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Cohen on Bush's missile briefing rejection: 'That's the end of it'

May 29, 2000
Web posted at: 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary of Defense William Cohen said Monday that, because Texas Gov. George W. Bush had rejected his offer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to brief the Republican presidential candidate on the national missile defense system, "that's the end of it."

"This certainly was an effort on my part to say there are issues involved here in terms of the balance between offense and defense, and I think that it (a briefing) would be helpful, if Governor Bush wanted that opportunity, to take advantage of that. Since he's not, I think that's the end of it," Cohen said.

The defense secretary said missile reductions below those agreed to by President Bill Clinton and Russia's former President Boris Yeltsin could heat up the arms race.

"What happens, as you get down to lower numbers, your strategic commanders and their recommendations to the president tend to become less flexible," he said, referring to a theory called the "tyranny of small numbers."

"It could cause a future president to be in a position of having to use our systems or lose them under the threat of attack; it could cause a change in our targeting policies, and it could also compromise our ability to maintain a sufficient number of bombers in our force, which would compromise our conventional capability of using them during times of conflict, such as we did in Kosovo. So there are some intricacies involved."

"I think these need to be discussed," Cohen continued. "Apparently, Governor Bush would simply rely upon his own advisers, and that's fine. I made the offer, it's been rejected and, again, that's the end of it."

Cohen had extended the offer Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press." It came in response to a speech last Tuesday in which the GOP presidential candidate proposed unilateral reductions in nuclear weapons below the Clinton administration's proposed floor of 2,000-2,500 and a funding increase for the so-called "Star Wars" missile-defense shield.

"I think it would be important, because if this is going to become an area of debate in the fall elections, then I think both candidates ought to have equal opportunity to have access to the information," Cohen said.

After such a briefing, "I think, he and Vice President [Al] Gore will be in a better position to debate this in a way that is responsible and, I think, informed," Cohen told NBC.

Bush's proposal could wind up heating up the arms race, encouraging the world's nuclear powers to develop more nuclear weapons, said Cohen, himself a Republican.

"That would be, I believe, the end result, because you can overwhelm defenses by proliferating the numbers," added Cohen.

Bush's rejection came Sunday, a few hours after the offer was made.

"Surely he's [Cohen's] not suggesting that Governor Bush's advisers," such as former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, "who have led our defenses in the past, don't understand them," said Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for the Bush campaign.

"We are confident that the Joint Chiefs would welcome Governor Bush's approach, because it makes sure military planners are involved in determining the appropriate levels of security based on new guidance in a new security era," said Tucker.

Tucker said Bush would be "happy" to attend briefings at the "appropriate time."

Typically, presidential candidates receive briefings from the administration after they are formally nominated at the political conventions.

Tucker added the Bush campaign hoped that those briefings would not be "politicized."

The Russians have indicated they are against the U.S. building any missile defense system.

Cohen argued Sunday in their favor. By 2005, he said, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq might "be in the position to have an intercontinental ballistic missile capability that could threaten the United States."

"I believe we have to have a method of protecting our people against threats from rogue nations, those that have limited capacities to launch an attack, or threaten to launch an attack," Cohen said.

 
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