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U.S. Aims to Strengthen WMD Interdiction Program at Warsaw Meeting

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland // Andrey Starostin/

 A large multinational meeting next week offers an opportunity for new, concrete steps to strengthen a U.S.-led program to catch the illicit movement of weapons of mass destruction, a senior State Department official said.

The high-level political meeting observing the 10th anniversary of the Proliferation Security Initiative is scheduled for Tuesday in Warsaw, Poland.

Up to three-fourths of the 102 nations that participate in the program are expected to send delegations, said Vann Van Diepen, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation.

“Our expectations are that this meeting is going to review the accomplishments of the past 10 years and then based on those accomplishments come up with near-term additional focus areas and activities for the regime and then also provide strategic direction for future years,” he said in an interview on Wednesday, “and sort of taken together to really sort of increase the political standing of the initiative and the gravitas of its activities.”

A number of nations are likely to offer declarations of specific measures they intend to take to reinforce the effort, according to Van Diepen. These could include hosting workshops and interdiction exercises, as well as fresh outreach intended to draw additional governments into the program.

Delegates might also discuss plans for augmenting their governments' legal authorities and operational capabilities to halt transport of unconventional arms or related materials, the official said.

Longer-term thinking at the meeting would emphasize establishing “more sustainable activities,” added Van Diepen, who will be part of the U.S. team led by acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller. He said he could not discuss specifics of that strategic planning, but said results would be distinct from "one-offs" such as a stand-alone drill.

Then-President George W. Bush unveiled the Proliferation Security Initiative a decade ago in Warsaw. Each participating nation agrees to a Statement of Interdiction Principles for nuclear, chemical and other unconventional weapons and materials, in which offer pledges including to “interdict transfers to and from states and nonstate actors of proliferation concern to the extent of their capabilities and legal authorities."

Nations also agree to establish “Critical Capabilities and Practices” that include legal prohibitions on WMD proliferation and the operational capacities to examine, confiscate and manage potentially dangerous goods.

Officials generally do not discuss details of actual interdictions conducted by participant states. Then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph said in 2006 that the program had “played a key role in helping to interdict more than 30 shipments,” according to a June 2012 analysis from the Congressional Research Service.

“Whether and to what extent PSI has contributed to these interdictions is unclear; they may have happened even without PSI,” CRS nonproliferation specialist Mary Beth Nikitin wrote. “Moreover, even if the creation of PSI was followed by increased numbers of WMD-related interdictions, the increase may be the product of an upsurge in proliferation activity or improved intelligence.”

Under the Obama administration, news reports have linked the program to a 2011 multilateral effort to prevent suspected North Korean missile technology from reaching Myanmar via a ship sailing under the flag of Belize.

“Obviously I can’t get into details, but I personally participated in cases where it’s very clear that because of the connections that were made via PSI, because of the results of PSI exercises, we have gotten other countries to cooperate in interdictions where prior to the advent of PSI some of those same countries were not as cooperative partners,” Van Diepen said.

President Obama, in his widely touted April 2009 speech in Prague, called for the initiative to become a “durable international institution.”

Between 80 and 90 nations had already signed onto the program when Obama took office in January 2009, Van Diepen said. While the rate of new involvement has slowed, the number capacity-building events -- including exercises in which personnel practice actual interdiction operations -- has remained consistent at roughly 10 each year.

Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and six other House Armed Services Committee members charged in a March letter to the White House that Obama had allowed the initiative to "languish."

Turner was traveling and not available for comment, a spokesman said.

Van Diepen argued that “the size of the subscribership is only one indicator” of success.

“We’ve gone beyond simply trying to build the political awareness and support for interdiction to really tangibly trying to build up the capability of all 102 countries to actually conduct successful interdictions in the real world. It seems to me that’s a very important addition to the repertoire of the initiative,” he said.

Nations are now increasingly initiating interdiction operations and watching for possible proliferation threats, where previously they often needed to be prodded by the United States or another government, Van Diepen said.

While the focus remains on interdictions at sea, where the “great  bulk” of cargo is moved, there is also growing attention to movement of suspicious materials by land or air. The building blocks of a strong capacity to halt such transports – such as cargo screening and inspection capabilities and readiness to manage hazardous materials – apply to all three transits routes, he said.

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