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Los Angeles Times Interview

Lee Butler

A Cold Warrior Looks to Ban the Bomb After a Career in Brinkmanship

May 23, 1999|Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Times, is the author of "With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War."

Retired Gen. George L. (Lee) Butler is among the very few whose job description has included the power to destroy the planet. As he recalled during a telephone conversation last week: "I lived for three years, every day of my life, with the requirement to answer a phone within three rings and be prepared to advise the president on how to retaliate with respect to the real or perceived threat of nuclear attack. I found it extremely sobering."

Butler, 59, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a much-decorated Vietnam air-combat veteran, came to that awesome responsibility upon ascending to the post of commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces. He held that job between 1991 and 1994 in the Bush administration, just after the Cold War came to an abrupt end. But the U.S reliance on nuclear deterrence did not.

While working for the Joint Chiefs under the direction of Gen. Colin L. Powell, Butler was charged with reevaluating the U.S. nuclear deterrent in the aftermath of the Cold War. It was Butler's recommendation to stand down the U.S. nuclear force from hair-trigger alert for the first time in 30 years, and the Bush administration acted on his recommendation, with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then the Soviet leader, following suit.

"So I felt when I retired in 1994," Butler recalled, "that nuclear-arms control was on a pretty good track. START II was signed and starting the ratification process, and I had a great sense of relief and gratification that all had begun to change fairly quickly." But he ruefully concedes that his optimism was misplaced: "Here we are, years later, and things look pretty much the same."

The impasse on nuclear-arms control deeply worries Butler as he assays a Russia close to ruin with deteriorating control over its still deadly nuclear arsenal. "The Russians survey a strategic landscape in which our Senate has imposed a moratorium on any sort of cuts that we might make, so here we are with 6,000, 7,000 operational weapons, about half of them on alert; and they are struggling to keep about a third of that many viable."

While everyone is focused on the fighting in Kosovo, Butler considers Russia's weakness and instability a prescription for disaster and so has devoted his retirement years to getting arms control back on track. The father of two and grandparent of three, Butler is highly motivated in his quest to ban nuclear weapons, but then again he knows what those weapons can do when perhaps the rest of us have forgotten.

Question: The whole effort to abolish nuclear weapons, which you have been involved with, seems to be on a back burner as relations with the Russians deteriorate. Are you worried about their ability to control their own weapons?

Answer: I am, to some extent. My own view is that, with regard to the operational weapons, I think they're as concerned as we, if not more so, about keeping those accountable and safe and secure. I worry more about the components back in the labs and in the multiplicity of storage sites that they built over the years, and I just can't believe they have the resources to keep those to the same standards that they did during the Cold War. I've been following some of the reports coming out of the secret cities--for example, Krasnoyarsk, where that reactor is still running, cranking out maybe 40 tons of plutonium a year and folks are on half-wages and dispirited and poor morale and God knows what kind of discipline they're able to maintain, and that's an enormous temptation. So I guess I worry more about that stuff getting into the wrong hands than I do about accidental launch.

Q: Speaking of stuff getting into the wrong hands, what do you make of the charges of China stealing secrets from the Los Alamos lab?

A: I'm not so much outraged that China is spying on us. Everybody spies on everybody else--even our friends spy on us. That's one thing, but that just simply means we all have the greater obligation to safeguard those secrets we feel could be most damaging to our national security if revealed. So I put a lot of responsibility on our own doorstep here.

Q: In terms of arms control, what right do we have, aside from that they shouldn't steal, to tell China not to develop an arsenal of this sort?

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