Sharp differences have emerged within the Clinton administration over how far initial work could go on a U.S. National Missile Defense before violating a 1972 arms treaty with Russia, administration officials said on Wednesday.
“There is no consensus. You can’t put three lawyers in a room and get them to agree on anything,” said one of the officials as Defense Secretary William Cohen prepared to soon recommend to President Bill Clinton whether or not to take steps to begin building an anti-missile radar in Alaska.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between Washington and Moscow — which forbids either country to have a national missile defense — is open to broad interpretation.
And that is dividing a cautious State Department and the Pentagon, where many defense officials want Clinton to approve letting contracts later this year in order to begin building the new X-band radar on Alaska’s Shemya Island next spring.
“The question here is when would we be in violation of the treaty?” one official told Reuters. “Some think we already are by just saying we intend to develop a missile defense. Others say the whole system would have to be ready five years from now before the break comes.”
The United States wants to have a missile defense system in place by 2005 to shoot down a limited number of missiles from hostile states such as North Korea and Iran.
But Russia and mainland China bitterly oppose such a defense. Moscow has refused to agree to amend the 1972 treaty and has said it would stop proceeding with nuclear arms cuts under other treaties if Washington broke the ABM accord.
Two officials said on Wednesday Cohen was mistaken when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a July 25 hearing that administration lawyers agreed Washington would not be in violation of the ABM treaty until at least 2002, when rails would be laid for the radar on Shemya.
“There is a consensus that there would be no violation of the ABM treaty until such time as the actual rails are laid down for the radar system itself,” Cohen said then. “In other words, you could actually start site preparation, you could start clearing some of the land, you could do all of that without violating the ABM,” he told senators.