Clinton: Reports of limits on U.S. missile defense deployments “Dead wrong”

Clinton: Reports of limits on U.S. missile defense deployments “Dead wrong”

The Obama administration is involved right now in missile defense cooperation talks with Russia, but they are not about setting "limits" on U.S. missile defense deployments, multiple administration officials told The Cable.

The Washington Times’ Bill Gertz reported today that "The Obama administration is secretly working with Russia to conclude an agreement that many officials fear will limit U.S. missile defenses," and said "the administration last month presented a draft agreement on missile defenses to the Russians as part of talks between Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov."

U.S. officials and lawmakers have been calling for formal U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation for decades. When Ronald Reagan unveiled the original plans for missile defense in the 1980’s, he repeatedly talked about sharing missile defense technology with Russia as a means toward eventually eliminating offensive strategic ballistic missiles.

Formal talks on cooperation date back to 1992. The most visible sign was the 1997 agreement to start the Russian American Observation Satellite (RAMOS) program.

An administration official explained to The Cable exactly what is going right now. "There is nothing secret about our intentions here," the official said, "Cooperation, not restrictions, on missile defense is the subject of conversations between the United States and Russia leading up to next week’s presidential summit."

A "framework" or "draft agreement" is being considered, but it only covers future cooperation, not current deployment plans. The draft also includes data sharing, joint radar systems, and the like, but the U.S. side has been clear that limits on either the quantity or quality of missile defense deployments that fall outside the framework are not on the table. The Obama administration has requested $9.9 billion for missile defense in fiscal year 2011.

The Gertz story became a focus of the Senate Armed Services committee hearing Thursday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Joint Chiefs chairman Michael Mullen.

"We are discussing missile defense cooperation with Russia, which we believe is in the interests of both nations," Gates testified, "but such talks have nothing to do with imposing any limitations on our programs or deployment plans."

Clinton addressed the Gertz story directly.

"Number one, there is no secret deal. Number two, there is no plan to limit U.S. missile defenses, either in this treaty or in any other way. And number three, on that score, the story is dead wrong," she said.

Supporters of the administration’s decision last year to alter missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, have argued that the changes could pave the way for U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation.

"The President’s decision also opens the door to missile defense cooperation with Russia, which would send a powerful signal to Iran," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI said, adding that the administration’s plan "will not threaten Russia, and it offers an opportunity for missile defense to serve as a uniting issue, rather than a dividing one."

The Russians don’t see it that way, yet, but are engaging in the cooperation talks nonetheless.

The debate over missile defense limits is strongly tied to the ongoing drive to seek ratification of the new START nuclear reduction treaty, as today’s hearing with Clinton and Gates demonstrated.

Conservative critics of the new START treaty have two missile defense-related gripes, however. They believe that a provision preventing interceptors being mounted on ICBMs is constraining, although the administration has said that is not part of the plan anyway.

They also point to Moscow’s unilateral statement reserving their right to withdraw from the treaty if it concludes that U.S. missile defense deployments upset strategic stability. But the administration often points out that either side has the right to withdraw at any time, for any reason.

"It’s the equivalent of a press release, and we are not in any way bound by it," Clinton testified.

The preamble to the START treaty acknowledges there is a relationship generally between between offensive and defense forces. "That’s simply a statement of fact," Clinton said.