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U.S.-Russian Anti-Smuggling Effort Largely in Disarray

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A two-year U.S. effort to help Russia keep its nuclear materials from falling into terrorist hands has largely failed to get off the ground because of U.S. friction with top Russian nuclear experts, low funding and inattention at the top levels of the Clinton administration, according to U.S. officials familiar with the program.

These political and financial problems hinder the ability of Russia and the United States and its European allies to prevent further smuggling into Western Europe of bomb-grade materials from Russia, the officials said.

In recent interviews, the officials said while none of the batches confiscated in the last four months had more than 10 percent of the fissile material needed to build a terrorist bomb, nuclear smuggling is likely to persist and could eventually pose a threat to U.S. or allied security, a view they said is supported by classified U.S. intelligence estimates.

The officials said Russia lacks vital experience and know-how in keeping close track of its estimated 1,000 tons of bomb-grade uranium and 170 tons of plutonium, rendering it incapable of providing reliable assurances that none of its materials is missing from storage.

But they said the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, the country's principal nuclear custodian, has repeatedly rebuffed offers of U.S. assistance out of pride and anxiety that any cooperation with Washington could compromise its weapons secrets or be attacked by Russian nationalists.

Without intercession by Clinton and other top officials at the highest levels of the Russian government, the officials said, ministry officials will continue to rebuff months-old U.S. offers to help detect and repair security defects at military-related nuclear facilities or aid Moscow in developing a better export control system.

They said the topic should be a top priority for next month's summit between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. White House sources said Clinton is likely to raise the issue there but has not yet decided whether to emphasize it.

U.S. policy also has shortcomings, said the officials, who spoke on condition they not be named. Although the White House last year claimed ensuring secure storage of former Soviet nuclear materials was a key foreign policy priority, the administration lacks a detailed, government-wide strategy for halting nuclear smuggling.

It has no mechanisms for rapidly sharing intelligence information on nuclear smuggling incidents with Russia and other former Soviet republics, unlike Germany, which concluded such an agreement with Moscow last week. The lack of such an accord, officials said, helps explain widespread grumbling within the government that the CIA knew little more about the recent smuggling incidents than what had appeared in German press accounts.