Double Duty

State Department acting arms official raises concerns about verifying Russia’s Syria chemical weapons deal

Rose Gottemoeller / AP
• September 20, 2013 5:40 pm


The State Department’s senior arms control negotiator has been an unconfirmed acting undersecretary for 19 months at the same time she oversaw violations and verification of arms accords.

The dual positions held by Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and the assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, is undermining U.S. arms control efforts and violating Congress’ will and possibly federal law, according to former national security officials.

Gottemoeller’s lengthy role as both senior arms negotiator and verifier also is raising new questions about whether the Obama administration’s recent deal with Russia to dismantle Syria chemical arms will involve strict verification provisions.

The United States and Russia concluded a last-minute "framework" agreement Sept. 14. It calls for identifying Syrian chemical arms, placing them under international control, and then dismantling them.

Arms control experts say the terms of the tentative accord are vague, and implementation in the midst of a sectarian civil war will be difficult.

The agreement was brokered by Russian officials to head off an announced U.S. military strike on Syria for its Aug. 21 chemical arms attack near Damascus. Russia is backing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, which will be given new international standing and likely remain in power by the agreement despite sections of the country being held by opposition forces.

President Barack Obama said Sept. 15 that he will insist on following President Ronald Reagan’s standard for arms control be demanding that the Syrian arms agreement with Moscow be based on the notion of "trust but verify."

Syria on Friday submitted an initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons as part of the agreement.

The administration’s approach to arms verification has been clouded by the combined positions held by Gottemoeller, a Russian specialist who critics say in the past was indifferent toward intelligence reports revealing Moscow’s cheating on arms agreements.

Gottemoeller’s nomination for the undersecretary position will be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, a committee spokesman said.

The committee also will address the nomination of Frank A. Rose, to be assistant secretary for verification. Rose is in the verification bureau and is in charge of space and defense policy. He was involved in the 2009 proposal by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to draft a "code of conduct" for space that the Pentagon said would undermine U.S. military operations in space.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), ranking member of the committee, said he plans to question Gottemoeller about the administration’s arms control agenda.

"We’ve been concerned about the administration pursuing further nuclear arms reductions with Russia outside of the treaty process and without following through on full modernization of the existing U.S. arsenal," Corker said. "The State Department has affirmed the Senate’s role in any future negotiations with Russia, and we received additional assurances regarding the commitment to modernization that were more promising than in the past."

Corker said he would discuss the arms issues at the hearing "as I make a determination about her nomination."

Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Senate hearing set for Thursday had rendered questions about Gottemoeller's role in holding the duel positions moot.

"Rose Gottemoeller can serve as acting for as long as her nomination to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security is pending before the Senate," Harf said.

Gottemoeller first became both assistant secretary and undersecretary on Feb. 7, 2012, and has been acting undersecretary a total of 597 days.

After no action was taken on the nomination in the last Congress, the nomination lapsed, and Gottemoeller was renominated May 9. She remains within the 210-day limit under the Vacancies Act, which restricts the time officials can serve in an acting position without Senate confirmation.

A former national security official said Congress created the assistant secretary for verification position in 2000 to emphasize the need to separate negotiators from arms verification and compliance officials.

During congressional debate in 1999, the State Department opposed the independent verification post over concerns that stringent verification often complicated the Cold War-style arms control process favored by many in government and the national security community.

The former official said State instead offered to create an office within the undersecretary for arms control office. Congress rejected that and went ahead in creating the separate post known within the department as the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, or AVC.

"Letting Rose serve as both assistant secretary and the acting undersecretary means that the State Department—which never cares about arms control verification and compliance—has finally triumphed over Congress," the former official said. "I hope they do something about this dual-hatted quagmire."

John Bolton, who held the undersecretary of state for arms control position during the George W. Bush administration, said verifying a Syria chemical weapons deal will be very difficult.

"Verification is a complex process even if the parties involved are willing to permit intrusive inspections," Bolton said. "Here, Syria will oppose comprehensive verification, and their mentors in Moscow will be willing partners in concealing the reality. The Russians have been doing it for years themselves."

Another former arms control specialist, David S. Sullivan, also said Gottemoeller’s dual positions are undermining U.S. arms control policies.

"The benefits of arms control cannot be gained without effective verification of arms control treaties," said Sullivan, a former senior professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former CIA analyst.

"Effective verification requires good intelligence collection and analysis, but it is especially dependent on independent judgments about compliance, and how to preserve compliance," he said. "Verification and compliance enforcement are therefore the keys to good arms control, and it is absolutely essential that these key functions must be independent of the policymaking and negotiating process in arms control."

According to colleagues of Gottemoeller who worked with her in the private sector, while an arms control analyst at the RAND Corp. she was part of a group of arms control advocates dubbed "the Apologensia"—specialists and officials who frequently dismissed or played down Soviet and later Russian non-compliance with arms control agreements.

Another problem for the administration’s Syria chemical weapons agreement is that Russia was recently accused of violating its own commitment to chemical and biological weapons agreements.

The latest annual arms compliance report to Congress, produced by Gottemoeller’s compliance office was delayed for several months before being released under pressure from House Republicans.

The June report concluded, "Russian entities have remained engaged in dual-use, biological activities" in possible violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.

A January report stated that "the United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations for declaration of its [chemical weapons (CW) production facilities], CW development facilities, and CW stockpiles."

Sullivan said the recent Syria deal highlights the need for separate arms control and verification units in government.

"Secretary of State Kerry has placed the Russian Federation in the role of verifying the Syrian dismantling of chemical weapons, when his own State Department last year verified that Russia was itself in noncompliance with the Chemical Weapons and Biological Weapons Conventions," Sullivan said.

"In effect, part of the State Department says the Russians are cheating, but another part of the Department, Secretary Kerry himself, overruled the State Department’s verifiers and found that there was no contradiction in using cheaters to verify cheaters. This kind of contradiction can be prevented if the verifiers and the policymakers are not unified."

The problem of opposing verification is long-standing and bipartisan and dates to the 1970s. According to another former official, Henry Kissinger, when he was secretary of state in the 1970s, centralized arms control verification and negotiating into one position.

"During this period, key intelligence information on verification of Soviet noncompliance with arms treaties was embargoed for long periods," this former official said. "This could be happening again."

Published under: Russia