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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
State Dept. Restructures Arms Control Bureaus

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Robert Golan-Vilella

In its third internal reshuffling in a dozen years, the Department of State has reorganized its bureaus charged with addressing threats presented by weapons of mass destruction. The revamping is an effort to clarify responsibilities and to bring arms control, verification, and compliance into a single bureau, the department said in an Oct. 1 press release.

Under the new arrangement, the Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation (VCI) was renamed the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). In addition, a number of offices in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) were moved into the AVC.

As a result of the shift, the AVC assumed principal responsibility for multilateral arms control policy, including representing the United States at the Conference on Disarmament and the UN General Assembly. The AVC also now has the lead role within the State Department on missile defense, space policy, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and efforts to conclude a fissile material cutoff treaty.

Meanwhile, the ISN will remain responsible for the State Department’s efforts “to ensure the security, and prevent the proliferation and acquisition, of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems; the materials, equipment, and technology needed to build them; and other destabilizing conventional military capabilities,” according to the press release. The ISN will continue to oversee the Biological Weapons Convention, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and nuclear material controls.

The existing Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the State Department’s principal link to the Department of Defense, will remain unchanged, covering subjects including defense trade, arms export controls, and conventional weapons issues such as the Mine Ban Treaty and a prospective arms trade treaty.

Explaining the rationale behind the change, a State Department spokesman told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 13 e-mail that some arms control and verification functions were moved into the VCI in 2005, including strategic arms control and European security agreements. This reorganization, he said, would “continue with the organizational unification of arms control, verification, and compliance policy in a single bureau.”

By bringing these missions together, the State Department will be able to ensure that verification and compliance regimes will be built into arms control agreements from the beginning, the press release said.

The spokesman added that fewer than 35 employees were affected by the change, out of a pre-reorganization total of approximately 225 in the ISN and 100 in the VCI.

This is the third reorganization of the United States’ arms control and nonproliferation machinery to occur since 1997-1999, when the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was merged into the State Department during the Clinton administration. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time, demanded ACDA’s dissolution in exchange for allowing a Senate vote on advice and consent for the Chemical Weapons Convention. (See ACT, April 1997.)

ACDA’s merger into the State Department led to the creation of the position of undersecretary for arms control and international security in 1999. Two new bureaus, one for arms control and one for nonproliferation, were established under the undersecretary’s leadership. In addition, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs was folded into the newly created directorate. The following year, a fourth bureau, the Bureau of Verification and Compliance, was added by congressional statute, restoring a function previously performed by a separate ACDA bureau.

In 2005 the Bush administration carried out a second restructuring. The arms control and nonproliferation bureaus were merged into the current ISN bureau. In addition, the verification and compliance bureau was expanded to include implementation. (See ACT, October 2005.)

According to a State Department document explaining the Bush-era changes, the pre-2005 structure reflected “a time when our nation concentrated on negotiating strategic arms control agreements, often over the course of many years, and focused almost exclusively on the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to our security.” Instead, the State Department argued at the time, “[w]e must change the focus of our diplomacy by concentrating the efforts of the many professionals in these bureaus on preventing the spread of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and missile capabilities and on protecting against WMD threats from hostile states and terrorists.”

A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2009 strongly criticized the Bush-era changes. According to the GAO, the State Department’s “approach to the reorganization was unsystematic,” and the department “did not clearly define the objectives and lacked metrics to assess them.” The report said the department followed few of the practices that the GAO had identified as essential for organizational transformations and mergers. Also, the State Department could not demonstrate that its actions had met its own goals, the GAO said.

This February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote an open letter to the directorate’s employees in which she announced that the department would pursue a “focused reorganization” of the VCI and the ISN. Ellen O. Tauscher, the undersecretary for arms control and international security, was charged with overseeing the transition, which culminated in October’s reorganization.

Clinton’s proposal initially drew criticism from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar opposed the idea of combining the arms control and verification functions within a single bureau, saying in a letter to Clinton that he would “support only those [changes] that do not continue to blur the line between officials who negotiate agreements and those who verify them.” A “wall of separation” is necessary “to insure the credibility of treaties and agreements negotiated and presented to the Senate for advice and consent,” he said.

Congress received the required notice of the reorganization plan Aug. 11, the State Department spokesman said. The 15-day congressional review period expired Aug. 26 without action from Congress, allowing the proposal to proceed, he added.