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Kerry Will Target Threat of Weapons

The Democrat plans to outline a policy to help keep mass-destruction devices out of terrorists' hands, contrasting his approach with Bush's.

June 01, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry, who has struggled to lay out a distinctive policy for Iraq, will attempt this week to draw a compelling contrast with President Bush on another pressing national security issue: reducing the chance that terrorists can obtain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Kerry plans to deliver an address in Florida today outlining what advisors say is a more aggressive policy for finding, securing and destroying such weapons that could threaten the safety of the United States.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will argue that even a relatively nominal increase in the U.S.' annual investment of less than $1 billion would reap enormous security benefits, according to experts who have been advising Kerry on the issue.

That money would be used to secure weapons and dangerous materials that often go lightly guarded in Russia and other states that made up the Soviet Union -- efforts collectively known as "cooperative threat reduction."

The Massachusetts senator also will call for a high-level presidential appointee to lead the threat reduction push, for more police and firefighters to beef up the ranks of "first responders" to any mass attack in the U.S., and for revamped diplomacy in Iran and North Korea to slow nuclear programs in those nations.

Kerry has previously proposed significantly accelerating the time frame for securing "loose" nuclear materials that the Russians had agreed to store or eliminate. He wants those efforts accomplished within four years, instead of the 13 years projected in one recent study.

With his speech today, Kerry is pursuing a goal he has touched upon in past remarks: elevating weapons nonproliferation "to the top of the global agenda."

Arms control advocates and Democratic strategists believe the threat reduction issue could have particular resonance with voters because of a combination of factors: uncertainty over whether the Iraq war has helped or hurt security at home, continuing reports that weapons of mass destruction remain relatively unprotected in many nations, and new warnings that terrorists may try to attack America this summer.

The Bush administration tried to slow or eliminate several cooperative arms reduction projects before Sept. 11, 2001, amid complaints that the Russians were not doing their share. But the president shifted course after the terrorist attacks.

In the summer of 2002, he pledged $10 billion over 10 years to a global partnership for rooting out weapons of mass destruction, with other Western nations committing another $10 billion.

Also under his watch, the longtime rogue state of Libya agreed to eliminate its development of nuclear weapons.

Last week, the Bush administration pushed ahead on another delayed cooperative measure. The Energy Department said it would undertake a $450-million campaign to retrieve nuclear materials that the U.S. and former Soviet Union sent to more than 100 nations for use in research reactors.

The nonproliferation subject appears to be of no small concern to many voters.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans have listed "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons" as a top foreign policy concern, just below "fighting international terrorism," according to surveys by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, said Kerry's argument that more emphasis was needed on cooperative weapons reduction could find a receptive audience. In surveys Kull has conducted, a solid majority of Americans said they thought Bush had not worked closely enough with other nations on the issue.

But Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, said it was Kerry who had a credibility problem on national security issues.

"Every time he brings up something like this to criticize something Bush has ... done, the real question is: 'What have you been doing the last 20 years as a senator?' " Goeas said.

GOP political strategist Eddie Mahe Jr. questioned how big a role the threat reduction issue would play in the campaign. "I don't think you are going to find people who are going to focus on that to make their decision about a president," Mahe said.

Experts have been calling for years on America and other nations to work harder to eliminate weapons that could be destructive to all -- recommendations that increased after 9/11.

Toward the end of the administration of President Clinton, a bi-partisan commission co-chaired by former Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee recommended that the U.S. increase its annual investment in multinational arms reduction programs from less than $1 billion a year to $3 billion. Under Bush, expenditures have remained relatively flat.

Last week, a study by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs concluded less nuclear material had been secured since Sept. 11 than in the two years before the terrorist attacks.

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