Nuclear Weapons

The Evolution of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group

06.05.14 | 12 min read | Text by Nickolas Roth

In March 2013, the Senate voted down an amendment offered by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to cut $700,000 from their budget that was set-aside for the National Security Working Group (NSWG). What many did not realize at the time was that this relatively small and obscure proposed cut would have eliminated one of the last traces of the bipartisan Congressional approach to debating arms control.

The NSWG first began as the Arms Control Observer Group, which helped to build support for arms control in the Senate. In recent years, there have been calls from both Democrats and Republicans to revive the Observer Group, but very little analysis of the role it played. Its history illustrates the stark contrast in the Senate’s attitude and approach to arms control issues during the mid- to late 1980s compared with the divide that exists today between the two parties.

The Arms Control Observer Group

The Arms Control Observer Group was first formed in 1985. At the time, the United States was engaged in talks with the Soviet Union on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. To generate support for ongoing negotiations, Majority Leader Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), and Minority Leader Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), with the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, created the bipartisan Arms Control Observer Group. The Observer Group consisted of twelve senators, with four senators, two from each party, serving as co-chairs and created an official role for senators to join U.S. delegations as they negotiated arms control treaties. As observers, its members had two duties: to consult with and advise U.S. arms control negotiating teams, and “to monitor and report to the Senate on the progress and development of negotiations.”

During meetings with U.S. State Department negotiators, senators were able to present their views, ask questions, and even engage in candid and confidential exchanges of ideas and information. Senators were also allowed to meet with members of the Soviet delegations on an “informal” basis. The Observer Group believed that the “interplay of ideas” would assist negotiators and, if negotiations failed, the members would help their fellow senators explain the reasons why to the American public.

The Observer Group served a number of purposes. First, it was intended to supplement the activities of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Byrd argued that the process that existed up until that point—where the Foreign Relations Committee became experts on treaties and the full Senate only began to understand the issues after the negotiation—was not functioning properly. Its creators argued, “the full Senate has focused its attention in the past only sporadically on the vital aspects of arms control negotiations, usually developing a knowledge and understanding of the issues being negotiated after the fact…the result of this fitful process has been generally unsatisfactory in recent years.” During the previous decade, the Executive Branch had failed to garner enough Senate support for several arms control initiatives: the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty of 1976, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) of 1979, none of which were ratified by the United States. Although there had been previous attempts to involve senators in arms control negotiations, the Observer group provided “more regular and systematic involvement” from the full Senate long before a vote took place.

The formation of the Observer Group publicly demonstrated the important role of arms control in national security matters. The resolution that created the group states that senators have the “obligation to become as knowledgeable as possible concerning the salient issues, which are being addressed in the context of the negotiating process. Any accord with the Soviet Union to control or reduce our strategic weapons carries considerable weight for our nation.” According to Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), a founding member of the Observer Group, “the goal [was] to have the Senate fulfill both halves of its constitutional responsibilities, not only the consent half—that’s what we’ve been looking to primarily in the past—but also the advice half.”

Additionally, the Observer Group helped develop institutional knowledge and expertise on arms control within the Senate. The Group’s founding members stated that they believed it was necessary to become “completely conversant” in issues related to treaty negotiations and that such knowledge was “critical” to the Senate’s understanding of the issues involved. To achieve that goal, they held regular behind closed-door briefings on negotiations for senators and their staff and some staffers were able to review related classified materials.  Observer Group members were conversant in issues related to previous arms control treaties, missile defense, the connection between strategic offense and defense, and treaty compliance.

Above all, the Observer Group was intended to help build bipartisan support for President Reagan’s arms control initiatives. The group was seen as a mediating body. When it was formed, Senators Dole and Byrd co-authored a resolution stating that the Observer Group was part of “an ongoing process to reestablish a bipartisan spirit in this body’s consideration of vital national security and foreign policy issues.” Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was one of the original members of the Observer Group, agreed by affirming, “The observer group is tremendously important to forming a consensus on which ratification might occur.” The Group’s 1985 report to Congress endorsed “the broad bipartisan support of the Senate for the Administration’s arms control efforts…determination to be as patient as necessary to achieve a sound agreement…the seriousness with which the Senate, including the Observer group intends to fulfill its constitutionally-mandated role in the treaty-making process.” This opinion was also shared by the Reagan administration. In a letter to Senators Dole and Byrd, Secretary of State George Shultz stated that he thought the Observer Group would help facilitate unity on arms control.

It is difficult to demonstrate the extent of its influence as the years the Observer Group was most active were also the years in which arms control was seen by both parties as a vital part of U.S. policy.  The success of these initiatives was clearly not solely due to the Observer Group, but it did play a role. Every one of the original Group’s members voted in favor of the INF Treaty in 1988, which passed 93-5.  Similarly, all of the senators within the Group voted in favor of ratifying the 1992 START Treaty, which passed 93-6.

The National Security Working Group

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Senate’s attitude towards arms control changed. Negotiations between the United States and Russia on a legally binding nuclear reduction treaty had stalled. The Senate had voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Reflecting this changing point of view, in 1999, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), wanted to further diminish the Senate’s focus and expertise on arms control issues. He proposed an amendment that expanded the Observer Group’s purview to include observing talks related to missile defense and export controls and renamed it the National Security Working Group. For nearly a decade during the George W. Bush administration, which pursued relatively little in terms of legally binding arms control agreements, the NSWG was relatively dormant.

This changed in 2009 under the Obama administration when the Executive Branch started briefing senators about the ongoing New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) negotiations. From July 6, 2009, when President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement to reduce American and Russian nuclear arsenals, to April 10, 2010, when they signed the negotiated treaty, the NSWG was revived in order to give senators a role in observing the negotiation process. During this ten-month period, the NSWG began meeting again. The meetings were open to members of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees and were well attended, with roughly 50 percent attendance from those who were invited. Senators who participated in the Working Group knew it was a serious matter and paid attention to it. As a result of their attendance, they left meetings better informed on issues related to arms control.

Throughout the course of Senate deliberation of New START, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) served as the Republican Party’s key interlocutor with Democrats. Unlike his predecessors in the Observer Group, Senator Kyl did not see the Working Group as a vehicle for bipartisan cooperation and consensus building. Senator Kyl used his position as the chief negotiator to disrupt the Obama administration’s legislative agenda on arms control.

Senator Kyl used issues peripheral to the treaty, such as missile defense and modernization of the nuclear stockpile, to “slow roll” the legislative process and prevent the administration from pursuing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which he ardently opposed.1 According to one account, Senator Kyl “was not using the Working Group. It was just a tool to stop the policy. There wasn’t a getting to yes option. It wasn’t there to get to yes. If the members of the group aren’t inclined to get to yes, then the mechanism won’t get them there.”  Further, he “came prepared to ask tough questions, not just to listen and probe. He was there to look for chinks in the arms and attack in front of his colleagues. He wanted his colleagues to see it.”

In an effort to prevent Senator Kyl from disrupting meetings, Senate staff made the NSWG open to all members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. They also made sure that senior Democratic leadership was present for all of the NSWG meetings. Either Senator John Kerry (D-MA) or Carl Levin (D-MI) served as Chair and were both prepared to answer all questions and concerns.

Despite this impediment, senators still appear to have found the Working Group useful. Senator Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the NSWG provided an opportunity to bring senators in at the beginning of the negotiation process, and “through the group” there were “many opportunities to learn of the progress and details of negotiations and to provide our advice and views to the administration throughout the process.” He praised the NSWG’s work, arguing that it was a “key” part of the treaty ratification process because it allowed senators to begin meeting with the administration “early in the process of negotiation” before New START was finalized. He said that during the New START process, “members of the National Security Working Group asked a great number of questions, received answers at a number of meetings, stayed abreast of the negotiation details, and provided advice to the administration.” Finally, he added that, through the NSWG, the administration had the opportunity to respond to senators’ questions and concerns, which helped to avoid problems during the Senate’s consideration of the treaty.

The Senate was less supportive of arms control this time around. Even with senators actively involved in the NSWG, only 13 Republicans ended up supporting the treaty. Of those 13, only four Republicans were members of the Working Group (Senators Lugar, Corker, Voinovich, and Cochran). Among those four, only Senator Lugar was a particularly strong advocate for the treaty.

At best, the Working Group had a mixed track record and certainly did not have the same kind of success as the Observer Group. Only two senators traveled to observe New START negotiations. There was no spirit of cooperation or strong bipartisan support for the treaty. The Working Group essentially became a courtroom where New START could be prosecuted.

The Future of the NSWG

Since the vote on New START, the NSWG has not been any more successful in helping to foster bipartisanship. At the beginning of the 113th session of Congress, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) were appointed co-chairs.  Senator Rubio, like Senator Kyl, has attempted to impede the Obama Administration’s work on arms control.

While the cooperative atmosphere that surrounded the Arms Control Observer Group seems like an anachronism in today’s political climate, this is not meant to argue that senators within the Working Group need to agree on everything. There were major disagreements over nuclear policy during the Reagan administration and at times, heated discussions within the Observer Group. The difference was that the Observer Group was effective because the senators who were in it believed that arms control could advance U.S. national interests and wanted the group to succeed.

Today, the NSWG suffers from three broader trends within the United States that inhibit this attitude. The first is that the partisanship that exists in the Working Group is a reflection of the divisions in Congress. Given this dynamic, if there is any chance for the NSWG to serve as a valuable forum, individuals looking for the spotlight cannot be given the opportunity to hijack it. Secondly, since the end of the Cold War, detailed, negotiated arms control agreements are decreasingly seen as important to advancing U.S. national interests. There is diminishing prestige or interest in being a member of the NSWG or in supporting arms control. Thirdly, the Republican Party is far more skeptical about any legally binding international commitments than it once was.

These trends are unfortunate. The fact is that arms control still has a role to play in advancing U.S. interests and promoting international peace and stability. There are numerous issues that the United States and Russia will still need to address together. They continue to cooperate on issues related to Iran and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. They will likely still continue to communicate about issues related to U.S. missile defense deployment. Some think that current problems between the United States and Russia are evidence that this is not the case, but it was this kind of tension that led both countries to arms control in the first place. For this reason, diplomacy will remain an important policy tool for preventing catastrophic war between the two countries.

With diminishing nuclear policy expertise in a divided Senate, there is a need for a group of engaged, knowledgeable senators invested in arms control. For this reason, the NSWG will continue to have the opportunity to play a constructive role in informing the Senate on these issues and allowing senators into the diplomatic process.

The first members of the Group were Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island), Al Gore (D-Tennessee), Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), Pat Moynihan (D-New York), Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma), John Warner (R-Virginia), and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyoming).

Foreword, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms ControlNegotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, (III) 1985.

Origin and Summary of Activities, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the ArmsControlNegotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, 1985.

Transcript of Press Conference of Observer Group in Geneva, March 12, 1985, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms Control, Negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, 1985.

Origin and Summary of Activities, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms Control, Negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, 1985.

Janne E. Nolan, “Preparing for the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review,” Arms Control Today, November 2000,

Congressional Staffer (April 4, 2013), personal interview.

Kyl, Jon, Memo to National Security Working Group Republican Members: Report on the NSWG CODEL to Observe the Geneva Negotiations, November 23, 2009,

Senator Carl Levin (MI), “Authorizing Expenditures by Committees,” Congressional Record (March 5, 2013), p. S1103.

Kristine Bergstrom, “Rubio vs Gottemoeller: The New Partisan Politics of Senate Nuclear Confirmations,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 7, 2014,

Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Nickolas Roth previously worked as a policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he wrote extensively about the industrial infrastructure responsible for maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile. Mr. Roth has a B.A. in History from American University and a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland, where he is currently a research fellow. Mr. Roth’s written work has appeared or been cited in dozens of media outlets around the world, including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Asahi Shimbun, Boston Globe, and Newsweek.  

Congressional Staffer (February 14, 2014), personal interview.