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Obama surprised European governments with major missile defense announcement

European governments were told about the Barack Obama administration’s decision to drastically alter U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe only 25 minutes before the official announcement, according to a tranche of leaked diplomatic cables released on Sunday by the self-described whistleblower website WikiLeaks. This detail is the latest piece of evidence that the ...

Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images
Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images

European governments were told about the Barack Obama administration's decision to drastically alter U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe only 25 minutes before the official announcement, according to a tranche of leaked diplomatic cables released on Sunday by the self-described whistleblower website WikiLeaks. This detail is the latest piece of evidence that the administration botched its September 2009 rollout of the policy change.

"The White House is expected to announce a Presidential decision at approximately 9:55 a.m. (Washington, D.C.) on September 17 regarding a U.S. European-based BMD adaptive regional architecture, which is significantly different from the Bush Administration's plan to deploy 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a BMD tracking radar in the Czech Republic," read a diplomatic cable sent that day from Foggy Bottom to several dozen diplomatic posts in Europe.

"ACTION REQUEST: Addressee Posts are instructed to deliver the talking points to Host Governments in paragraph 4 on Thursday, September 17, as a non-paper, but no earlier than 9:30 a.m."

European governments were told about the Barack Obama administration’s decision to drastically alter U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe only 25 minutes before the official announcement, according to a tranche of leaked diplomatic cables released on Sunday by the self-described whistleblower website WikiLeaks. This detail is the latest piece of evidence that the administration botched its September 2009 rollout of the policy change.

"The White House is expected to announce a Presidential decision at approximately 9:55 a.m. (Washington, D.C.) on September 17 regarding a U.S. European-based BMD adaptive regional architecture, which is significantly different from the Bush Administration’s plan to deploy 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a BMD tracking radar in the Czech Republic," read a diplomatic cable sent that day from Foggy Bottom to several dozen diplomatic posts in Europe.

"ACTION REQUEST: Addressee Posts are instructed to deliver the talking points to Host Governments in paragraph 4 on Thursday, September 17, as a non-paper, but no earlier than 9:30 a.m."

Of course, if European governments were reading the news reports, including an exclusive report the night before on The Cable, they would have known that top Obama administration officials, including Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, were making a hastily arranged late night trip to Poland and the Czech Republic to brief leaders there on the decision, after word leaked out ahead of the administration’s schedule.

"What happened was that some of the consultations that we had abroad started creating some leaks with erroneous information about what the plan was," Flournoy told The Cable the next day.

A poorly worded headline in a carefully placed "authorized leak" article in the Wall Street Journal compounded the SNAFU. "U.S. to Shelve Nuclear-Missile Shield," read the story, which was exactly the opposite of the administration’s talking points, which highlighted that the plans were merely being adjusted.

The leaked cable also reveals how the administration prioritized the need for secrecy above the need to brief allies and partners.

"Action Request addressees should attempt to provide pre-notifications immediately prior to the public announcement of the Presidential decision but not before 9:30 a.m. EDT; with the different time zones involved," the cable stated. "Washington recognizes that some notifications may not occur until after the White House public announcement."

Multiple European diplomats involved in the discussions have told The Cable that they were rebuffed by the White House in their attempts to get advance clarification of the decision to scuttle long-range missile defense interceptors in Poland and advanced radar in the Czech Republic planned by the George W. Bush administration. The administration’s "Phased Adaptive Approach" envisions replacing that equipment with sea-based interceptors aimed at combating shorter range missiles.

Western European diplomat told The Cable that the NSC’s Senior Director for Europe Liz Sherwood-Randall refused to disclose the details of the long-planned decision to that country’s ambassador the night before the announcement, even after reports of the move had broken in the press.

The cable, which directs U.S. diplomats to explain the merits of the new approach for dealing with Iran, also includes specific talking points for consultations with specific countries. For Russia, for example, it emphasizes that missiles and radars used under the new approach do not have the capability to threaten or track Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.

U.S. diplomats were also instructed that they could tell foreign governments they were getting briefed before the Russians, although that was not always the case.

"We would like to explain the President’s decision to you before our public announcement and before we speak with Russia," the diplomats were told to say.

But in the section that outlines talking points to be given to Russian diplomats, the cable read, "The National Security Advisor, General [Jim] Jones, will be delivering a similar message to [Russian] Ambassador [Sergey] Kislyak before the [president’s] announcement."

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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