William Tobey (right), newly named chairman of the World Institute of Nuclear Security (WINS) Board of Directors, with outgoing chairman Charles Curtis, a former deputy secretary of energy.
Spotlight: William Tobey
Author: James F. Smith, Communications Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism
William Tobey was working happily and profitably as a bond trader when the 9/11 terror attacks struck the United States. Soon he was drawn back into the world of counterproliferation and nuclear security, where he had begun his career as a National Security Council staffer in 1986.
Tobey spent seven more years overseeing and executing U.S. government policies on some of the highest-stakes nuclear security issues of our era, first as director of counterproliferation strategy for the National Security Council in the White House, and then as the deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.
In 2009, Tobey joined the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as a senior fellow, giving him the chance to step back and analyze some of the policy challenges that he had grappled with first-hand in government. He also kept up an active role in the World Institute of Nuclear Security (WINS), which he had helped found in 2008 while serving in the George W. Bush Administration.
At the Second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, in late March, Tobey was named chairman of the WINS board of directors, giving him oversight of an organization charged with developing and sharing best practices for those accountable for nuclear security – to keep fissile material out of the hands of thieves and terrorists.
Tobey also serves on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s International Security Advisory Board, along with Belfer Center Director Graham Allison.
Tobey’s WINS chairmanship will allow him to put to use the financial skills he learned in nearly a decade in finance as well as his 15 years of nuclear security experience. His first objective, Tobey said, is to get WINS onto a stronger financial footing. “They’ve done tremendous substantive work, and I want to make sure they have the resources to continue those efforts.”
His work at WINS also fits well with his primary role in the Belfer Center. He is the director of the Center’s U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, which coordinated the first-ever “U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment of Nuclear Terrorism.” That study, produced in June 2011, flowed from a year-long partnership with counterparts from the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, a leading Russian research center in Moscow.
That partnership no doubt reminds Tobey of the evolving U.S.-Russian relationship, much changed since his Cold War days on the NSC staff in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration.
Fresh from earning his Master of Public Policy Degree at the Kennedy School in 1984, Tobey plunged into his work as an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the nuclear and space talks with the Soviet Union, held in Geneva. He took part in four rounds of negotiation toward the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as well as the Defense and Space Talks.
From 1983 to 1986, he was director of defense programs and arms control on the NSC staff, developing and implementing U.S. policy on ballistic missile defense and verification and compliance with arms control agreements.
When the first Bush Administration handed off to the Clinton team, Tobey moved into the investment world.
Comparing the two roles, Tobey recalled that with the arms control work in the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, “until the end of the Cold War, the progress was glacial, even if there was no doubt that it was extremely important. On Wall Street, you knew at the end of the day if you had made money or not. But it clearly wasn’t as important.”
He traded securities and worked in venture capital, and became head of a sales division for Wachovia Securities near his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and daughters Emma and Beatrix.
But the 9/11 attacks changed his life once again. He rejoined the NSC staff in the George W. Bush Administration as director of counterproliferation strategy. He helped manage the U.S. program to dismantle Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s nuclear weapons program.
In 2006 Tobey was appointed deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy. He needed Senate confirmation for a job that ran a $2 billion program to prevent proliferation and nuclear terrorism. He ran a team of 400 employees, working with more than 100 countries.
His team administered the Bratislava Initiative to complete physical security upgrades on Russian nuclear weapons and facilities by 2008—which were completed on schedule. Other work included closing Russian plutonium production reactors, preventing the production of a ton and a half of weaponsusable plutonium each year.
Tobey also oversaw the construction of a $4.8 billion project at Savannah River—the largest construction project in the Southeast United States—to convert weapons-grade plutonium to enough civil reactor fuel to power 1 million American homes for 50 years.
At the Belfer Center, he is working on a follow- up to the Joint Threat Assessment with policy prescriptions and is working on a report on “transcending mutual deterrence.” He has launched a series of nonproliferation practitioners seminars and co-teaches a course on nonproliferation with Matthew Bunn.
“I’m always being amazed by the number of smart people who work here and pass through,” Tobey said. “It’s a way to continue working on issues I care about, with the advantages of perspective afforded by some distance from Washington.”
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