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Can Social Networking Improve Arms Control?

Assistant Secretary of State discusses implications of computer technology in driving the arms control agenda.

We’ve seen how Facebook and Twitter have become valuable tools in support of recent revolutions worldwide. Do they also have a role to play in augmenting verification of arms control treaties and combating terrorism? This is one of the questions Secretary Rose Gottemoeller dealt with in her lecture, “From the Manhattan Project to the Cloud” at Stanford Thursday.

Gottemoeller was the invited speaker for the 2011-2012 Drell Lecture which has been focusing on critical national and international security issues annually since 1994. She was introduced by Stanford Professor Siegfried Hecker, Co-Director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

In her role as Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, she is concerned with “loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists” as well as non-proliferation and negotiating arms control agreements. She recently served as the chief U.S. negotiator for the New START treaty.

Gottemoeller believes that “citizen efforts could augment a country’s claim about closure of nuclear plants.” Google Earth and Google SketchUp are also useful tools. “The ability to view trends in social media could be used to queue our spy satellites,” she continued. She also pointed out that by tapping into social networks, a team from MIT won the 2009 nationwide weather balloon hunting contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

She turned to cyber arms control and called it a “confusing concept”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be meeting with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the subject next month.

She concluded her talk stressing the continuing need for verification of arms control agreements, saying, “If the minds of the Manhattan Project were clever enough to build the bomb we should be clever enough to eliminate it.”

Sidney Drell, professor and deputy director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), asked the first question. He recalled how in past times when arms control wasn’t working, we used less formal reciprocal agreements and asked if we were now going that route. Gottemoeller replied that although she prefers negotiated legally binding agreements, we are in a new and more creative phase. We’re launching an initiative with our NATO allies and Russia to look at new transparency measures.

Bud Rubin, a Palo Alto resident asked, “How can we deal with Iran?” Gottemoeller said, “It’s difficult. We’re working with the European Union and Russia to promote working with them on peaceful nuclear power. They need to step up to their obligations. It’s difficult and complicated by their recent support for terrorism.”

A student from the Monterey Institute of International Studies asked if social networks could be used for detecting masses of conventional weapons. Although Gottemoeller works primarily on nuclear weapons she agreed that it’s worth looking into how “open source could apply to arms control in general.”

In reply to a member of the audience who asked about policy regarding Wikileaks, Gottemoeller said, “There are rules for confidentiality. I couldn’t have conducted negotiations in the open.”

A student asked whether it’s realistic to think of a nuclear-free world. Gottemoeller responded that “President Obama wants to deemphasize nukes in our military strategy but it’s not an easy task. He doesn’t expect it to happen in his lifetime. We have to go step by step. Maybe it will be accomplished in your lifetime.”

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