GAO lashes U.S. effort to employ Russian weapons scientists

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. program intended to keep Russian weapons scientists employed and prevent them from selling information or assistance to other nations has directed significant amounts of money to scientists not claiming to have weapons-related experience, the Government Accountability Office reported Friday.

Also, about 15 percent of the scientists involved in the cases GAO auditors looked at were born in 1970 or later, making them too young to have had a hand in Soviet-era WMD efforts.

"This is contrary to the original intent of the program, which was to reduce the proliferation risk posed by Soviet-era weapons scientists," government auditors wrote in the report (GAO-08-189).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a growing concern that indigent but experienced former Soviet scientists could spread the knowledge necessary for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs.

To mitigate potential proliferation risks, the Energy Department in 1994 established the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention to engage former Soviet scientists in nonmilitary work in the short term and in the longer term create sustainable private sector employment.

More than a decade later, however, the GAO report calls for the Energy Department to seriously re-evaluate the program and come up with a strategy to discontinue the efforts.

"DOE has not developed an exit strategy for the IPP program, even though officials from the Russian government, Russian and Ukrainian institutes, and U.S. companies raised questions about the continuing need for the program," government auditors write.

One senior Russian atomic official told GAO investigators that his nation's reinvigorated economy has pushed the program into irrelevance and that scientists there no longer pose a proliferation risk.

In fiscal 2007, Congress appropriated $28 million for the program. "Due to the serious nature of these finding, we recommend that DOE perform a comprehensive reassessment of the IPP program to help Congress determine whether to continue to fund the program," auditors wrote.

While agreeing with a number of the GAO recommendations, such as the call for more rigorous documentation to establish scientists' WMD background and better ways to measure the number of private sector jobs created, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration disagreed with the report's overall conclusion.

The administration, which oversees the programs, disputes the final GAO recommendation that the necessity of the program be reassessed, its associate administrator wrote in a letter drafted in response to the report.

As of April 2007, the Energy Department claimed to have engaged nearly 17,000 scientists in Russia and other countries, but the Government Accountability Office report points out that this includes both those with and without weapons-related experience.

In its analysis of 97 IPP projects involving roughly 6,500 scientists, auditors concluded that more than half did not claim to have any specific weapons-related background. Those scientists received 40 percent, or about $10 million, of funding for those projects.

Officials from 10 Russian and Ukrainian scientific institutes said the U.S. funding helps them attract and retain younger scientists who would have otherwise emigrated to the United States or western European nations, the Government Accountability Office reported.

Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the Associated Press that the "GAO has raised troubling questions about whether a nonproliferation program has perversely funded a younger generation of (Russian) weapons scientists."

The Energy Department claims to have created more than 2,700 long-term private sector jobs, but those accomplishments also have been overstated, government auditors concluded. The figure is uncertain because the agency relies on "good-faith reporting form U.S. industry partners and foreign institutes" and does not independently verify the numbers, the report says.

GAO officials also found that 97 percent of the funds being spent on nonproliferation projects in Libya through May 2007 were actually being spent in domestic DOE laboratories to pay for project management and oversight. Statutory restrictions on the program limit the percentage of such spending to no more than 35 percent.

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