WMD Czar, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Lee Speigel

Dec 3, 2008 9:19pm

Will the Obama-Biden Administration be the death of the "WMD Czar" that Biden himself helped create in 2007?

And if so, will that be such a bad thing?

President-elect Obama, Vice President-elect Biden and their transition team will appoint a point person within the White House to coordinate and oversee programs aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear and other forms of terrorism.

What seems less likely, sources tell ABC News, is that the Obama-Biden administration will go as far as is called for by the law based on the 9/11 Commission Report recommendations and name someone to serve in a Senate-confirmed post called the "U.S. Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism." Or, by its shorthand, "WMD Czar."

The position as it is legislated is one that the current White House has rejected, thinking the position redundant and too accountable to Congress. And sources on the Obama-Biden Transition Team indicate that they are having some of the same qualms about the position as written.

The irony of this: the section of the 9/11 law that the Obama-Biden Team is thinking about ignoring is one that, according to Senate sources, was drafted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Mr. Biden was its chair.

The WMD Czar was established so an expert would serve as the chief adviser to the President on all matters relating to the prevention of WMD proliferation and terrorism. The Czar would be responsible for formulating a national strategy for preventing WMD proliferation and terrorism, and to lead interagency coordination, conduct oversight, and oversee the development of a budget for these efforts.

To the consternation of many non-proliferation activists, even though Mr. Bush signed the 9/11 Commission Recommendations bill into law in August 2007, he has never filled the WMD Czar post.

A White House aide tells ABC News that President Bush feels the assignment would be redundant since the WMD issue is being handled by officials on the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Commission.

Moreover, President Bush and his team have never supported the law’s mandate that the WMD Czar be a position that the president appoints "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate"; that Congress will have access to "information, documents, and studies in the possession of, or conducted by or at the direction of" the WMD Czar; that the WMD Czar will have to annually submit to Congress a "report on the strategy and policies developed"; and that the Czar and his deputy would have to testify before Congress if called upon to do so.

During the campaign, then-Sen. Obama never went as far as had Biden. Mr. Obama pledged to appoint a "White House Coordinator for Nuclear Security," which his campaign described in less elite terms than the WMD Czar Congress mandated, saying he or she would be "a deputy national security advisor to be in charge of coordinating all U.S. programs aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism and weapons proliferation." The current Obama-Biden Transition Team Web site uses the same language.

The current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff today suggested that the WMD Czar was not necessary.

"At a minimum you ought to take a couple years and make sure you’re using existing structures as well as you can," Chertoff said. "The other thing you tend to get is: ‘We need a czar. We need to have a czar to do this and a czar to do that.’ And then you have czars on top of czars, and then czars fighting with czars. And you need a super czar on top of the czar. Maybe you need a czarina.  So, you know, we’ve heard you have to have cyber czar. You have to have a WMD czar. You have to have a czar for this and a czar for that. Just remember, all these things are extra layers. There is a challenging coordinating across agencies; and, I do think, you know, it’s important to have a White House mechanism that does that."

Chertoff suggested, "sometimes the answer is to give more effective support to the person that’s already been assigned the task as opposed to creating another person at a different level, who is now going to have to coordinate with more people."

Obama-Biden sources tell ABC News that the Obama administration will without question designate a senior level official to oversee WMD issues, but they say it’s premature to talk about a Coordinator, or WMD Czar. The structure has yet to be decided, they say, with some noting that President-elect Obama’s pick to be National Security Adviser, Marine Gen. Jim Jones (Ret.) was only announced two days ago. The who, what, when and how — that needs to be decided, they say. What’s important, they say, is that a senior level official at the White House will focus on this issue as a top priority.

The Obama-Biden Team and the Bush White House are not alone.

The same part of the 9/11 Commission Recommendation Law that called for the creation of the WMD Czar called for the creation of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which this week issued its harrowing report predicting that terrorists will launch a nuclear or biological attack by 2013.

And part of its recommendations — No. 8, to be Precise — is that Congress amend the 9/11 Commission Recommendations law "to eliminate the requirement to establish an Office of the United States Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, while retaining the mandate to appoint a senior presidential advisor with the responsibilities of the Coordinator."

That position, the WMD Commission recommends, "could readily be placed within the National security Council structure" or "within the office of the Vice President or made the head of a separate White House office."

Vice President-elect Biden and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security nominee Janet Napolitano today met with the chairs of the WMD Commission, former Sens. Bob Graham, D-Florida, and Jim Talent, R-Missouri.

"They talked about the need for one official to oversee the WMD issue and acknowledged it needs to be addressed," an official who was present at the meeting tells ABC News, "but that was about it."

While not getting into his private conversation, Sen. Graham tells ABC News that it’s not clear that the WMD Czar as it was drafted is what the Obama-Biden administration will do precisely, but "given that President-elect Obama pledged to have a Coordinator on these issues, and that Vice President-elect Biden drafted the legislation, you can be sure that they’re at least headed in that direction."

– Jake Tapper and Jason Ryan

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