WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- A new blue-ribbon commission set up by Congress to offer the next administration advice about keeping nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of rogue states and terrorists held its first meeting in Washington last week.
The congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, known as the WMD Commission, is chaired by former Sen. Robert Graham, D-Fla. It was established in legislation passed by Congress after Democrats took control in January 2007, and has what Graham called "a very broad mandate" to look at U.S. policies and programs to secure nuclear and other WMD material, prevent the spread of weapons technology and protect the United States from WMD terrorism.
The commission is mandated to report within 180 days of its establishment, or by Nov. 2, and Graham told UPI he wants the nine-member body -- five Democrats and four Republicans -- to proceed by consensus.
"Our goal is to have a unanimous report," he said, an outcome that would be aided by the commission's forward-looking perspective.
"We will be looking at the past, in order to make recommendations for the future," he said. "The focus is on influencing the next administration and the next Congress."
The issue of WMD proliferation, especially to rogue regimes and terror groups -- "the worst weapons in the hands of the worst people" -- is seen by some, including Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as the most serious threat to U.S. national security. The record of the Bush administration -- which has favored ad hoc efforts with U.S. allies like the Proliferation Security Initiative over statutory international institutions like the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency -- is controversial and may be a political hot potato in an election year.
Graham said that if the commission's report was ready in time, he hoped it could be published earlier than November, so that its recommendations "will be part of the election-year debate," much as the report of the Sept. 11 Commission had been.
"We don't know at this stage whether we will be done in time" for that to happen, he said, adding that was a decision he intended to make "around Labor Day."
Perhaps presaging some of the debate that will happen at that time, Graham's vice chairman, former Sen. James Talent, R-Mo., added that the decision would also depend on whether the commissioners "feel that the (election year) publicity would help."
"There was an absolute consensus," he told UPI, that "we don't want our report to become fodder for … election-year craziness."
Both men said that, like the Sept. 11 Commission, their panel envisaged having some kind of existence after their report was published to follow up on the implementation of its report, adding that given the breadth of the commission's mandate and the shortness of time, the members would need to focus on a few areas for its recommendations.
"We want to make very solid recommendations of a practical character," said Talent. "If you try to do everything, you don't get to do anything the way you really need to."
"Rather than burying the reader in dozens of recommendations," said Graham, "we want to focus in on a handful," adding, "We do not have enough time to do our own investigation -- we will be relying on information from the (U.S. government) agencies and from knowledgeable institutions and individuals" like think tanks and academics.
The commissioners were briefed Thursday by U.S. counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation officials and by experts from the National Defense University.
The NDU also staged a tabletop exercise examining policymaker options and the consequences of a nuclear attack on a major U.S. city, said Talent. He added that, because the members of the commission were all people with broad experience in government, they were mostly familiar with the horrendous consequences. But he said the exercise was "a useful reminder," calling it "sobering."
Aside from Graham and Talent, the members are: Sept. 11 Commission member and former U.S. Rep. Timothy Roemer, D-Ind., the president of the Center for National Policy; Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, a principal at the consulting group lead by former Democratic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Graham T. Allison, director of the Harvard University Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Richard Verma, formerly a senior national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and now a partner with Steptoe and Johnson; Henry Sokolski, formerly a non-proliferation official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Paul Wolfowitz, and now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center; Stephen Rademaker, a former State Department arms control official who later went on to work for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn; and Robin Cleveland, another former Wolfowitz aide.
The commission's executive director, Evelyn Farkas, told UPI that the Department of Defense had helped the staff, currently at about 50 percent of its 20-odd complement, to locate suitable office space in northern Virginia. "We needed both classified and unclassified work spaces," she said, "so that was quite a challenge."