Cooking the WMD Books: Politicizing the 2019 State Department Compliance Report

“Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”
– President George W. Bush

Sixteen years into prosecution of the Iraq War, the architects of that disastrous conflict are building the foundations for a new one. Having regained access to the highest levels of power, they haven’t even changed their approach much, actively drawing a link between Iran and Al Qaeda, despite a glaring lack of evidence. Such a link could provide cover to an Administration interested in using Congress’s 2001 authorization for the use of military force.

The Trump Administration is not limiting itself to misleading speeches, tweets, and television interviews as it beats the drums for war with Iran. It has also chosen to politicize an important though not widely known annual report — specifically, the Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.

The document is referred to by the few people who deal with it as the “Compliance Report.” This legally-mandated assessment of global compliance with security-related treaties and agreements is compiled by the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC), in coordination with other parts of the government including the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Energy and the Intelligence Community. Coordinating with that many government agencies is a massive and tedious undertaking, as are the preparations to brief relevant parties, including staff on Capitol Hill. I know. I used to work in AVC and then in the Office of the Under Secretary responsible for the report. The process, as I observed it, was both very serious and very regimented. That no longer seems to be the case.

The general purpose of the annual report is to assess compliance with arms control and non-proliferation treaties and agreements, of which the United States is a part. There are also separate reports required for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The fundamental concept behind all this reporting is that treaties and agreements that are not faithfully implemented lose value and Congress should be kept abreast of such developments. That idea is broadly accepted, but what to do about damaged treaties is a point of great — and mostly partisan — contention.

The partisan divide extends to the production of the report. Republicans in Congress were generally quiet about the fact that the George W. Bush Administration managed to produce only two Compliance Reports, one in 2001 and one in 2005. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, produced a report each and every year. That did not stop Republicans from berating officials in public and private for missing the annual submission deadline or trying to micromanage the Administration’s handling of compliance issues. The inconsistency in levels of concern over the report extends to today.

The Trump Administration’s 2019 version of the Compliance Report might have had the correct title, but it fell far short on delivering the congressionally-mandated content. It was 16 pages of broad “trends” and even some subjective opinions, rather than analysis of treaty compliance. (For reference, the 2018 version was 49 pages and laser-focused on party adherence with specific legally-binding agreements.) Congressional staff and experts familiar with the report were aghast. The Administration maintains that a more fulsome version of the report is forthcoming pending a classification review, but that begs the question of why the current version was posted at all. The law requires submittal of an unclassified report, with classified addendums, to Congress by April 15, but it does not require public posting on that day. Given all the other more pressing issues weighing down on Washington leaders, the need to rush the Compliance Report seems unwarranted.

Beyond the lack of preparedness, the entire process seemed haphazard. The report was originally posted as a “docx” file. That might seem minor, but as a docx file, it could be easily downloaded, altered and reposted. In an era of rampant misinformation, the government should never make this kind of mistake. There is no indication that allies or parties noted in the report were consulted prior to posting, as had been the practice. The current version of the report still contains errors in grammar and syntax.

Despite multiple previous reports containing unclassified assessments of Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the agreement startlingly does not make an appearance, nor does New START. The New START report is due just after the beginning of each year, and its contents have always just been transferred to the Compliance Report. Perhaps it was left out due to the fact that the official assessment is that New START “increases transparency, predictability, and stability in the U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear relationship.” That is not completely in line with current White House talking points. In another peculiar choice, missile proliferation concerns appear in the report, but the Missile Technology Control Regime does not.

There is also no mention of nuclear explosive testing. This is quite odd considering that less than two months after the release of the Compliance Report, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. General Robert Ashley said that Russia was “probably…not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard.” He made an unclassified compliance accusation that did not seem to exist in April. Even more troubling is the fact that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, the international monitoring regime for explosive nuclear testing, said that “its international monitoring system (IMS) was operating normally and had detected nothing unusual.”

Problematic as all these issues are, the worst part of the 2019 Compliance Report is its treatment of Iran. Previous versions of the Compliance Report, including the 2018 submission, provide detailed analysis of past Iranian compliance with the NPT, as well as an affirmation that Iran was fulfilling its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The 2019 report instead focuses on possible signs that Iran may be considering restarting its nuclear program, like the fact that Iran has retained archival information and continued to employ scientists associated with past work. Iran’s continued faithful implementation of the agreement over the course of 2018 apparently did not merit inclusion—raising the specter that the report is more about politics than an analytic assessment of treaty compliance.

Instead of following its mandate to describe things that have already happened, the authors of the 2019 Compliance Report decided to write about things that might happen. The phrase “raises serious questions” appears repeatedly. Vague warnings can have unintended consequences. Based on the phrasing in the Report, some of our own allies could also be described as raising “serious concerns” when it comes to compliance with the NPT, given their own breakout capacity. That was not the likely goal of the authors, but that is what can happen when a political agenda creeps into an analytical product.

To be clear “woulds,” “coulds,” and “mights” do have a place in the discussion of threats, but the U.S. Government already produces content of that nature. The Compliance Report is meant to be an assessment of past actions, not an assessment of possible future intent. By not mentioning that Iran was complying with its obligations under the JCPOA, even after the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, and instead focusing on what Iran could do, the impression is left that the Trump Administration wanted to use the document as a tool in its maximum pressure campaign. Finding no real compliance issues, all that was left was conjecture — conjecture that could help create a documentary record to legitimize future action against Tehran.

This year’s strange brew — instead of a regular, required report on compliance — did not escape the eyes of congressional leaders. On May 16, Representatives Schiff, Engel and Smith, the respective chairs of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Armed Services Committee, sent a sternly worded letter to Secretary Mike Pompeo about the Compliance Report. Their expressed concerns included reference to news reports that the document “may have been the product of political appointees disregarding intelligence or distorting its meaning in order to potentially ‘lay the groundwork to justify military action” against countries mentioned in the report.’” The three Chairmen asserted that the United States could not “have a sound foreign policy…when an Administration submits a mandated report to Congress that selectively ignores facts or injects non-factual information about certain threats to our country.” They demanded a briefing to address their questions. The Administration has, as of yet, failed to respond.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the country has heard all this before. Politicized assessments of WMD threats, half-truths, assertions that lack evidence, failure to back them up when pressed, John Bolton’s heated rhetoric—it’s all there. It is hard to escape the feeling that the 2019 Compliance Report became a small piece in a larger case for conflict, perhaps not even just with Iran. Congress — and the public — should demand answers about how and why the Compliance Report deviated from long-established standards. Further, Congress should make clear that the purpose of the report is to provide information on the overall health of the arms control and non-proliferation regime, not to play a part in a trumped-up case for war.

The country should heed the essence of the words of President George W. Bush and not get fooled again.

Image: Airmen deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., stand in formation during a U.S. Strategic Command Bomber Task Force in Europe at RAF Fairford, U.K. April 2, 2019. BTF operations are developed to provide training opportunities for U.S., allies and partners to operate together in joint environments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tessa B. Corrick)

 

About the Author(s)

Alexandra Bell

Senior Policy Director at the Council for a Livable World and Former Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. You can follow her on Twitter @atomicbell.