control assistance to less-capable states, and pursuing domestic and international law enforcement and interdiction activities;
  • Use of U.S. military capabilities to reassure U.S. regional allies, instill caution in Tehran, develop and deploy defenses against Iranian missiles, and develop options for special operations and airstrikes against Iranian nuclear sites; and
  • Pursuit of covert and open efforts to weaken the Iranian regime, with the goal of turning the country from its revolutionary Islamic ideology (which, in turn, would reduce the dangers posed by Iran's nuclear activities).

While overseeing such activities would be daunting in itself, this will comprise only a fraction of the Coordinator's responsibilities, which will include not only other nuclear proliferation issues and hot spots, but also the enormous panoply of issues related to chemical and biological weapons, as well as ballistic and cruise missile proliferation.

For the moment many questions remain about the Coordinator's role. The most basic is whether the Coordinator will have more authority to formulate and direct U.S. efforts to address the WMD threat than that of a Senior Director at the NSC, the position Dr. Samore held previously. If not, little is likely to change despite the Obama Administration's apparent readiness to comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of the 2007 Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act.

Currently, it appears that the Administration has chosen not to grant Dr. Samore the rank of Deputy National Security Adviser, but will attempt to enhance his authority by granting him the title of both Senior Director and Coordinator. Will these designations provide the necessary prestige to do his job effectively? Will he have direct access to the President? Will the Congress insist that the Coordinator be confirmed in order to enhance his standing within the Administration? If he remains within the National Security Council, will the Coordinator be given a staff sufficient for the task before him, despite traditional presidential desires to minimize the size of his National Security Council entourage? What authority will the Coordinator have with respect to relevant portions of agency budgets, the allocation of intelligence resources, the non/counterproliferation research agenda, and relevant defense issues, such as deterrence strategy, the missile defenses — and the possible use of force? All of these matters remain unclear at this time.[6]

Thus, while the appointment of the Coordinator appears to be a useful first step toward fulfilling the hopes of Congress and of numerous special commissions that have addressed the issue,[7] it remains to be seen whether he will have the tools necessary to accomplish the mission that has been set for him.

Anya Loukianova is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies; Leonard S. Spector is the Director of the Center's Washington, D.C. Office.


[1] Laura Rozen, "WMD Czar Gary Samore," The Cable, January 23, 2009,
[2] Difficulties in coordinating WMD efforts to combat nuclear proliferation were noted as recently as December 2008, in World At Risk, the report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, December 2008, chapter "Government Organization and Culture," That commission proposed that the President designate "a White House principal advisor for WMD proliferation and terrorism" that would not require Senate confirmation.
[3] See section 1841 in Public Law 110-53, August 3, 2007; Text available:
[4] "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," December 2002; Text available:
[5] We wish to thank Dr. Matthew Bunn, Stephen Schwartz, and Kaleb Redden, as well as other U.S. government officials and colleagues for their helpful comments on the earlier versions of this chart. All errors and omissions are the those of the authors.
[6] On the subject of the authorities of the principal advisor for WMD proliferation and terrorism, World at Risk, noted: "We emphasize that to be effective, this senior advisor must be seen as speaking for the President by all relevant departments and agencies, as well as the White House. He or she must have the authority to call meetings, task agencies, and resolve interagency conflicts. The advisor must also have the budgetary authority (including a direct link to the Office of Management and Budget) to assess funding levels, fix shortfalls, and adjust programs. The advisor should play the lead role in coordinating policies and operations to prevent WMD proliferation and terrorism and would be responsible for advising the President about how policy decisions across government—foreign policy, defense, trade, and so forth—would affect the mission of preventing WMD proliferation and terrorism." World at Risk, op. cit. p. 85.
[7] See World At Risk, op. cit. The 2005 report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (Robb-Silberman Commission) also noted the need to create "government-wide 'strategic operational planning'" on WMD issues outside the National Counterproliferation Center.

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