This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has sharply reduced spending on a program to combat smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials through foreign seaports, and it has yet to disclose findings from a recently completed review expected to shape the effort's future, a Senate Appropriations Committee staffer told Global Security Newswire.
Obama officials have implemented an 85 percent funding curb they requested for the Megaports Initiative in the current budget year, capping fiscal 2013 expenditures at $19.6 million and suspending any expansion of the effort that originally aimed to place radiation detection gear at 100 foreign seaports by 2018.The number of seaports covered by the project stood at 42 as of August.
In calling for the cut, the White House Management and Budget Office said the program's impact was "diminishing" as it completed deployments at higher-priority facilities, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued last month. Management and Budget personnel cited other issues including a shortage of data for measuring the effort's success, and the possibility of overlap between Megaports activities and nonproliferation efforts such as the Homeland Security Department's Container Security Initiative.
The National Nuclear Security Administration called for a "strategic pause" on Megaports to allow for a review of the project and the wider Second Line of Defense program, the House Appropriations Committee stated in the report on the fiscal 2013 energy pending bill. The administration proposed a 65-percent funding cut to the parent effort, which also focuses on deploying radiation detection equipment along international borders.
The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voiced support for the administration's proposed reduction, but the request "surprised" the panel's equivalent in the upper chamber, according to the Senate staffer.
"We were not expecting such a steep cut or this ‘strategic pause,'" said the insider, who could only speak upon condition of anonymity under committee policy.
The Senate panel agreed with administration officials on the need to consider possible changes to the Second Line of Defense program, but lawmakers moved to provide $57 million more than the administration had requested for the broader effort because "the cut couldn’t be that deep so soon," said the staffer. The supplementary appropriation would bring the program's fiscal 2013 budget close to $150 million.
However, most of the additional funds were not intended for the Megaports Initiative, but for "core" SLD activities such as the deployment of radiation monitoring gear in Poland, Tajikistan and other former Soviet states, the official said. Still, the panel "specifically didn’t preclude any funding for Megaports in the event that there was a need for it."
Fiscal 2013 began on Oct. 1. A short-term appropriations measure allows spending to continue at fiscal 2012 levels until March, but the administration has limited spending on Megaports to amounts it requested for the current budget cycle. A future budget bill or a second temporary spending measure could include additional funds sought by the Senate panel.
The funding reduction prompted the National Nuclear Security Administration to suspend talks with 17 additional countries on potential participation in the program, and to halt planned deployments to five additional nations, according to the GAO assessment.
"NNSA officials told us that arrangements with two of these countries were imminent, and the initiative’s former program manager stated that canceling program activities would affect the agency’s credibility," congressional auditors wrote. The semiautonomous Energy Department agency had completed "memorandums of understanding" with the two cited countries, where it had examined port facilities and determined where detection systems would be located.
The Senate staffer said the administration hopes to use leftover fiscal 2012 funds to finance radiation detector deployments at three additional seaports, bringing the total number of sites covered by the initiative to 45. Senate appropriators and congressional auditors, though, share a concern that Megaports would require more funding than the administration requested merely to maintain existing deployments, the staffer said, adding that the panel does not know "the full scale of how much more."
The administration has wrapped up an interagency review of Second Line of Defense, and its findings appeared set to inform funding requests for the Megaports Initiative for fiscal 2014 and beyond, according to the congressional aide. The analysis was expected to assess whether expansion was "warranted," and to seek optimal methods for using and maintaining present Megaports assets, GAO auditors said.
The staffer said the administration had not informed Congress of any findings from the interagency assessment, which was authored under the leadership of White House national security staff personnel with input from the Homeland Security, Defense and State departments.
The Management and Budget Office and the White House national security staff had not responded to requests for comment as of press time. No NNSA statement was made available.
One independent expert said the Megaports funding reduction was "a very abrupt, precipitous and dramatic cut with no forewarning and not a very good explanation."
"This is about a bigger issue of engagement globally on the prevention of nuclear terrorism," said Kenneth Luongo, who heads the Partnership for Global Security. "If the U.S. doesn’t press this kind of cooperation, other countries are not going to."