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Washington Post Debunks Nuclear Spending Hyperbole

5:49 PM, Nov 30, 2011 • By ROBERT ZARATE
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The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler debunks the false claim made by supporters of nuclear disarmament that the United States will spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons programs in the next decade.

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The $700 billion figure originates from a controversial cost estimate produced in September by the Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation based in San Francisco, California. The figure was prominently cited by Congressman Ed Markey (D, Mass.) and other liberal lawmakers in an October 11th letter that urged the supercommittee to spare domestic entitlement programs—and to defund the U.S. nuclear deterrent instead—as it sought to cut over $1.2. trillion in long-term federal spending. (The supercommittee failed to meet its Thanksgiving deadline, offering no recommendation of spending cuts at all.)

Most recently, the $700 billion figure was also at the center of “Our Troops Deserve Better,” a tendentious 30-second commercial by the American Security Project that aired during the November 22nd GOP presidential debate on foreign policy. Citing the hyperbolic cost estimate, the commercial suggests that spending on the U.S. nuclear deterrent is “forcing the pentagon to go without modern defense programs our troops need to face 21st century threats.”

However, as Kessler notes:

the administration of President Obama—who won a Nobel Peace Prize in part for calling for a world without nuclear weapons—has flatly rejected the $700 billion figure. James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense, told Congress on Nov. 2 that the figure was close to $214 billion over ten years, with $88 billion being spent at the Energy Department, which maintains nuclear weapons, and more than $125 billion spent on delivery systems at the Defense Department.

Indeed, Miller much more forcefully rejected the Ploughshares Fund’s $700 billion figure during his testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. “I've had an opportunity to look at some of the materials that were referenced in those cost estimates just before coming over here and I—without giving this more time than it deserves—suffice it to say there was double counting and some rather curious arithmetic involved,” he said on Capitol Hill.

Stephen I. Schwartz, the coauthor of the 2009 report on which the Ploughshares Fund based its cost estimate, told Kessler that he had warned the Ploughshares Fund and Congressman Markey to be careful and cautious with the $700 billion figure:

Schwartz said that he warned Ploughshares and Markey’s office to be careful with these estimates, especially when lumping many things together.  “Unfortunately, things get shorthanded,” he said. “Ploughshares wanted a large number to make their case for political reasons.”

The Washington Post piece includes a quotation from Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which concedes that the methodology used by his organization’s cost estimate may lead to “some double counting.” But Cirincione is nevertheless doubling-down on his hotly disputed claim:

“Our estimate -- based on the best publicly available data -- is a reasonable accounting of the actual investment that the U.S. is making in outdated Cold War nuclear weapons and related programs,” he added. “We believe is it far more accurate than budgets claims that hide the true costs to our troops and our nation of these programs.”

 

Kessler concludes: 

there are serious problems with the $700 billion figure.  Simply updating a 2009 study with inflation estimates is a bit simplistic, especially when applying the formula used in the study to current budget figures might cause you to rethink the numbers….   Given the uncertainty of the figures, Ploughshares should consider providing a range of numbers and perhaps more clearly segregating the cost of nuclear weapons from the cost of related programs.

Read the whole thing.

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