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Failure to Launch

Inside the Bush administration's dream of resurrecting the nuclear weapons complex—and the old-school Republican congressman who stood in its way

"Technically you can't go deep enough to contain the blast," says Bruce Tarter, the former head of the Livermore lab and a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel. "It was not even close under any circumstance one can imagine. It didn't have technical or military credibility."

Such scientific concerns reinforced Hobson's skepticism of the new bombs. "The physics of it didn't work and they sent the wrong signal to the world," he says. "It gave people a lot of reasons to build their own weapons."

He also found it puzzling that while civilian Pentagon officials were clamoring for the new weapon, their uniformed colleagues seemed uninterested in it. Hobson visited the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, the nuclear-war nerve center, to see what its staff would say about the concept. "They never mentioned it, like it just didn't matter," he recalls. In October 2004, he convinced his subcommittee to kill funding for the bunker buster. The message to the White House, he thought, was clear.

A few weeks later, one of the subcommittee's senior staffers, Scott Burnison, stumbled upon a routine work authorization from the Sandia weapons lab showing that researchers there were spending thousands of dollars building a concrete wall for a crash test of the rnep's hardened shell. Hobson was furious. He called Energy secretary Samuel Bodman and demanded that the test be stopped.

"They tried to go around me," he says, still visibly angry about it. "They lost their credibility." Brooks confirms the episode, but says the administration saw the test as harmless background research: "It never occurred to us that this would be an issue." Hobson, he insists, "overreacted."

By now, news of Hobson's failure to rubber-stamp the administration's agenda was getting attention at the top. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld summoned Hobson to see him, alone; the congressman politely replied that he would only come with key aides.

On March 15, 2005, Hobson and two subcommittee staffers sat down for a breakfast meeting at the Pentagon. Waiting for them were Rumsfeld and Bodman, as well as General Joseph Cartwright, the head of the Strategic Command, and a phalanx of senior defense officials. Rumsfeld, according to several of those who attended, was calm but insistent: The Pentagon needed the bunker buster, and it was going to get it—one way or another.

Recalls Hobson, in an account confirmed by others, "I said to him, 'Look, you're not going to be able to do this, and if you want to take this to a vote and embarrass the president of the United States, fine. I'll beat you. Because one thing I do know how to do is count votes.' Rumsfeld said, 'Bah, you might win this year but you won't win next year.' And I said, 'We'll see.'"

"Here's the thing you've got to know about Dave," explains Kasich, Hobson's former Ohio colleague. "I've never met anyone more interested in encouraging other people's success. But if you screw with him, that's a big mistake. And they misled him. They treated him like any other congressman. He isn't any other congressman."

Despite Rumsfeld's show of obstinacy, Hobson succeeded in killing the bunker buster, as well as the advanced concepts program. He was still irked, though. The president had gone to war in Iraq, in part, to shut down Saddam Hussein's purported nuclear weapons program, and one of the few things that Bush and John Kerry agreed on in the 2004 campaign was that nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism were the gravest threats facing the country. Yet the administration's weapons policies seemed likely to make proliferation worse while actually accomplishing very little in terms of revitalizing the American weapons complex.

Linton Brooks, a respected master of weapons minutiae, now acknowledges that he was sent out to sell the bunker buster with little planning and almost no official backing. "It seems hard to imagine we could be so dumb," he says, "but we thought of this as not particularly contentious." He says that he was ordered to follow a contradictory script that left him, the administration, and its nuclear weapons policy tied in knots.

Brooks still believes in the administration's overall goals, but he is sympathetic to Hobson's sense that its policy was adrift. "rnep was a throwaway program," he says. By the time the bunker buster and advanced concepts were killed, Brooks concedes, "I don't know that we had a plan" for what would be done instead.

Hobson was convinced he should step into the vacuum and design the coherent nuclear policy the White House had failed to deliver. So he gathered the support of a few key members of Congress and slipped a single sentence into a conference report on the 2005 energy appropriations bill, taking the $9 million once reserved for advanced concepts to create something called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (rrw) program, which would improve "the reliability, longevity, and certifiability" of the existing nuclear stockpile. It was the most significant new nuclear weapons initiative since the end of the Cold War, snuck into law like an unassuming earmark.

As Hobson conceived it, the rrw program would provide both cost savings and a comprehensive arms-control policy. Since the end of the Cold War, billions of dollars had been spent on maintenance and piecemeal fixes for the nation's warheads. Hobson wanted the labs to come up with safer, more modern, and more durable weapons. In addition, he wanted to refurbish the production complex by consolidating and modernizing some of its far-flung facilities.

This was a minimalist policy, and it would result in significant arms reductions. Deploying more reliable weapons would reduce the need for the thousands of warheads that are currently kept as backups. Perhaps most important, the redesigned warheads would have no new capabilities such as bunker busting, making them less provocative to other countries. Hobson also insisted that there would be no underground testing. "I wanted to make sure that nobody could play around with these things and come up with new capabilities," he says. "You just knew they wanted to."

Sure enough, the weapons complex and the administration saw Hobson's rrw plan as an open-ended mandate for many new generations of weapons. In congressional testimony last spring, a senior official outlined 11 major aims for the program; the Congressional Research Service has counted 20. Yet as its nuclear wish list became ever more bloated, the administration never gave Hobson the details he demanded—precisely how many warheads it wanted to build, what types, or what they would cost.

To fill in some of the blanks, Hobson had insisted that the Energy Department set up a task force to examine the nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure. After months of research, the team, which was chaired by scientist and defense consultant David Overskei, released a detailed report that affirmed Hobson's vision of modernization, cost cutting, and consolidation. But here too the nnsa and the labs appeared to embrace the blueprint for downsizing, only to hijack it as a call for an expanded weapons complex.

Philip Coyle, a former senior weapons official at the Pentagon and Livermore, and now an adviser at the Center for Defense Information, says that, in hindsight, the nuclear complex was motivated by self-preservation. "I think they saw rrw as a path to a more sustainable future when they weren't sure if they had much of a future," he says. "They got carried away without thinking through the arms-control implications." The wasted opportunity for change still has Overskei feeling bitter. The administration, he says, "has no policy on nuclear weapons. That is the crux of the whole problem."

Today, the Bush administration's nuclear ambitions have unraveled. Following a string of security and safety lapses at the weapons labs, Brooks was fired last January. In April, an expert analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science destroyed nearly every claim the White House made for its version of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, observing dryly that "it does not respond to a new military capability or mission need." The report said the old warheads and their plutonium pits may last longer than expected—contrary to one of the administration's arguments for why they urgently needed to be replaced. In May, the replacement warhead program budget was zeroed out by Hobson's subcommittee, now chaired by a Democrat, Pete Visclosky of Indiana.

Paradoxically, the Bush administration's nuclear misadventure has done something that even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not accomplish: opening nuclear disarmament for debate among foreign-policy conservatives. Recent reports from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Sandia lab have concluded that a new nuclear program could encourage proliferation and harm American credibility on arms control. Earlier last year, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn—all former Cold War hawks—wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal urging the United States to lead a new disarmament initiative. "Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage," they wrote.

Its plans thwarted, the administration has resorted to bullying. In July, the secretaries of Energy, Defense, and State issued a statement urging quick funding of the rrw program, warning that any delays could force a resumption of underground testing. Hobson and Visclosky wrote an angry letter rejecting the threat as "irresponsible." (The Senate kept the program alive, but with reduced funding.)

For his part, Brooks seems mystified by how badly the administration has handled nuclear weapons policy. Talking at length at a diner near his home in Virginia, he recalls how, as the chief American arms control negotiator in 1991, he concluded the final draft of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a 700-page document nine years in the making that all but ended the arms race with the Soviet Union. "It was on the front page of the New York Times when we signed it in July," he says. "By Christmas the country I signed it with was gone and I never saw it coming." Watching Bush's nuclear weapons program run off course was just as startling, he says.

"I do think the White House was absent," Brooks says. "There's no organizational focus on nuclear issues today. I've been complaining about that for some time."

Hobson, who plans to retire in 2009, agrees that the real problem with Bush's nuclear policy—once it came to shaping reasonable, practical plans, as opposed to making grand promises—was simple neglect. From the dawn of the nuclear era more than six decades ago, every administration, whether in peaceful or violent times, has maintained a solemn focus on its policies for the only weapon that can end civilization. But not this one.

Hobson observes that even as he blocked the White House's rearmament efforts, he never faced consistent pressure from the administration or the Republican leadership to fall in line. "The president of the United States knows me well enough that if he was concerned about what I had been doing, he would have gotten me on the plane and gotten in my face," says Hobson. "He never did anything. Nobody called."

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