Criticism mounted Tuesday over President Obama’s secret promise to Russia to be more flexible in missile defense talks after his reelection.
Senate leader Jon Kyl led a group of 43 Republican senators in writing the president to voice concerns about future limits on U.S. missile defenses as part of the administration’s conciliatory approach to relations with Moscow.
“Not having to worry about the judgment of the American people on this important national security issue may allow more flexibility to make concessions to the Russians, but it would be antithetical to our safety and security and would be counter to other assurances you’ve given,” the letter, dated March 27, said.
A former director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, also criticized the president’s conciliatory policies toward Russia and missile defense talks.
“I participated in a working group with retired American, Russian, and European national security officials that outlined a viable, cooperative architecture for missile defense that did not involve any sharing or release of classified information and did not require the U.S. side to provide any more flexibility than they have already proposed,” Obering told the Free Beacon.
“In my view, the issue with missile defense collaboration for the Russians is not technical or military in nature … it is geo-political. The flexibility that’s needed here is on the Russian side.”
The senators’ letter said the president promised to continue deployment of missile defenses in Europe “to secure Senate support for the New START treaty” ratified in December 2010.
Many senators at the time worried the treaty would codify Russian efforts to limit missile defenses. “We objected to that linkage at the time and we will continue to do so in the future, notwithstanding any ‘flexibility’ you think you may gain with your possible re-election,” the senators said.
Last year’s defense authorization bill, which was signed into law, limits the president’s ability to share classified missile defense data with Moscow. “We caution that any attempt to treat this provision as non-binding, as you claimed in your signing statement, could have serious repercussions,” the lawmakers said.
One key House Republican missile defense supporter, Rep. Michael R. Turner, said on Tuesday that the president’s remarks do not hide the fact that he was offering Moscow concessions.
“Although the president has tried to make light of his own words, there is no denying them,” Turner told the Free Beacon. “He pulled back the curtain to reveal that he has made a secret deal with the Russians which would weaken the defense of the homeland. That’s something which Americans are not in a joking mood about.”
Turner—who is chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, which oversees missile defense policy—wrote to the president on Monday stating that he and other Republicans would oppose any effort to limit U.S. missile defenses in talks with the Russians.
Also on Monday, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, said in a speech to workers at the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency that Russia’s missile attacks on neighboring Georgia in 2008 and Chechnya in 1999 are “why I’m opposed to any effort to provide guarantees about our missile defenses to nations like Russia.”
“With an increase in states that have long range missiles, and an increase in states willing to use those missiles, it’s simply common sense that we have capable assets, like those satellites, to defend against the threat,” McKeon said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Al., also said on Tuesday that he was troubled by the president’s promise to the Russians of post-election missile defense concessions.
“This is not a little matter. I’ll tell you why it’s not a little matter. We had a long debate over the missile defense. The left has never favored missile defense. President Bush was preparing to put in place a system in Poland. Out of the blue it was cancelled. The Poles were deeply shocked and disappointed. So were the Czechs,” Sessions said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Session said senators were promised support by the administration for needed missile defenses but the president has changed policy from long-range interceptors in Poland to short-range SM-3s.
“But the Russians object to the new one,” Sessions said. “They’ve objected steadfastly for no good reason that I can see other than maybe domestic Russian politics or use leverage against the United States. And so, now it looks like the president is saying, we’re going to take care of those concerns too. We’re not going to build the new system, not going to place it there… and now, after the election I’ll take of it, Vladimir. But that’s not what he told the American people, what he told the Congress. He told the Congress we were going to build this system.”
Obama on Tuesday sought to clarify private comments made to Russia’s president about future flexibility in missile defense talks and told reporters traveling with him he is not “hiding the football” regarding secret talks on the issue.
The president was overheard Monday through an open microphone in Seoul having a private conversation with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
The president said Moscow should give him “space” from political pressure during the reelection campaign. In exchange, he promised more “flexibility” in addressing Moscow’s opposition to planned missile defenses in Europe, comments widely viewed as offering additional concessions on U.S. strategic defenses.
Medvedev said he would relay the president’s comments to “Vladimir,” a reference to incoming Russian President Putin.
The president’s comments drew harsh criticism from congressional Republicans and other missile defense advocates who said the candid remarks showed the president was preparing to give in to Moscow’s demands to impose limits on missile defenses, something the president earlier promised he would not do.
The president sought to make light of the comments, joking to reporters, “First of all, are the mics on?” according to a news pool report.
“This is not a matter of hiding the ball,” Obama said, insisting his objective is to gradually and systematically reduce the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.
Obama explained that what he said Monday to Medvedev “is something that I think everyone in this room understands: Arms control is extraordinarily complex, very technical, and the only way it gets done is if you can consult and build a strong understanding, both between countries and within countries.”
Critics have said the administration’s pro-arms control national security policies have focused more on reaching agreements than in developing hardware and systems to protect U.S. national security.
The administration’s so-called “reset” of relations with Moscow included giving up plans to deploy long-range missile defense interceptors in Eastern Europe as a concession to Russia.
Congressional critics of the missile defense talks have complained for the past several years that the administration has been engaged in secret negotiations that will result in limits on missile defenses.
The administration has denied its talks are secret, but has also declined to keep Congress fully informed about them.
Moscow has opposed U.S. missile defenses for Europe, claiming the systems are secretly aimed at countering Moscow’s long-range missiles. The U.S. government has said the systems are not intended as an anti-missile system for Russia but are focused solely on Iran’s growing missile arsenal.
Obama tried to explain the overheard comments to Medvedev on missile defense talks by saying, “I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States, and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia, and they’re in the process of a presidential transition where a new president’s going to be coming in a little less than two months.”
Obama said instead his administration would spend the next nine or ten months “trying to work through some of the technical aspects of how we get past what is a major point of friction, one of the primary points of friction between our two countries, which is this whole missile defense issue.”
“It involves a lot of complicated issues,” he said. “If we can get out technical teams to clear out the underbrush, hopefully in 2013, there’s a foundation to actually make some significant progress on this and a lot of other bilateral issues.”
If people do not understand his position, Obama said, “they haven’t been listening to my speeches—that I want to reduce nuclear stockpiles. And one of the barriers to doing that is building trust and cooperation around missile defense issues.”
Obama then quoted Medvedev as saying the United States and Russia have a special obligation as a result of being nuclear “superpowers.”
“That doesn’t make it easy because both countries are committed to their sovereignty and their defense,” Obama said. “The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support, and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations. I think the stories you guys have been writing over the last 24 hours is pretty good evidence of that.”
On Monday, Obama said to Medvedev that “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space.”
“This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” he said.
Updated at 4:35 with additional quotes.