His mission as the full-time manager of Ted Turner's Nuclear Threat Initiative is to create from nothing an international organization whose influence will be felt from Washington to Moscow and - who knows? - even the Indian subcontinent and maybe the Middle East. But first he had to find office space, get the phones hooked up, hire some people and get connected to the Internet.
"A lot of people talk about starting an organization from scratch," he said in a recent interview. "And we are in the scratch stage."
Not for long.
Turner, the Atlanta billionaire who came up with the idea for the new organization - and whose gift of $250 million over five years is paying for it - is a man who likes quick action. Prime Washington office space has been found, 12,000 square feet on the seventh floor of an office building in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a block from the Old Executive Office Building. What Curtis calls a "core staff" has been hired, including three vice presidents and a senior vice president who will be Curtis' deputy. The phones are connected, everyone's on the Web, and the initial directions of the organization are starting to emerge.
Judging from the titles of the new officers, the organization will focus at first on trying to stop the spread of nuclear materials and knowledge from Russia and other former Soviet countries to other nations or organizations; on reducing the threats posed by biological weapons; and on developing a campaign to convince people that the threat of nuclear disaster did not end when the Berlin Wall came down.
The direction of the organization should snap into sharper focus on Monday, when its board holds its first substantive meeting. Curtis said he does not expect large expenditures to be authorized until a second meeting, scheduled for October. What he does expect Monday, he said, is "program direction" - instructions from the board to flesh out proposals that will be ready for funding in the fall.
"We want to make prudent investments," he said.
Turner railed against the dangers of nuclear weapons for years but, like many others, thought the danger had eased with the end of the Cold War. His attention was drawn back to the issue in 1998 when India and Pakistan each fired missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
More than a year ago, he began working on creating an organization to reduce the threat, enlisting the help of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who is known for his expertise on military matters. In January, the two men announced that they were creating the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Nunn and Turner are co-chairmen of the board of directors, and Nunn is also the organization's chief executive officer, retaining his law practice but devoting half his time to the new initiative. The former senator has immersed himself in the details of setting up the initiative, Curtis said, doing everything from interviewing job candidates --- more than 180 applications were received --- to supervising the selection of telephones.
"He is very much the chief executive officer of this organization," Curtis said.
A little-known chief officer
But the chief operating officer, the man who will be at the helm 100 percent of the time, is another member of the initiative's board --- Curtis, a 61-year-old lawyer and former federal official who has been little known outside government circles.
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Massachusetts, Curtis has been in Washington for 36 years --- 18 1/2 in government and 16 in private practice.
As deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy from 1994 to 1997, he had responsibility for the national laboratories and the nation's nuclear weapons complex. During that period, he helped establish a program designed to help ensure that nuclear materials, including plutonium and highly enriched uranium, in former Soviet laboratories were accounted for and secure. And the department also began efforts to reduce the prospect that nuclear know-how, in the person of newly unemployed Soviet scientists, would spread to rogue states or terrorist organizations offering much-needed jobs.
Curtis is also a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a former counsel to the House Commerce Committee. He came to Turner's attention when he was hired in 1999 as chief operating officer of the U.N. Foundation, the organization set up to disburse Turner's 10-year, $1 billion grant to United Nations projects.
"Charlie is the best public policy mind I've ever worked with," said Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, who spent 25 years in politics and government. "I've never known anyone as good as Charlie."
Curtis, Wirth said, is unflappable, universally respected, the rare person who is able to design policy, execute it, build consensus and lead.
Wirth said he spent two years trying to persuade Curtis to join the U.N. Foundation. Curtis finally accepted, then got to know Turner - who was so impressed he hired him away within months.
Sounding the alarm
Some observers say that the Nuclear Threat Initiative's most significant contribution would be in finding ways to inform the public that nuclear dangers still exist. Opposition to nuclear weapons, which once motivated thousands of protesters, has faded over the last decade.
"They can build the political will that is needed to de-alert the thousands of weapons that are now on a hair-trigger approach to what could be nuclear oblivion," said John Anderson, the former independent presidential candidate who now is head of the World Federalist Association, which is dedicated to establishing a world government.
And some who work for nonprofit advocacy groups had expected the Nuclear Threat Initiative to resemble Turner's U.N. Foundation and work primarily to grant money to organizations already tackling nuclear issues.
But, like Nunn and Curtis, all the members of the initiative's "core staff" have deep government experience, mostly in the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, or both. And officers of the initiative have made clear that the organization, while it might make grants to other organizations, will work largely on developing its own programs.
Curtis said the initiative will open an office in Moscow by the end of this year and later, perhaps, in regions of the world that are likely to be nuclear hotspots.
"Our co-chairmen are very intent on making this an international endeavor," Curtis said. "Over time, we will both grow our board with greater international participation, and we are likely to establish a physical presence in other countries."
The initiative appears likely, as well, to work on an area that has long been of concern to Nunn - securing the nuclear weapons and knowledge left untended by the downsizing of Russia's nuclear weapons program.
As a senator, Nunn worked with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to set up a program under which the U.S. government works with Russian officials - whose government has neither the wherewithal nor the will to accomplish the task on its own - to make the former Soviet arsenal safer. And last month, he hosted international experts at a Sam Nunn Policy Forum at Georgia Tech on, among other issues, how to help the thousands of unemployed nuclear scientists and engineers in Russia's 10 "closed nuclear cities."
This early direction by the initiative surprises Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
"When I heard Ted talking about this at the annual meeting of the Physicians for Social Responsibility . . . what this was intended to do in part was to provide seed money, if you will, for a significant amount of new funding in an area that has been traditionally underfunded," Schwartz said.
But Schwartz said the initiative seems to have evolved and will probably "act as an adjunct" to government-funded programs such as Nunn-Lugar. And he said he is not sure this is the best way to put Turner's money to use.
"I'm sensing that it is evolving away from Ted's vision into something more along the lines of what Sen. Nunn and Charlie Curtis and other people in the foundation think is doable and practical," Schwartz said.
But there is no disagreement between Curtis and Schwartz that the nuclear dangers are great and the work, whatever form it takes, is important.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the creator of the Doomsday Clock - a theoretical measure of the world's nuclear danger. In 1991, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the clock read 17 minutes to midnight. But since 1998 it has been set at nine minutes to midnight, signifying greater risks.
"We still have plans to incinerate millions of people, and people don't understand that," Schwartz said.
And Curtis, asked why he took the job, said nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction pose the biggest threat to U.S. security.
"When you come to a certain age you focus on future generations," said Curtis, who turned 61 on Friday. "And this is kind of the responsibility of our generation."
Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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