U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration is using the issue of nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as a political and economic football, fabricating non-existent threats while turning a blind eye to real ones. That could have severe negative consequences for the longstanding global effort to promote non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Although the Bush administration is well aware of the fact that Iraq never posed a nuclear threat to the United States, Washington stands by its claim that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s arsenal justified the U.S.-UK invasion of his country. What’s more, the administration is rewarding those who produce phony evidence of nuclear threats and refusing to support investigation of possible substantive WMD proliferation. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration and U.S. media are playing along in this dangerous game.

Former UN weapons inspector David Kay’s appointment a few weeks ago as an adviser for CIA Director George Tenet on WMD issues is a shining example of how the game is being played. Kay is now benefiting from his successful efforts to help the Bush administration justify the Iraq war. He was the one who told the government that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna produced a report in 1991, which indicated that Iraq was at the time just six months away from having the bomb. Bush and Blair held a news conference in Crawford, Texas, back in September, touting Kay’s claim, and the U.S. media published it prominently. The media did not verify the allegation by talking to representatives of the IAEA, which would have been worth the investment of a few minutes’ time, since such a report by the IAEA simply doesn’t exist.

When Blair visited Washington a few days ago, he experienced the so-called Gorbachev effect, that of being hated at home but lauded abroad–in this case by the White House. Referring to allegations that his government was the source of faked documents concerning a deal for Iraq to buy uranium from Niger, Blair said, “We’re standing by our claim.” There are obviously no reasons to do so: The documents Downing Street No. 10 provided to the IAEA are all forged and so far the British government has been reluctant to accept the IAEA’s unofficial requests for more documents. It took only “a few hours of Web research,” according to IAEA sources, to find out that all the documents on the Iraq-Niger deal delivered by Great Britain are falsified. But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood by the claims, remarking that “no one has said” that the documents on that deal are “not authentic.” To that, one IAEA official responded: “He’s not telling the truth.” Maybe Rumsfeld wants the public to forget that IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei talked of falsifications in his report to the UN Security Council on March 7.

While insisting on these nuclear-threat confabulations, the U.S. government has at the same time rendered the IAEA clueless as to the disappearance of radioactive material that could eventually be used in clandestine bomb-making. In June the IAEA inspected the looted Al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility in Iraq and has now presented its findings: 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of low-grade uranium have been dispersed, but of more importance, the IAEA team was not allowed by the U.S. authorities to inspect other locations in Al-Tuwaitha, where highly radioactive cesium-137 and cobalt-60 may have been looted.

Thus ignored and restrained, the IAEA has the impression that the current administration is downplaying certain nuclear threats and overestimating others for political reasons. The benefits to the administration of overestimating are clear. Building up the specter of the foreign enemy focuses attention abroad, diminishing domestic rivalry. Convincing foreign partners they share a common threat embroils their leadership in a never-ending war on terrorism.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration has spent $2 billion in new monies for research and policy advice on WMD threats. Think tanks all over the United States are benefiting from that money and have learnt their lesson: No threat, no money. So they’re producing spectacular analysis and reports on nuclear threats. “We’re questioning the analysis of U.S. think tanks. These people are interested in contract money,” one IAEA official said.

The non-proliferation experts at the UN headquarters in Vienna have other good reasons for doubting some of the charges made by Washington and its think tanks against representatives of the much-maligned axis of evil. Take, for example, the administration’s claim that nuclear energy development abroad is cause for alarm over bomb-making. As one expert put it: “None of the nuclear powers we know got their weapons by using their civilian nuclear program.”

Meanwhile the administration fails to acknowledge the importance of promoting non-proliferation in new nuclear powers that will probably emerge. “What has changed with that administration is that if the good guys have the bomb, it’s okay,” said one expert. For Washington, the good guys include not only Japan, which the IAEA is closely watching, since the threat from North Korea could lead to the development of nuclear weapons by Tokyo: The good guys also include India and Pakistan, because they are deeply involved in the U.S.-led alliance against terrorism. While Tokyo will probably never again be an enemy of the United States, U.S. relations with India and Pakistan are less stable, especially given the current U.S. government’s dubious ability to form sustained alliances. Regardless, India and Pakistan pose a nuclear threat to each other.

The Bush administration has turned the worldwide nuclear non-proliferation program administered by the IAEA into nothing more than a tactical tool for its own politically based calculations of threat. Attaining non-proliferation is a business too serious to be run with the object of getting a few points in domestic popularity ranking. The Bush administration is strongly urged not to play a dirty game with such an issue.

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