The Nunn-Lugar Act: Old Fears, New Era

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Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, left, accompanied by Sen. Richard Lugar

Largely ignored in recent years and stripped of critical funding as recently as July, the Nunn-Lugar Act, or "Cooperative Threat Reduction Program" has garnered public attention since the September 11th attacks. Once regarded as peripheral, the Nunn-Lugar now looks not only prescient but absolutely essential.

Co-sponsored by Sam Nunn, former Democratic Senator from Georgia, and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, the Act was first approved in 1991 in response to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Designed to limit the threat of suddenly itinerant weaponry, Nunn-Lugar established a fund to pay for the identification, destruction and disposal of nuclear and chemical weapons. The initiative also actively welcomed former Soviet scientists into the American community, hoping to lure prospective bomb-makers and chemical-mixers away from rogue nations.

Nunn and Lugar also co-sponsored the 1996 Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Initiative, which builds on the goals of the original Nunn-Lugar Act and also trains civilians to assist disaster workers after an attack by a weapon of mass destruction, including any biological agents. According to press secretary Andy Fisher, Senator Lugar expects the program to be rolled into the larger homeland defense effort headed by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Once again, Nunn and Lugar were ahead of the curve.

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Advocates of the program are quick to point out Nunn-Lugar's impressive cost-benefit ratio: For slightly less than three-tenths of one percent of U.S. military expenditures, Nunn-Lugar has been responsible for deactivating 5014 warheads, destroying 384 ICBMs and eliminating 365 ICBM silos. And while Lugar a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continues to lobby for funding for the program, the 2002 federal budget calls for cuts of about $140 million. Thatís quite a hit for an initiative whose seven-year operating costs were only $3 billion — less than the annual cost of missile defense research and development efforts.

Given the events of September 11th, and increased awareness and fears of terrorism, will Nunn-Lugar score increased funding, or at least enhanced visibility? Andy Fisher, Lugar's press secretary, insists the initiative has never been in any danger of falling by the wayside and continues to receive the money it needs. "The funding for this program has been constant every year," Fisher says. "At the moment, the Senate is set to approve $400 million for Nunn-Lugar."

Thatís not to say Lugar wouldnít be pleased to see an increase, but realism prevails. "Of course the Senator would love to have more money for the program," Fisher says, "but Congress felt they could afford $400 million in the Defense Department budget — and it doesnít make sense to ask for more money if it just isnít out there."

Some would argue the money is out there — or it was when the administration released its first budget figures, which granted the military a $33 billion increase for 2002. Itís all a question of priorities, and while Nunn-Lugar may have to make due with its pre-attack allotment, the grim events of the past three weeks have cast the 10-year-old program in a new light. This time around, there is a renewed sense of purpose: No one wants to see a disillusioned Ukrainian biochemist drift into the wrong laboratory.