Inside the Bush administration's dream of resurrecting the nuclear weapons complex—and the old-school Republican congressman who stood in its way
James Sterngold, MotherJones January/February 2008 Issue
Representative Dave Hobson is a Republican in the old mold. Stocky, silver-haired, and congenial, the 71-year-old Ohio congressman is a fiscal hawk and a gun-rights supporter but has no truck with the religious right. He works hard in the legislative trenches tending to the arc of suburban and rural counties near Columbus that he's represented since 1991. Like his home territory, the legislative terrain Hobson occupies is solid if unexciting; he's the guy you might catch on c-span picking through a military construction bill.
Two things color Hobson's views on policymaking: his success as a small businessman—he became wealthy from commercial real estate—and the four military bases in his home district. He is strong on defense, but in a nuts-and-bolts, look-after-the-troops way. He's proud of his efforts to privatize military housing, for instance, and his fight to get more armored Humvees to the troops in Iraq. (He's been there several times.) He also believes in tight budgets—a sign on his desk reads, "It's the national debt, stupid"—though he isn't dogmatic about it.
"Dave's a businessman who also happens to be a politician," says John Kasich, a powerful former Ohio congressman and Fox News commentator who is one of Hobson's closest friends. "Dave's not anti-pork, believe me, but the spending has to make sense." Hobson frequently won't sign off on a measure unless it has, in a phrase he often uses, "a business plan"—a clear set of achievable goals and a sensible way of reaching them.
Which is why this respected conservative has emerged, to his own surprise, as one of the toughest opponents of the Bush administration's extraordinarily ambitious attempts to expand the nation's nuclear weapons complex. The irony is that Hobson strongly believes the United States should have a state-of-the-art nuclear capability and a credible nuclear deterrent; he's even crafted a program that he believes would ensure this. Yet on nuclear policy, he says, President Bush has committed a cardinal legislative sin: putting forth grand ideas without a business plan or even a coherent notion of their impact on national security.
But that isn't what most disturbs Hobson. During conversations in his House office, decorated with military mementos—flags, a musket, an Army helmet, mounted swords and scabbards—the otherwise easygoing congressman becomes stern, even angry, as he recounts the White House's record of outright dissembling and abysmal planning. His complaints evoke the familiar criticisms of the president's handling of the war in Iraq. But, Hobson says, his experience was particularly troubling because it involved a debate about real weapons of mass destruction—perhaps the most sensitive security issue facing any president. Once a true believer, Hobson has come to a stark conclusion about the administration's approach to nuclear weapons: "They lied."
Shortly after he became chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development in early 2003, Hobson came across a curious item in the proposed budget for the nation's nuclear weapons program. (As part of the Department of Energy, the program fell under the subcommittee's purview.) At the time, Hobson admits, he didn't know much about this dense, sobering subject. "Only senators were supposed to get involved in nuclear weapons issues," he explains. But he was ready to influence an issue larger than the opening of a new veterans clinic in his district. Ever confident in his ability to wield a sharp red pencil, he settled down with the $6 billion weapons budget.
The item that gave him pause was something called the Modern Pit Facility, a proposed factory for manufacturing a critical nuclear weapons component—grapefruit-sized, hollow plutonium spheres that are encased in high explosives to form the triggers of thermonuclear bombs. Even with 6,000 warheads deployed, more than 4,000 kept in reserve, and thousands of additional pits in storage, the Bush administration was insisting that a new pit production line was essential for upgrading the stockpile.
Hobson was worried that restarting pit production might push countries like Iran and North Korea to speed up their nuclear efforts, or even prod Russia and China to boost their warhead programs. More than that, though, the proposal's sheer scale and redundancy bothered him. For years, the nation's weapons labs had certified that the existing stockpile was in perfect working order, and weapons planners said they needed only small numbers of new pits for making specialized warheads.
Pit production had stopped in 1989 when the government's plant in Rocky Flats, Colorado, was shuttered due to major safety lapses and leaks of plutonium and other lethal materials. President Bush himself had declared that he wanted to shrink the nuclear stockpile to a minimum, and had recently negotiated with Russia to slash each country's deployed warheads by more than half—to 2,200 or fewer—by 2012. Yet the Modern Pit Facility would fabricate as many as 450 pits a year—roughly the same number being produced during the 1980s, in the era of mutually assured destruction.
Hobson voiced his concerns to Linton Brooks, the newly appointed head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (nnsa), an Energy Department unit that oversees the weapons complex.
"I said, 'First of all, I don't think you need 450 pits a year,'" Hobson recalls. "What kind of signal does that send to all these other countries? Second of all, I didn't think we had that kind of money."
Sensing that the nuclear priesthood was not going to take direction from a small-town congressman, Hobson was not prepared for a cakewalk. And yet, "without any consultations or questions, they just came back to us and said, 'Okay, we don't need that capacity. We'll cut it,'" says Hobson. "I thought, 'Gosh, this is an easy job.'"
Today, Brooks says that the administration was never actually set on fabricating 450 pits a year. "It was the high end of the range," he says.
For Hobson, though, this unexpected reversal was an epiphany. "These were nuclear weapons we were talking about, and they hadn't given it more thought than that?"
Few of the ideological blueprints from the foreign-policy hawks who swept into office with George W. Bush were as ambitious as those for reenergizing the idle nuclear weapons production complex. The United States still had its massive Cold War arsenal, but the bombs' role in defense planning was waning. Nuclear weapons were the ultimate dumb bombs, so indiscriminately destructive that many military planners regarded them as largely useless. During the Clinton years, some officials had even argued for their abolition, though the hawks prevailed and set up an expensive "stockpile stewardship" program to maintain the weapons and nourish the politically influential weapons labs.
In early 2001, the National Institute for Public Policy, a right-leaning think tank, issued a policy paper by a group of prominent neoconservatives who argued for a radical new strategy. The United States might be able to make do with a smaller nuclear force, they said, but it urgently needed new types of warheads for specialized missions such as destroying deeply buried bunkers.
But the real novelty of the proposal was its rationale: New warheads were required not to deal with specific threats such as the Soviet Union, but to prepare for unknown threats that might one day materialize. It was a "what if" strategy, a dramatic example of the neoconservative mantra that American military power needs to be essentially unfettered and boundless.
Three months after 9/11, the Bush administration issued a new Nuclear Posture Review, a sweeping policy statement that radically redefined nuclear strategy precisely along the lines urged by the National Institute for Public Policy. (The document was classified, but large portions were leaked.) This was not surprising, since six of the think-tank study's authors had assumed key positions in the new administration, including then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, dod deputies Stephen Cambone and Keith Payne, and nnsa head Brooks.
The new policy fully embraced the "what if" doctrine. No expense would be spared in creating a "revitalized defense infrastructure." No longer would nuclear bombs be kept in reserve as history-altering weapons of last resort; the new nuclear ideologues were envisioning a strategy in which low-kiloton nuclear bombs could be used as actual war-fighting tools, a means—they claimed—of deterring the likes of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
A year and a half later, the Republican-controlled Congress repealed the part of the 1993 Spratt-Furse amendment that had prohibited research on weapons with a yield of less than five kilotons (roughly a third as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). It appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for refurbishing warheads and researching so-called bunker busters as well as new types of smaller warheads labeled "advanced concepts." There were even suggestions that the administration might lift the ban on underground testing put in place by the first President Bush in 1992, widely regarded as one of the most important nonproliferation measures of the past two decades.
The more Rep. Hobson learned about this ambitious nuclear vision, the more he saw the administration's efforts as an ill-advised prelude to a new arms race. Eventually, he approved the funding, but he inserted requirements that limited advanced concepts to the drawing board and insisted that the entire enterprise be subject to close congressional oversight. "We thought it was going to be just a research type of thing," he says.
The nnsa and the labs heard a different message. In December 2003 Brooks wrote to the heads of the Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia nuclear labs, telling them they were now "free to explore a range of technical options...without any concern that some ideas could inadvertently violate a vague and arbitrary limitation." Hobson got a copy of the letter, and his heart sank. "I'd been had," he says.
Hobson was growing skeptical, but he had not lost his faith in the administration. It would take the bunker-buster debacle to change that.
The idea behind the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (rnep) was to use nuclear weapons to destroy subterranean bunkers where Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein might conceal command centers or caches of wmd. In theory, by detonating a low-kiloton bomb underground, it would be able to crush a reinforced target buried hundreds of feet beneath the surface, and its blast would be contained—making it more like a precision munition than a doomsday weapon.
The Bush administration decided that it needed bunker busters that were more accurate and could go deeper than existing "earth penetrators," specially modified warheads that can burrow no more than 20 feet into hard rock.
There was just one problem: Every independent assessment found that a new generation of bunker busters could not possibly perform as hoped. A March 2003 article in Arms Control Today by a group of respected nuclear weapons advisers concluded that no bomb could penetrate more than 50 feet without destroying the warhead itself, and that crushing a hardened bunker 1,000 feet underground would require an explosion of more than 100 kilotons—seven times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Even a one-kiloton bomb, detonated at 20 to 50 feet down, "would eject more than 1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris from a crater about the size of ground zero at the World Trade Center." A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that instead of vaporizing any biological or chemical agents inside the bunker, the blast actually might disperse them.
"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."