The wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan fill newspapers and televisions with images. The pictures inspire fierce debate over the value of putting American lives on the line and spending taxpayers' money.
But there is another war, with no pictures, being fought in some of the more unstable countries in the world. It is the war our government wages to secure and dispose of loose nuclear weapons -- before terrorists can get them.
Without the newspaper stories and the pictures, many Americans aren't aware of these efforts -- but they may be the most important war our country is waging. These programs are the best defense we have to protect Americans from the unthinkable -- a nuclear attack by terrorists on American soil.
The threat is real. Highly enriched uranium is stored in loosely guarded warehouses and sold on the black markets of countries like the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. These dangerous materials are not adequately protected and are at a high risk of falling into the hands of the wrong people. In one frightening instance, a lone security guard was found guarding nuclear material stored in a locker protected by a simple padlock.
Fortunately, the nuclear non-proliferation programs of a government agency called the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have proven to be highly effective in the fight to secure and remove these nuclear materials before they can be seized by terrorists. Since April 2009, NNSA has overseen the removal highly enriched uranium in six countries amounting to a total of 120 bombs-worth of nuclear material. In 2004, these non-proliferation programs contributed to the elimination of Libya's nuclear weapons program. Imagine the situation today if Colonel Gaddafi had nuclear materials or a nuclear weapon.
But now Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, is making unexplainable, reckless cuts to this vital national security program. Congress' current Continuing Resolution contains a $551 million cut championed by Ryan to NNSA's defense nuclear non-proliferation budget that could undermine that work and threaten Americans' safety.
Rep. Ryan is proud of the cuts, saying spending should be prioritized over full funding of America's efforts to rid the world of dangerous nuclear materials.
Ryan's extreme approach, supported by key Republican leaders in the House and Senate including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), is out of step with the bipartisan consensus on nuclear security that has existed for years.
At the height of the 2004 presidential campaign, then-President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry agreed that the largest threat to national safety was a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist. Last summer, money for these programs was approved by both the Senate and the House in the FY 2011 Defense Authorization Bill, which passed by unanimous consent.
According to the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, "the greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will materialize if the world's most dangerous terrorists acquire the world's most dangerous weapons."
President Obama's FY2011 budget request recognizes the urgency of these efforts and fully funds NNSA's nuclear non-proliferation programs. Full funding is necessary after a year in which the U.S. received new commitments to work with more than half a dozen countries in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere to accelerate efforts to remove and secure their bomb grade nuclear material.
Rep. Ryan's dangerous cut to the NNSA budget not only puts these groundbreaking agreements in trouble; it also means U.S. teams won't have access to the stockyards filled with highly enriched uranium and adds years to the efforts to remove these dangerous materials.
Fortunately, a bipartisan group of Congressman, led by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) penned a letter to Rep. Ryan urging him to restore the funding. Ryan should listen to his colleagues.
With nearly ten years having passed since a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it could be tempting for Congress to prioritize federal budget deficit reduction by skimping on the work that protects Americans from terrorists' acquisition of nuclear material -- but that would be a tremendous mistake with potentially devastating consequences.
There isn't a price tag on keeping Americans safe. Rep. Ryan has a responsibility to balance the budget without compromising America's nuclear security.