An unidentified U.S. senator has placed a hold on the nomination of the veteran diplomat picked to lead a key State Department arms control bureau .
Thomas Countryman, who until last week served as deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, was the White House's choice to head up the International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau.
The office, presently run by Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen, manages the State Department's international efforts to halt the proliferation and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, including their delivery systems, materials and technology.
A hold is a parliamentary procedure that allows one or more senators to prevent a motion from reaching a vote on the chamber floor. The restriction in this case originated with at least one lawmaker, according to Foggy Bottom.
"We're aware of the hold. The senator in question has not identified him or herself, so we don't know who it is but we of course are eager to resolve the hold as soon as we can," a State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Global Security Newswire.
The official said that Countryman's July 13 nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "appeared to go very smoothly." He was approved by the panel in a voice vote during a July 25 business meeting.
"There were no indications, at least at that time, of pending or extant concerns that needed to be dealt with," the official said during a telephone interview on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not respond by deadline to a request for comment submitted on Wednesday.
"The position itself ... has really had a very difficult time getting anyone nominated, No. 1, from the State Department and the White House and, No. 2, getting confirmed on Capitol Hill," according to Paul Walker, security and sustainability chief at the environmental organization Global Green USA.
"In most cases the holds put on nominees have nothing to do with the nominee," he added during a Wednesday phone interview. "It's simply a shot across the bow of the Obama administration to show the Republican opposition is displeased with Obama policy in general."
The International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau has been without a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary since January 2009.
"We do believe that this is a very important position that should be filled and that has for quite some time gone unfilled," the Foggy Bottom official said. "The business of combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a serious one and it can only be aided with an assistant secretary who is confirmed."
The ISN office is one branch of the State Department's Arms Control and International Security Bureau, working alongside the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau and the Political-Military Affairs Bureau in what are commonly referred to as the "T" family.
The offices are overseen by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year reshuffled the bureaus in an effort to better execute President Obama's wide-ranging nonproliferation agenda. The reorganization saw the existing Verification, Compliance and Implementation Bureau become the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau. The previous entity provided policy oversight and resources for all matters relating to certification of other nations' compliance with international arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament agreements.
The move prompted Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar, R-Ind. to send Clinton a letter voicing concerns about the shake-up, including that the White House had yet to submit a nominee to lead the nonproliferation office.
"At present, it is not clear if the administration intends to submit a nominee ... before it takes any action to reorganize the ISN Bureau," Lugar wrote in the March 1, 2010 missive.
A spokesman for the Indiana lawmaker declined to comment for this article.
Walker said Van Diepen has been "quite good" as ISN chief but "acting assistant secretary just doesn't give you the same authority as a fully confirmed assistant secretary."
He said a Senate-confirmed bureau chief would also bolster U.S. policy efforts at the Biological Weapons Convention review conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, this December.
The nonproliferation office has policy oversight for the 36-year-old treaty, which prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of weaponized pathogens such as anthrax, smallpox and plague. The review conferences, conducted every five years, examine the pact's implementation and recommend improvements to the nonproliferation regime.
While most of the work at the three-week conference will be led by Laura Kennedy, the Obama administration's special representative for the convention, "you really need an assistant secretary in charge of that as well" to further advance the U.S. agenda, according to Walker.
The State Department official agreed.
"It would be helpful to have Mr. Countryman in that position" before the three-week review conference, the official told GSN. "We will continue to do our work regardless but it would of course be important to have in place before then."
In addition to the Biological Weapons Convention, the bureau implements the interagency Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. It also assists with the Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
The State Department official said that the nonproliferation office would provide "business as usual" until the Senate hold on Countryman is lifted and he can be confirmed by the full chamber.