The prospect that Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group might get its hand on a nuclear bomb is widely viewed as the scariest national-security threat facing the country. But more than a year after Congress passed a law creating a White House "czar" to focus on the issue, the post has yet to be filled—the apparent victim of yet another clash over presidential powers.
The provision creating a new special White House office to coordinate nuclear proliferation and counterterrorism efforts was tucked away in a landmark bill passed by Congress last year implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. (At the same time, Congress created a commission to study the problem.)
"With this bill, we'll be keeping our promises to the families of 9/11 … and we'll be making the American people safer," proclaimed Speaker Nancy Pelosi on July 27, 2007, as the massive bill was passed. President Bush signed the measure into law a few days later, hailing the act as another example of his administration's commitment to fighting terrorism.
But since then, barely a word has been heard about the "United States Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism," as the position is officially called in the 9/11 law. Nobody has been nominated by President Bush to fill the position. And the office that coordinator is supposed to run doesn't exist.
"I call the White House every other week about this," said Carie Lemack, cofounder of the Families of 9/11, a group that still lobbies to make sure the government fulfills its 9/11 commitments. "They call back and tell me, they're working on it."
To be sure, there are a number of government offices dealing with the nuclear proliferation issue. Officials at the National Security Council, the CIA, the Office of the Directorof National Intelligence and the Departments of Energy, Defense and State, among others, all work on various aspects of the problem. But the thinking, in creating the new position, which some White House officials thought made sense was that the government needed one top official to cut through interagency disputes and make sure everybody was working together on how best to keep nukes and other weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.
"I did see a value in having somebody who wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night worried about the issue," said Frances Fragos Townsend, who until January served as President Bush's chief homeland-security adviser.
So what's the problem?
One explanation: Top White House lawyers, led by David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's ever-vigilant chief of staff, recoiled at the idea of creating a new White House office whose director was answerable to Congress, according to two sources (who asked not to be identified talking about internal matters). As the Congress wrote the law, the new WMD and terrorism czar would not just have to be confirmed by the Senate. Congress would also be guaranteed access to any "information, documents and studies" commissioned or written by the nuke czar. In addition, the law required that his or her deputies could be called to testify before Congress.
The idea of White House officials being summoned to testify to Congress (and describing internal administration deliberations) set off Addington and other White House lawyers. As they saw it, the concept would violate executive privilege—a principle the Bush White House has fought many a legal battle to uphold, the sources said.
This didn't mean Addington and the lawyers were opposed to the concept of such an office. But the result has been a prolonged stalemate. Asked about the matter at a recent conference on Al Qaeda sponsored by the New America Foundation, Townsend diplomatically said there was a "problem" with the way Congress wrote the bill. Lemack, the 9/11 families' advocate, said she has been advised that Kenneth Wainstein, Townsend's successor as White House homeland-security adviser, and Juan Zarate, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, are trying to figure out a solution.
Asked about the matter, an administration official told NEWSWEEK that White House officials were engaged in confidential discussions with members of the congressionally mandated WMD and Terrorism Commission (co-chaired by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent) about the "right structure" for the new nuclear-proliferation and terrorism office. (The official also noted that Congress didn't get around to actually naming the members of the commission until this year and its final report is due shortly.)
"We have been focused on getting this right rather than getting it done quickly," said the official, who asked not to be publicly identified talking about a subject of ongoing deliberations.
In some respects, the logjam over a new nuclear-proliferation czar is similar to one over another office authorized by the 9/11 law—a civil-liberties board. The board, also recommended by the 9/11 commission, is supposed to monitor the impact of various counterterrorism efforts on civil liberties and report to Congress on any abuses. But as a result of a clash between congressional Democrats and the White House over who should serve on the board, it has never gotten off the ground.
Now it appears neither office is likely to be up and running until next year, when a new Congress convenes—and a new president moves into the White House.