Grabbing Victory from the Jaws of Defeat: A Recap of the CTBT in 1999

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By Elizabeth Turpen – The administration’s push for Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification recalls a moment nearly a decade ago when the Senate soundly rejected the treaty in a 48-51 vote.  Applying the lessons learned from that experience is critical to successfully marshaling the 67 votes necessary to achieve ratification.  Although opponents are likely to surface many reasons to vote against the treaty, an important element will be the maintenance of our nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing.  However, other variables that play into the process can easily trump the technical aspects of the treaty.

Test Ban Treaty proponents frequently suggest that the lab directors’ testimony during the 1999 CTBT “debate” was tantamount to selling the arms control community up the river.  This view is based on an erroneous belief that the nuclear Labs made a Faustian bargain with policymakers to obtain stockpile stewardship in exchange for their support of the CTBT.  Not only does such a proposition render stewardship a farce — undermining the ultimate objective of treaty proponents — but numerous other factors surrounding that “debate” belie any notion that the lab directors could have done anything to change the outcome. 

Stockpile Stewardship arose initially in response to Congress’ passage of a moratorium on nuclear tests in 1992.  The Cold War paradigm of design, test, produce and deploy had to be replaced by a scientific approach to ensuring the arsenal’s “safety, reliability and performance” – later anointed as the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship (SSP) program. 

Although President Clinton’s January 1995 State of the Union address included a commitment to “enact a comprehensive nuclear test ban” and the administration agreed to pursue SSP in that same year, it was President Clinton’s continuation of the US moratorium that hinged on the lab directors’ guarantees that our nuclear weapons were safe and reliable.  The CTBT safeguards regarding stockpile stewardship explicitly linked US support for the test ban to stewardship’s success; these safeguards resulted from classified discussions between the lab directors and DOE leadership in the summer of 1995.

However, certification under SSP really only got underway in 1997, and the annual certification letters became more formal (and classified) in subsequent years.  At the time of the CTBT debate, the laboratories had only been through the official certification process for three years.  Many of the tools and capabilities thought necessary to succeed were not yet available: the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydro-Test (DAHRT) facility and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) were under construction; computer capacity and visualization capabilities were suboptimal; and the “lifetime” of plutonium pits was unknown. 

One can quibble with whether all of these facilities and capabilities are necessary to certify the stockpile.  But it makes a convincing argument that only three years into a massive, multifaceted scientific experiment with key tools not yet available, the directors could not guarantee the experiment’s success.  Their testimony reflected this reality as well as the difficulties they faced in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee firestorm. Only Paul Robinson, then director of Sandia and a former arms control negotiator, applied his ambassadorial credentials to go beyond the technical aspects of the treaty.  But even if all three lab directors had offered solid guarantees of SSP’s long-term success, the treaty still would have gone down in flames.

The CTBT opened for signature in September 1996.  President Clinton signed and subsequently submitted it to the Senate for “advice and consent” a year later.   Senator Jesse Helms, former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated in a 1998 letter to President Clinton that it was “very low on the Committee’s list of priorities.” This remained true until Senate Democrats started pressing for action in the early fall of 1999.

On September 8, Senator Dorgan’s threat to “plant (himself) on the floor” and shut down routine business if action on the CTBT were not taken was the catalyst for clandestine activities on the other side of the aisle.  Majority Leader Lott, Senator Kyl and Senator Helms started collecting votes from Republican colleagues. When they called Senator Dorgan’s bluff late that month, they already had enough nays to know – prior to any hearings or debate – that the treaty would be rejected. 

The Clinton Administration was caught flat-footed. None of the preliminary work had been done to prepare the Senate for such a debate.  As Senator Byrd summarized it: “I have not been contacted by the administration in any way, shape, form or manner.  Nobody in the administration has talked with me about this.” 

The 1999 CTBT debacle was highly politicized.  The Administration and Senate Democrats did not lay the groundwork prior to pushing for the debate.  Republicans capitalized on the moment to score political points.  This was not a high water mark in the Senate’s history. 

Three critical lessons can be drawn from what happened in 1999.  First, the lab directors’ role is to offer their technical advice on the readiness of the US to enter an indefinite commitment to a nuclear test ban.  Adherence to a myth regarding the labs having made a “deal” not only nullifies the integrity of the certification process, it also gives rise to false expectations.  Second, beware of an ambush.  Proponents need to make sure that the opposition has not already determined the outcome and ensure the process is appropriate to the weighty task of true “advice and consent” of an international treaty.  Last, and critical to avoiding another ambush, the administration needs to begin the tedious but necessary spade work of canvassing the Hill with information about the treaty and making the deals necessary to get to 67. 

The bottom line remains: No vote on the CTBT is better than another no vote.


Photo Credit: United States Department of Energy

Dr. Elizabeth Turpen is a Senior Associate with the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program at the Stimson Center.

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