The State Department’s senior negotiator with Moscow on a missile defense agreement declined on Wednesday to say what President Obama recently meant when he promised Russia’s leader "more flexibility" after his reelection.
Ellen Tauscher, special State Department envoy for missile defense, also refused to explain why the U.S. government aborted the signing of an agreement on missile defenses at the 2011 summit meeting in Deauville, France, between the president and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
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U.S. officials said the draft agreement developed by Ms. Tauscher’s office was rejected after White House lawyers determined that some of its provisions would have had legally binding restrictions on the development of U.S. missile defenses.
On the president’s comments, Tauscher was asked about the March 26 meeting in Seoul during a nuclear summit when Obama was overheard having a private conversation with Medvedev in which he promised the Russian leader he would have "more flexibility" to make a missile defense deal after his presumed reelection.
The president also was heard asking Medvedev for "space" from Russian pressure on missile defense until after November. Medvedev replied that he would relay the offer of concessions to incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The comments drew widespread criticism from national security advocates, including Republicans in Congress, who viewed it as a sign the administration is set to offer further concessions on limiting U.S. missile defenses in Europe, which Moscow opposes.
Tauscher, during comments yesterday, repeated that the current U.S. position in the missile defense talks is that the administration would not accept "preconditions" for an agreement.
Russia for the past several years has demanded legally binding guarantees that U.S. missile defenses being deployed in Europe will not be used to target Moscow’s strategic forces, despite the U.S. side’s insistence that the defenses are designed to counter Iranian, not Russian, missiles.
Asked about the president’s comments in Seoul on future flexibility, Tauscher would not address them directly and said only that the United States is committed to building the European-based missile defense system, which is "not aimed at Russia."
"Because 2012 is an election year in both countries, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough," she said. "Therefore President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussion on missile defense cooperation going forward."
She declined to discuss the Deauville draft agreement, but earlier during the press conference said there was "nothing on the table" in terms of a draft agreement between Moscow and Washington.
Several House Republicans introduced a bill March 1 that would force the administration to disclose the draft missile defense agreement.
The legislation, called the "Protecting U.S. Missile Defense Information Act of 2012," also would restrict the administration from sharing classified information about U.S. missile defenses with Russia, something U.S. negotiators are planning as a way to allay Moscow’s opposition to European defenses.
The bill would require the administration to notify Congress whether any treaty negotiations or government-to-government contacts with Russia suggested an accord that restricted missile defenses, military capabilities in space, or conventional prompt global strike efforts.
Tauscher insisted the missile defense talks with Russia are not stalemates, despite the U.S. refusal to meet Moscow’s demand to provide legal guarantees that European defenses will not target Moscow.
A senior Russian official said recently that Moscow would only enter an agreement that includes such guarantees.
A future missile defense agreement that would outline Russian cooperation "has the potential to enhance security and build a strategic partnership," Tauscher said.
Eight U.S. officials are in Moscow for talks with Russia on missile defense.
The Pentagon is moving ahead with what the administration calls its "phased adaptive approach" for European defenses. The system currently includes Aegis battle management equipped ships armed with SM-3 missiles; future land-based SM-3s in Romania and Poland; and a radar system in Turkey.
A congressional aide said Tauscher "needs to come home and explain how her [European Phased Adaptive Approach] will ultimately work."
The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, the General Accountability Office, and the National Academy of Sciences have called into question the basic technical merits of the missile defense that Tauscher falsely claimed was based on proven designs and would come in at lower cost than other programs, the aide said.