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Administration lawyers argue ABM treaty allows start on missile defense system
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Clinton Administration lawyers have told National Security Adviser Samuel Berger that the first stage of a national missile defense system could be deployed without violating the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty with Russia.
An administration official said Thursday that President Bill Clinton has not been briefed on the matter, and that the president's top military advisers have yet to draw hard conclusions from the lawyers' classified assessment.
"What our lawyers have been looking at are the options we have for beginning to build the initial phases of this radar within the restrictions or terms of the ABM Treaty. And they have looked at that, and they have made some -- they have come up with some options which the president hasn't -- has not had a chance to decide on yet," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.
The Pentagon says Clinton will weigh four factors in making his decision: the threat from other countries, the cost, the technical feasibility, and the effects on arms control regimes.
The most immediate threat appears to come from North Korea, which is why the administration has considered constructing a missile intercept system in Alaska. American intelligence has estimated North Korea, which reached an historic agreement with South Korea this week to work toward eventual reunification, could have the capability to hit the U.S. with nuclear or chemical-tipped ballistic missiles by 2005.
The president is expected to decide by the fall whether to break ground on the project in Alaska next spring -- the length of time required to have the system up and running within the next five years.
Bacon said Thursday that the options are aimed at finding a way to begin work on the radar on the remote Alaskan island of Shemya, located at the tip of the Aleutian archipelago, near Russia.
"If we are to meet our deployment goal -- or operational goal of 2005, we have to take the initial steps to build a new X-band radar on Shemya Island this year. And we have to begin building, doing the initial work on the radar next year and the year after," Bacon said.
He added that the bad weather on the island, and its remote location, means there's only a small window in the summer when construction work can be done.
Russia and European nations may have a different interpretation of the ABM treaty. Moving forward with the missile defense system would controvert a legal understanding dating from the Reagan Administration that even the smallest steps -- such as breaking ground -- would breach the treaty.
But the assessment could give Clinton a way to announce that the U.S. would move forward with the project, providing the nation with enough time to test the system and negotiate with Russia.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) told CNN: "It seems to me to be a way to give the Clinton Administration an opportunity to sidestep the issue of whether to announce they're going to withdraw from the ABM treaty, or whether they're going to go ahead and proceed with construction and be hopeful the Russians are not going to accuse them of violating the treaty."
Beginning the project means that the next president would be left with the decision of breaking the ABM treaty, a move that could harm ties with both Russia and some European allies.
Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush has said he supports a strong missile defense system -- irrespective of the ABM treaty -- while his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, maintains that steps could be taken to implement the system without violating the treaty.
CNN's Jamie McIntyre, Major Garrett, and Reuters contributed to this report.
Thursday, June 15, 2000
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