Ploughshares Fund Uses Its Millions to Sway Arms Control Debate

The little-known Ploughshares Fund is bankrolling a new debate on arms control. Eli Lake reports.

In the old days advocacy groups engaged in the rough and tumble of political debates while the foundations that bankrolled them kept a lower profile. In the arms-control world, that is changing. A foundation called the Ploughshares Fund is taking a more active role, coordinating efforts it funds to influence the current dialogue about the size and costs of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Joseph Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares, calls his more assertive approach as a funder “impact philanthropy.”

“We look at the problem to try to correct that problem, identify the gaps that exist and make targeted grants,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview.

Ploughshares focused on reducing nuclear weapons and funding peaceful U.S.-Soviet exchanges when it first burst onto the scene in the 1980s, but more recently has sharpened its focus on targeted campaigns like stopping military action against Iran and supporting specific treaties to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

Its edgier approach is getting noticed in official Washington, especially as the town debates the implications of the New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty with Russia. The Pentagon recently challenged some of the statistics being disseminated by Ploughshares’ efforts as “curious arithmetic.” The group defends its numbers and relishes the controversy, if for no other reason than it gets people focused on its issue.

Overall, Ploughshares gave out $6.2 million in 2010 to a network of nonprofits that supports its agenda. Its own funders include other foundations like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as well as celebrities such as actor Michael Douglas.

Cirincione himself has a reputation for being a liberal partisan and a withering opponent of neoconservatives who rose to power in George W. Bush’s administration. In 2006, when he was vice president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, he told an audience: “Charles Krauthammer is never going to say he was wrong, William Kristol is never going to say he was wrong. These people cannot be convinced. They must be defeated.”

Last year, Cirincione’s network of nonprofits was aligned with the Obama administration in seeking passage of the U.S.-Russia arms control treaty. In 2011, however, that network is at odds with an Obama administration that promised at least $185 billion over 10 years to Republicans for modernizing the nuclear weapons that would be left after the reductions required in New START.

At issue is how much the U.S. government spends on nuclear weapons. The Obama administration’s official number is $214 billion over 10 years. Cirincione’s group says the real number is about $700 billion over the same period.

Estimates for the total cost of maintaining and modernizing the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons is tricky business. Experts differ on what factors to include and exclude when tallying costs.

But the gap between the administration’s numbers and Ploughshares’ has already caused a stir in the policymaking world. Asked about the $700 billion figure in November at a hearing, James Miller, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said: “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.”

In the interview, Cirincione defended his number. He said Miller’s estimates did not factor in the cost of modernization, which includes next-generation bombers, missile platforms, and submarines. “There are things they cannot estimate because they do not exist,” he said. “The new ICBM does not exist, so there is no cost figure for that. There is some money for the submarine, but it’s not costed out yet.” The Cirincione estimate also includes spending for missile defense, environmental cleanup, and nonproliferation programs.

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The Washington Post’s Fact Check columnist, Glenn Kessler, concluded last week that the Ploughshares number was inflated, giving the claim two Pinocchios, meaning it suffers from “significant omissions and/or exaggerations,” according to the column’s rating system.

After Kessler’s piece, the impact of “impact philanthropy” became apparent. Several groups funded by Ploughshares began attacking Kessler’s column. Jeffrey Lewis, who writes the blog Arms Control Wonk, said, “If you are impugning the integrity of a particular participant or handing out Pinocchios, it just shows you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Since March 1, 2010, the Monterey Institute has received $301,500 from Ploughshares. Asked if the contribution had anything to do with his attack on Kessler, Lewis responded, “No! Fuck you!”

Another group, Project on Government Oversight (POGO), also attacked Kessler’s piece, saying the Obama administration number for nuclear weapons cost was “far too low.” POGO has received $135,000 since June 2010 from Ploughshares.

William Hartung, the director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, concluded that it is the Obama administration, not Ploughshares, that needs to increase its estimates. The Center for International Policy won a $50,000 grant in June from Ploughshares.

Bruce Blair, the president of the World Security Institute, wrote for Time magazine that if anything, the Ploughshares figure underestimated the total cost of nuclear weapons over the next 10 years. Since September 2010, the World Security Institute has received $450,000 from Ploughshares.

Cirincione acknowledged that Ploughshares had hosted a listserv and meetings to coordinate a wider strategy in 2011 to reduce the nuclear budget. But when asked whether he could get organizations he funded to embrace his nuclear budget numbers because of that funding, he demurred. “I wish we had the influence you are implying,” he said.

Some analysts familiar with the strategy sessions hosted by Ploughshares say some arms-control groups are not comfortable with the Ploughshares number but don’t want to undermine the organization in public. Last week, the Post obtained another email from that listserv from Eric Sapp, the executive director of the American Values Network, another recipient of Ploughshares funding ($145,000 since last October). In the email, Sapp wrote that backing away from the $700 billion figure would “run a big risk of building political and press momentum around the narrative that we just made this all up and don’t have any credibility.”

In an interview, Sapp confirmed the email. He also said the policy experts he knew believed Ploughshares’ number to be accurate. Asked about what he meant by the political risk, he said he made those remarks in the context of a discussion about whether the coalition to reduce the nuclear budget should focus on other things.

Darryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association—a group that received $365,000 in 2011 from Ploughshares and $275,000 from the foundation in 2010—would not endorse the Ploughshares number. “I haven’t devoted staff time and I have not authorized my staff to spend hours poring over these things to make a judgment,” Kimball said. “What has been valuable to what Ploughshares has done is to draw attention that we will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear weapons. Whether it’s $699 billion or it’s $500 billion, it’s a great deal of taxpayer money.”

Kimball also rejected the idea that Ploughshares grant effected his organization's positions. "If I have to get into a public debate with Ploughshares I will," he said. "We are an independent organization and I am accountable to my board of directors. We do not shape our agenda to meet somebody else’s particular point of view."

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the Republican chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee in the House, told The Daily Beast he believed the Ploughshares impact on the debate had been counterproductive. “It is now clear that not only does the arms-control movement have its facts wrong, but it all marches to the same tune because of the same paymaster,” he said. “When one organization is able to exert influence because of its checkbook, an entire national security debate is discredited.”

Maybe there is good reason for Turner to be concerned. Sapp told the Beast last week that his organization is planning to send out a Web ad that uses the $700 billion figure and makes the case for trimming the nuclear budget to “250,000 evangelical and Catholic voters we have on our lists in Rep. Turner’s district.” Sapp made clear that the email campaign in Turner’s district, however, was not funded by Ploughshares specifically.