January 14, 2003
Bush frees cash to secure Soviet arms U.S. wants to stop foes from getting weapons
By Peter Eisler
WASHINGTON -- President Bush has signed special orders to release nearly a half-billion dollars in frozen funds to help Russia secure or eliminate nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, USA TODAY has learned.
The orders end a yearlong hold on spending for projects under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which was paralyzed by restrictive rules set by Republican critics in Congress. Administration officials say the program is an important defense against terrorists and rogue states obtaining old Soviet weapons of mass destruction. The president's orders free more than $ 150 million to build a facility to destroy chemical munitions at Shchuch'ye, Russia, where nearly 2 million artillery shells and missile warheads filled with deadly nerve gases sit in rickety, poorly secured barns. USA TODAY reported last fall that the funding freeze had put the project near collapse and raised concerns that some of the stockpiled weapons might fall into the hands of U.S. enemies.
"There are a lot of (assistance) contracts piled up that will go forward now," says Paul Walker of Global Green USA, a group hired by the Pentagon to facilitate threat-reduction projects in Russia. The president's orders are "a long-awaited and very central part of the president's non-proliferation and counterterrorism program."
In the past decade, the threat reduction program has spent $ 4 billion to help former Soviet states eliminate or secure weapons of mass destruction inherited from the Soviet arsenal. Its successes range from dismantling one of the world's largest biological weapons production facilities in Kazakhstan to deactivating more than 6,000 nuclear warheads spread across the former Soviet states.
Funding for projects in Russia froze after a few Republican lawmakers attached criteria requiring the administration to "certify" Russian compliance with arms control pledges. They say Russia is not committed to destroying weapons of mass destruction.
At the Bush administration's request, Congress passed legislation last month that empowers the president to waive the certification criteria. Bush signed the waiver orders Friday and is expected to officially notify Congress by early next week, administration officials say.
Projects in Russia, which holds the bulk of the old Soviet arsenal, account for most money spent under the program. The waivers will free about $ 450 million for those projects, some of it left from previous years' appropriations.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who helped create the threat reduction program, says it is especially critical to destroy the "small and easily transportable" chemical arms at Shchuch'ye. "They would be deadly in the hands of terrorists, religious sects or paramilitary units."