31 Democratic Senators Urge Missile Defense Delay; Cohen Statement As reported in FYI #94, within the next few months President Clinton is expected to make a decision that would lead the nation a step closer to deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system - a decision to start letting construction contracts in preparation for building a radar site at Shemya Island, Alaska. On July 26, 31 Democratic members of the Senate sent a letter to Clinton, expressing concern over the feasibility of the system and its impact on national security. The letter cites recent concerns raised by the American Physical Society (see FYI #52), the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a group of 50 Nobel Laureates regarding the system's effectiveness against countermeasures. The senators urge Clinton to "resist pressure to deploy a national missile defense system at this time."
Secretary of Defense William Cohen has been awaiting the results of a Defense Department Deployment Readiness Review in order to make a recommendation, through the National Security Council, to the president. Yesterday, Cohen issued a statement indicating that his recommendation will be submitted a few weeks later than originally expected. He stated that "a number of difficult issues remain to be resolved before [DOD] can report to me.... I expect...to report to the president within the next few weeks."
SENATORS' LETTER TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: The full text of the July 26 letter is as follows:
"Dear Mr. President:
"Up to now, you have set this summer as the deadline for announcing a decision on the deployment of a National Missile Defense (NMD) system. We are writing to urge you to delay such a decision and not to take any steps toward deployment at this time.
"Last weekend's test failure demonstrates that it is too early to know whether deploying a cost-effective NMD system will be possible in the near future and whether it will provide real protection against the potential threat from emerging nuclear powers.
"As you know, there is growing scepticism within the scientific community about the technical feasibility of the proposed system. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and MIT has raised serious questions about whether it would be effective against even the fairly simple countermeasures that adversaries would be capable of developing. Furthermore, a group of 50 Nobel Laureates and the American Physical Society, which represents 42,000 physicists, have recently issued statements critical of making a deployment decision before the system is adequately tested against realistic countermeasures.
"We fear that a decision to deploy would imperil, not improve, our national security. Both Russia and China have said they will respond with a new buildup of their own nuclear forces. Furthermore, our allies have expressed grave concern about the impact deployment would have on international strategic stability.
"Mr. President, the most effective way to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons is by continuing our arms reduction agreements and by working aggressively to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and missile technology. We hope you will continue your efforts to preserve the ABM treaty and resist pressure to deploy a national missile defense system at this time."
The letter was signed by the following Democratic senators:
Max Baucus (MT) Jeff Bingaman (NM) Barbara Boxer (CA) Richard Bryan (NV) Robert Byrd (WV) Max Cleland (GA) Tom Daschle (SD) Christopher Dodd (CT) Byron Dorgan (ND) Richard Durbin (IL) Russell Feingold (WI) Dianne Feinstein (CA) Tom Harkin (IA) Tim Johnson (SD) Edward Kennedy (MA) Robert Kerrey (NE) John Kerry (MA) Frank Lautenberg (NJ) Patrick Leahy (VT) Carl Levin (MI) Barbara Mikulski (MD) Daniel Moynihan (NY) Patty Murray (WA) Jack Reed (RI) Harry Reid (NV) Charles Robb (VA) Jay Rockefeller (WV) Paul Sarbanes (MD) Charles Schumer (NY) Paul Wellstone (MN) Ron Wyden (OR)
It is of note that Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Vice President Gore's choice as running mate, did not sign the letter, and in a July 25 hearing stated his hope that the president would "keep [the program] going forward."
At the same hearing, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) had critical words for the scientific groups that have raised concerns about the program, saying, "I don't think we need to be delaying this thing because some group of concerned scientists are misrepresenting test data and want to delay things."
COHEN STATEMENT ON MISSILE DEFENSE: On August 7, Defense Secretary Cohen issued the following statement:
"Components of the Department of Defense are currently completing their assessment of the program to develop a National Missile Defense system. A number of difficult issues remain to be resolved before they can report to me.
"I will make no recommendation about the future of the NMD program until I have analyzed their findings. I expect that to happen and to report to the president within the next few weeks. Recent reports that I have made a decision on this matter, preliminary or otherwise, are wrong.
"There is no immediate or artificial deadline for a recommendation to the president. NMD is an important and complex program. My goal is to make the best possible recommendation based on the president's four criteria [threat, affordability, technological feasibility, and implications for national security], not the earliest possible recommendation. The president fully supports this approach."
Audrey T. Leath