The American Interest
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Bombs Away

New tools to fight WMD proliferation need to be institutionalized, not abandoned.

Published on January 1, 2009

The elements of power U.S. policymakers can use to prevent and counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass effect, have often been described as tools in a policy toolbox known to insiders as DIMEFIL—standing for diplomatic, information, military, economic, finance, intelligence and law enforcement options. A relative newcomer to the toolbox gained prominence under the Bush Administration: strategic interdiction. The Obama Administration would be wise to sustain and refine this new element of counter-proliferation strategy, which has already proved its worth in dealing with the rapidly evolving challenge of proliferation.

Proliferation and its policy antagonists, nonproliferation and counter-proliferation, have all undergone profound changes in recent years. Proliferation is no longer the exclusive domain of states; private business networks now buy, sell and trade WMD technology as they do other forms of contraband. A vast underworld of counterfeit merchandise, smuggled humans (including illegal immigrants and slaves), human organs, endangered plants and animals, precious stones and metals, chemicals, drugs, weapons and prohibited goods of every type now occupies a troubling yet significant place in today’s system of global trade and commerce.1 Secondary industries provide financing, insurance, legal services, real estate, transportation, manufacturing and other business services to international contraband networks. Front companies, brokers and middlemen have adopted sophisticated methods to evade national and international controls. These networks provide criminal enterprises access to the global economy. Their shady deals are indistinguishable from, and are often integrated with, legitimate businesses, many of them operating in the world’s ungoverned spaces.

Stopping proliferation has become progressively more difficult, too, as the valves, circuits, machine tools and raw materials needed to build a nuclear weapon program become increasingly commonplace and well understood by proliferators and their suppliers. Much of what is needed falls below the threshold of national and international export control regimes. Much of it, too, has legitimate industrial uses that make purchases easy to conceal within the daily ebb and flow of international trade.

The A.Q. Khan proliferation scandal offers a perfect example of the problem. Khan’s network embedded its proliferation businesses in a web of ostensibly legitimate enterprises and used multiple banks, false identities, cutouts and foreign currencies to mask its activities. This ploy helped balance the desire to sell with the need to carefully choose customers so as not to degrade the value of its product, which its Iranian, North Korean and Libyan customers well appreciated. One innovation (at least for WMD proliferation) was the Khan network’s use of offshore manufacturing in Malaysia and South Africa to fill customer orders for uranium enrichment equipment.

Khan and his gang were neither unique nor even particularly skillful in their operations. They merely adapted widely used business practices to procure, produce and market their illicit wares. They got caught, true, but isolated attempts by a few governments to bring legal action against a handful of Khan network ringleaders won’t make much of a dent in the global market for WMD technology. To do that, we need new approaches. Strategic interdiction is one of them.

The Origins of Interdiction

Most of the elements in the DIMEFIL toolbox arose and matured at a time when states were the focus of non- and counter-proliferation policies. Naturally enough, then, they still work best against states. Interdiction, however, aims to disrupt the networks themselves rather than the countries that commission them to acquire technology.

Military capabilities are clearly an important facet of interdiction. The armed forces bring special knowledge of the operational as well as the international legal aspects of using military force against foreign vessels. The U.S. Navy’s experience with tracking ships, enforcing sanctions and intercepting smugglers constitutes a core competency for the national interdiction capability. A Navy initiative to revolutionize Maritime Domain Awareness has also brought important resources to the interdiction mission. And of course, general military preparations for conflict with potentially hostile states are highly relevant for any country-specific, joint interdiction strategy.

Interdiction evokes images of ships being boarded on the high seas to seize suspected WMD cargos, but it involves far more than that. It encompasses the entire globalized WMD technology market. The Bush strategy included warfighters in a broad range of activities. It also required far more sophisticated cooperative arrangements between the military and both the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the Executive Branch.

The result of this improved integration of U.S. hard and soft power is that now, when intelligence information about a planned WMD transaction comes to light, policymakers have a fuller spectrum of options with which to do long-term damage to the network involved. They may:

observe the transaction to acquire additional information about the network (identities and capabilities of suppliers, customers and intermediaries, for example); prepare diplomatic démarches to governments requesting intervention to stop the activity; adopt targeted sanctions, including use of financial levers to disrupt business as usual; enlist national law enforcement to investigate and prosecute illegal transfers; adjust military posture, including surveillance and non-hostile engagement; employ cooperative measures under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI); use force to interdict a transfer.

Such options do not exist unto themselves, however. To be effective, policymakers must adopt a strategic approach analogous to chess, not checkers. In other words, non- and counter-proliferation strategy must anticipate the likely reactions of networks to U.S. actions, and plan the counterpunch-after-next. For example, diplomatic démarches and sanctions that target proliferation businesses may provoke a network to seek alternative suppliers of goods or services. If we are armed with knowledge about the key players and business practices of a network, we can preempt the network’s efforts to adjust to our pressures. Only combinations of diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and military actions meshed into an integrated strategy can keep networks on the defensive and ultimately drive them out of business. In the meantime, concerted pressure significantly raises the costs of network operations and the risks for the would-be proliferators who depend on them. Interdiction now provides an essential complement to the toolbox at our disposal, as a little recent history shows.

Almost immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration highlighted its commitment to a robust counter-proliferation policy. Its priorities were laid out in the September 2002 National Security Strategy, in the December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction and in a select few National Security Presidential Directives. Strategic interdiction, which was explicitly authorized in these directives, soon played a central role in the operations against the A.Q. Khan network and the rollback of Libya’s WMD programs.2

Taking into account the lessons of these early successes, as well as growing knowledge of North Korea’s expansive proliferation networks and their trafficking in other contraband, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, and concerns about the possible merging of networks dealing in WMD proliferation and terrorism, the Administration increased the emphasis on disrupting the networks themselves.33. As noted in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (September 2006). The National Security Council (NSC) pushed to make interdiction of WMD transfers a top priority for the many agencies throughout the U.S. government that contribute resources, expertise and authorities to interdiction actions. Since the mission required a joint approach, key White House directives assigned agency responsibilities, and the NSC required regular and expanded coordination among the military, law enforcement, technical, economic and intelligence capabilities involved in interdiction.

As this effort at integration was proceeding, the Administration got support and help from the WMD Commission (formally the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction), which led the charge in March 2005 to identify shortcomings and recommend ways to improve WMD intelligence capabilities. Several Commission recommendations specifically addressed interdiction, including the following:

[S]uccessful interdiction requires a vision that stretches far beyond the Intelligence Community. To restate one of the primary themes we found in our study of proliferation: the Intelligence Community cannot win this battle on its own. Coordination and integration will be necessary.

Congress passed and President Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in December 2004, which mandated implementation of many intelligence community reforms called for by the 9/11 Commission. Shortly thereafter, the WMD Commission recommended establishing a National Counter-proliferation Center (NCPC) to champion reforms in this area. In 2005, working under the new Director of National Intelligence, NCPC Director Ken Brill quickly established the position of deputy director for interdiction and networks specifically to support implementation of strategic interdiction policy. The NCPC also developed strategic plans to integrate the full range of resources, expertise and authorities applicable to interdiction.

This bureaucratic reconfiguration was a first necessary step, but not a sufficient one. The roll-up of the A.Q. Khan network revealed how sophisticated and variable these operations were, and how little we knew about them. We clearly needed a better understanding of the WMD proliferation business, and a new approach to integrating that knowledge into interdiction analysis and strategy. Over the past several years, analysts throughout the intelligence community have sharpened their focus on the behavior of these illicit networks within networks. They have benefited from the accumulated knowledge about other contraband smuggling networks. The war on drugs and the war on terrorism have each provided insights applicable to counter-proliferation and interdiction. Specialized knowledge based in the Departments of Treasury, Commerce, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the FBI, gleaned from years of tracking illicit businesses, have proved invaluable as well.

Knowledge was not the only thing lacking. Counter-proliferation is by nature heavily dependent on technical analysis. With so much of the focus of interdiction on dual-use goods, technical expertise is more important than ever to identify and distinguish the specialty metals, pumps, valves, machine tools and chemical compounds needed for WMD programs and to distinguish them from legitimate trade in common industrial goods. Yesterday’s nuclear secrets—the subject of so many tales of espionage—are today’s ordinary commodities, bought and sold with little indication of their ultimate use in WMD fabrication. There is no substitute for deep technical expertise, and it is in short supply.

Much of this expertise is housed at U.S. national laboratories, where knowledge of nuclear weapons programs is applied in tandem with top-notch chemical and biological expertise to assess foreign interest in dual-use items. These experts have provided essential insights to U.S. government agencies who are willing and able to contract for their services. Their analysis also supports the export licensing processes of the Departments of Energy (conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration), State and Commerce, as well as investigations and prosecutions by ICE, the Commerce Bureau of Export Enforcement and the FBI. Pooling and analyzing information from all these sources can demystify the networks and the WMD programs they serve.

From this new, integrated knowledge emerged Executive Order 13382, “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and their Supporters” (June 2005). It has proved a very effective tactic against North Korean and Iranian banks associated with proliferation networks. Implementing such financial sanctions has brought financial expertise from the Department of Treasury onto the front lines of counter-proliferation policy. Other parts of the Executive Branch such as the Navy, Coast Guard, Office of Naval Intelligence and the Border Patrol have also brought extensive experience in interdicting smuggling operations. The Bush Administration, working through the NSC, managed to successfully integrate relevant skills found throughout the U.S. government into its WMD interdiction strategy. Anyone with experience of the interagency process will understand how hard it is to do this, and how seldom it happens.

Overcoming the bureaucratic, educational and technical aspects of the challenge has not been easy, and it has not yet been perfected. For example, the PSI brought the Defense Department and especially the Navy squarely into the diplomatic and law enforcement aspects of interdiction policy, perhaps before they were fully capable of playing that role. Thus the Office of the Secretary of Defense took the lead in convening periodic meetings of the PSI Operational Experts Group—aimed at building interdiction capacity among partner nations—even though the Defense Department was not primarily responsible for the project. This crossed some wires with other agencies, requiring some adjustment.

The Defense Department has also struggled to resolve the conflict between its roles in counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism, which carry the overlapping mission of preventing terrorists from acquiring WMD. Important differences between the two missions still need to be more clearly communicated throughout the military bureaucracy, foremost in White House policy directives and the implementation authorities associated with each.

A related challenge concerns dealing with competing national priorities, especially in light of U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interdiction cases can arise with little warning and may call upon military resources engaged in other activities. They may also require actions that have not been provided for in formal military planning. Requests from Washington for military support for interdictions, such as surveillance or hailing a foreign vessel, may strike commanders as capricious, especially if they are unaware of the intelligence information, analysis and joint U.S. government preparations leading up to an interdiction. Nevertheless, the need to act on short notice and with limited information is a problem for all U.S. government agencies. Thus the Defense Department needs to convey the results of policy deliberations to the combatant commands to prepare them for possible interdiction actions.

Notwithstanding all these problems—not to mention the internal challenges yet to be completely smoothed out—interdiction has proved its worth in dealing with proliferation networks. It has also provided multiplier effects for other elements of U.S. policy. For example, the improved capacity to interdict illicit goods has brought confidence and clout to the project of refining the export control regime. The value of international partnerships and organizations has played an important role, as well. The U.S. government recognized the importance of a multilateral approach, and so it launched the PSI.

The PSI currently brings together more than eighty countries in a partnership against illicit WMD shipments. PSI training and exercises reach far beyond their military components to include extensive involvement of foreign ministries and law enforcement organizations around the world. It is a key outreach effort to build capacity and persuade other governments to adopt their own DIMEFIL strategies after the U.S. model. In addition to preparing partners to conduct and coordinate land, sea and air interdictions, the PSI has become a major vehicle for promoting new international norms to govern illicit trade in WMD technology. Other new partnerships such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership address related areas of counter-proliferation and nonproliferation.

The Bush Administration also relied heavily on the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other international institutions that comprise the nonproliferation regime. It demonstrated commitment by giving strong support to the Additional Protocol, which expanded IAEA inspectors’ authority to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear activities around the world. It also supported expanding the membership and scope of established organizations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime to make them more effective. Perhaps most important, Security Council Resolution 1540 (April 2004), which established new norms for international nonproliferation behavior, along with other UNSC resolutions pertaining to Iran and North Korea, provided a legal basis for national and multinational interdiction of goods and services destined for their WMD programs. This development would have been unlikely had the United States not demonstrated a willingness to act unilaterally on behalf of non- and counter-proliferation objectives.

Don’t Stop Now

Strategic interdiction emerged as a distinct policy instrument due to concerted efforts by the Bush Administration and within the key agencies to overcome bureaucratic inertia and ingrained attitudes toward nonproliferation and counter-proliferation policy. The new approach forced agencies with very different cultures and authorities to collaborate in new ways. The result was the creation of a powerful joint service that magnified American power. Leadership—foremost at the NSC but also at the CIA, the State Department, the NCPC and elsewhere—was the most important factor for elevating interdiction as a primary tool of counter-proliferation policy. However, bureaucracy is immutable. Its tendency toward entropy and lowest-common-denominator habits never rests. If the forces attempting to corral independent-minded agencies into a relatively new, focused alignment let their energies flag, then familiar suboptimal patterns of stovepiped behavior will return. It can be very difficult to make the U.S. government work well when the mission requires integrating diverse skills, budgets and bureaucratic cultures, and it is all too easy to screw things up with just a little bit of untimely inattention.

Clearly, then, maintaining our current progress will be a challenge for the Obama Administration, no less than it would have been for a McCain Administration. In the absence of strong leadership from the White House, centrifugal forces will inevitably pull apart the separate agencies that comprise the national WMD interdiction effort. Barring permanent reform of the national security bureaucracy to make genuine interagency cooperation easier, leadership will remain the most important factor in releasing the full potential of interdiction.

This means that President Obama and his White House staff must provide clear guidance in the form of National Security Presidential Directives that confirm the objectives, authorities and policy implementation processes driving the wheels of government. A strong NSC counter-proliferation office staffed by experienced professionals is an essential starting point and needs to be put in place quickly. A proliferation czar is not necessary if the President’s priorities are clear and the policy formulation and coordination process is functioning well.

Any plans by the new Administration to reorganize the intelligence, diplomacy, law enforcement, homeland security or military departments should also preserve and strengthen those offices that have specialized capabilities dedicated to WMD interdiction. While there is much to be learned from counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and other programs that share an interest in illicit networks, WMD interdiction is distinct and would be hampered if wedded to other missions. The current model for joint operations has proved its worth and should be preserved.

Congress, of course, must be a full partner in the national interdiction strategy as well. The vast array of committees exercising authority over the various parts of the DIMEFIL community should receive specialized briefings on the new Administration’s WMD interdiction strategy. Congress should also consolidate responsibility for WMD interdiction—preferably in the House and Senate intelligence committees—in order to protect the sensitive information involved.

Since interdiction is a subset of a broader counter-proliferation and nonproliferation policy, the Obama Administration should articulate its objectives early on, including its approach to nonproliferation treaties and hard cases such as Iran and North Korea. The broader policy should reinforce the newly forming norm that individuals and companies as well as national governments share responsibility to protect international trade and commerce from illicit transfers of WMD technology. This will set the policy context for pursuing a DIMEFIL strategy against the networks. A new National Security Presidential Directive should affirm individual agency authorities, mandate a focused joint approach, and establish an NSC-led policy coordinating process.

Experience shows that the hardest part will be developing and implementing the actual strategy that designates priority targets and agency responsibilities for WMD interdiction. This type of policy directive cannot be drafted by an interagency committee. Rather, the NCPC’s key role in ushering interdiction strategies should serve as a template for future achievement. Empowering NCPC leadership to craft interdiction strategies requires no grand political bargains or maneuvers, but it will significantly contribute to the success of our counter-proliferation efforts.

Several other factors will bolster support for sustaining and advancing the interdiction mission. Foremost, of course, is the threat that WMD proliferation still poses for U.S. security. The requirement to counter the networks that proliferate WMD technology is not likely to be called into question, nor is the importance of a unified national interdiction strategy (unless, of course, one believes that diplomatic deals with Iran and North Korea represent the end of proliferation history and, hence, the end of any need for counter-proliferation policy).

In addition, new incentives promulgated by the DNI to encourage wider intelligence information sharing and to require joint duty for advancement in intelligence careers, will help sustain the mission. Intelligence collection and analysis have been well calibrated already, and several agencies have begun interdiction training programs to prepare their experts to support the national strategy. So the good news is that there are no structural, political or ideological impediments laying in wait to sabotage what has been achieved so far. The Obama Administration therefore has before it the makings of a ready-made national security success, albeit one whose achievements may at times have to remain classified.

Despite the controversies that have sometimes surrounded the Bush Administration’s counter-proliferation policies, interdiction stands out as a genuine success story. Examples such as the takedown of the A.Q. Khan network and the reversal of Libya’s WMD programs will be recorded by history as major achievements. Governments and businesses worldwide are recognizing new norms of responsibility in light of the diffusion of WMD technology in a globalized marketplace. Democrats, Republicans and independents alike should count the promotion of these nonproliferation norms as a vital part of the national security and foreign policy agenda.


1. See Moisés Naím, Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy (Doubleday, 2005).

2. See Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report to the President, Chapter Two, Case Study, Libya, March 31, 2005. Also see George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (HarperCollins, 2007).

3. As noted in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (September 2006).

Zachary S. Davis is a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He was an analyst at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Congressional Research Service. In 2006–07 he served as Director for Counterproliferation at the NSC and special adviser at the National Counterproliferation Center.