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Behind last week’s missile-defense scramble

When the story broke last week that the Obama administration had decided to alter its ballistic missile-defense plans in Europe, U.S. officials scrambled to respond by arranging a hasty news briefing and press conference  Thursday morning. On Wednesday evening, the Washington policy community was aflutter with rumors that top Obama officials had embarked on a ...

When the story broke last week that the Obama administration had decided to alter its ballistic missile-defense plans in Europe, U.S. officials scrambled to respond by arranging a hasty news briefing and press conference  Thursday morning.

On Wednesday evening, the Washington policy community was aflutter with rumors that top Obama officials had embarked on a late-night diplomatic journey to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Brussels to brief allies on their plans to drastically alter the Bush administration's scheme to plant long-range interceptor missiles only miles from Russian territory.

The administration had hoped to finish consulting with allies before announcing the plan, but that idea was ruined by exactly the kind of transatlantic rumor-mongering the administration was trying to avoid, one senior official confirmed on the record to The Cable.

When the story broke last week that the Obama administration had decided to alter its ballistic missile-defense plans in Europe, U.S. officials scrambled to respond by arranging a hasty news briefing and press conference  Thursday morning.

On Wednesday evening, the Washington policy community was aflutter with rumors that top Obama officials had embarked on a late-night diplomatic journey to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Brussels to brief allies on their plans to drastically alter the Bush administration’s scheme to plant long-range interceptor missiles only miles from Russian territory.

The administration had hoped to finish consulting with allies before announcing the plan, but that idea was ruined by exactly the kind of transatlantic rumor-mongering the administration was trying to avoid, one senior official confirmed on the record to The Cable.

"What happened was that some of the consultations that we had abroad started creating some leaks with erroneous information about what the plan was," said Michèle Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy, who traveled to Europe with Ellen O. Tauscher, under secretary of state for arms control, and Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, to deliver the news.

"It started creating a dynamic of erroneous speculation and reporting," Flournoy continued. "The president was very ready to make a decision, so we decided that rather than have six weeks of erroneous speculation, we would go ahead and roll out the decision and correct the record for what this actually is."

Flournoy’s remarks suggested that there might be something to the rumors that the leak came from Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, a former senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank sympathetic to the Bush administration’s original plan for the European sites.

The news of the Obama administration’s decision was first broken on the blog of the Weekly Standard, which shares an office building with AEI, and then fleshed out shortly afterward on The Cable.

Although some allies may have not been fans of the missile-defense overhaul, which scuttles Bush’s scheme to place 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the Czech Republic and replaces them with mobile short-range Standard Missiles, Flournoy promised that the new allies would not be left aside.

"Both of these countries, we hope, will be critical parts of the new infrastructure. They haven’t lost anything and it also opens up participation for a number of other countries."

"In the case of the Poles, we are just changing one missile type for another, and we’ll continue to deepen our defense cooperation in other ways," she said. "In the case of the Czechs, we invited them to participate in the new system. There are all kinds of ways, command and control nodes, ISR nodes … we’re in discussions with them now."

The new design will be much cheaper and more effective than the old one, said Flournoy. She also flatly rejected the charge that the administration tried to make a deal with the Russians that involved canceling the American missile-defense sites in Europe in exchange for Russian help in dealing with Iran.

"Absolutely not true," Flournoy said, "This was not about Russia, this was about a better and more adaptable defense of Europe and the linkage that’s implied there was totally false."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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