Open Secrets

Pentagon plans to share missile secrets with Russia opposed by Republicans

Russian Topol-M missile / AP
May 13, 2013

The Pentagon held internal talks on declassifying sensitive missile defense technology that it plans to share with Russia as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to assuage Moscow’s opposition to European defenses.

Republicans in both the House and Senate plan to block any technology declassification for missile defense technology in the current defense authorization bill and other legislation. Legislative mark up on the authorization bill begins this week.

Critics say giving Russia classified data would undermine the effectiveness of missile defenses, which have cost taxpayers more than $100 billion since the 1980s.

Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), disclosed during a congressional hearing Wednesday that the Obama administration has asked him about sharing sensitive missile defense data with Russia during talks over the past several years aimed at reaching a missile defense cooperation agreement.

"I have not been asked to declassify anything in terms of disclosing information to Russia," Syring said under questioning from Rep. Mo Brooks (R., Ala.) at a House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

However, pressed for details, Syring revealed that there were discussions among senior policy officials, including Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, about "what is classified and what is not" in the context of data sharing with the Russians.

Syring said the discussions involved sensitive data to be used in talks with Moscow, including "the capability of the current missiles we’re building and the velocity of burn out."

The Obama administration has sought to convince Russia’s government that its phased missile defense plan for Europe will not be used against a Russian missile attack against the United States. As part of that process, Pentagon and State Department officials in the past have tried to give sensitive data to the Russians that they hope would convince them some U.S. defenses do not have the capability to shoot down long-range missiles.

Missile defense specialists have said a missile’s velocity burnout rate is a key characteristic that can be used by states with offensive missiles to defeat the defenses.

Syring told the Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces subcommittee on Thursday that he would not give up valuable technology to the Russians. "I will not cede the advantage of the United States to anybody," he said.

Syring declined to elaborate on his comments a day earlier about internal discussions on technology declassification and deferred questions to Madelyn Creedon, assistant defense secretary for Global Strategic Affairs.

Creedon said there are no plans to share classified information with the Russians. She said "multiple discussions" were held in the Pentagon regarding how to protect classified data on missile defenses during talks in Moscow.

A Pentagon spokeswoman also sidestepped questions about Syring’s reference to discussions on declassifying data for sharing with the Russians.

The MDA "has not been asked to declassify data to give to Russia, nor has MDA declassified data to give to Russia," Lt. Col. Monica Matoush said.

She did not respond when asked about the internal discussions on declassifying interceptor burn data and other missile defense capabilities mentioned by Syring.

Brooks said in an interview that he is committed to fighting any missile defense technology sharing with the Russians.

"The more information we share about this technology with any foreign power, the greater the likelihood that our enemies will develop countermeasures, with catastrophic consequences should anyone launch a missile strike against American," Brooks said.

Brooks has introduced legislation that would ban the sharing of sensitive missile defense technology. If free-standing legislation does not pass, Republicans plan to add language to the annual defense authorization bill prohibiting the sharing of missile defense technology as has been done in the past several years, he said.

Protecting missile defenses and the technology used in them is becoming more important as a result of growing missile threats from both North Korea and Iran, Brooks said.

North Korea last month made unprecedented threats to fire nuclear-tipped long-range missiles at U.S. cities.

Current missile defenses are located on Aegis ships based in Asia and Europe, and at bases in California and Alaska. A ground-based interceptor base is also planned for the East Coast.

The Missile Defense Information Act of 2013, introduced by Brooks earlier this year, would prohibit the Pentagon from sharing missile defense technology, including hit-to-kill know-how, with Russia.

However, if the administration declassifies the technology, it could be shared with a foreign government.

"I know the White House is brazen, but it would be quite remarkable if they would in fact declassify technology that cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars to develop," Brooks said when asked about the technology declassification plans.

"And a technology that is unique in the world," he added.

Both China and Russia are building missile defenses in response to U.S. missile defenses.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, criticized the administration data-sharing plan.

"It’s appalling that the administration is considering further concessions—this time, classified information about our missile defenses—just to get Russia to agree to sit down and talk about further nuclear reductions," Rogers told the Washington Free Beacon. "The administration must stop treating our missile defenses like something it can trade away."

"If the administration would invest half as much time and effort in countering real threats, like Iran and North Korea, the American people could be a whole lot safer," Rogers said.

Ed Timperlake, a Pentagon technology security official in the George W. Bush administration, also criticized the technology-sharing plan.

"In a world of very bad ideas that constantly go around in Washington, like the Clinton administration's effort to limit defenses as part of ABM treaty demarcation, this initiative is truly pointless for the United States, and a huge boon to Russia," he said. "It makes absolutely no strategic sense for our national security."

Arms control advocates during the Clinton administration sought to restrict U.S. missile defenses in talks with the Russians, including limits on interceptor velocity, as a way to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned strategic defenses against nuclear missiles.

President George W. Bush withdrew from the treaty as one of his first acts as president. The withdrawal paved the way for the deployment of U.S. missile defenses.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) on Thursday joined House Republicans in opposing the missile defense technology-sharing plan.

"We will not provide Russia with sensitive info about our missile defense systems," Kirk stated on Twitter.

Kirk said he is very concerned about the disclosures made by Syring because they raise questions about whether the data being considered for declassification would violate an agreement reached between Congress and the administration in 2011 that no interceptor velocity burnout data would be declassified unless it went through a rigorous security review and if it would benefit U.S. security and U.S. missile defenses.

Syring stated that his guidance to U.S. missile defense negotiators on not disclosing classified information to the Russians in missile defense talks "has been adhered to 100 percent."

Brooks then said: "I’m not sure that you’re answering the question or maybe I’m not phrasing the question properly. Let me give it another crack. Have you had any discussions not about what information is classified or [un]classified, but, instead have you had any discussions about whether any classified information should become declassified with respect to our missile defense technology [and] Russia?"

"Yes sir, there has been a discussion on the capability of the current missiles we’re building and the velocity of burn out," Syring said.

Then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher in 2011 offered to provide Moscow with data on the burnout rate for SM-3 interceptor missiles, the mainstay of sea-based defenses.

Republicans opposed that effort as well.

Paula A. DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation in the George W. Bush administration, said declassifying information about current and future U.S. missile defense systems and providing it to Russia is unwise.

"First, the cost to U.S. national security is very high because, particularly in light of Russia's military trade with other nations, including Iran, it is absurd to believe that Russia will not provide the data to current and potential foes," DeSutter said.

Provision of sensitive U.S. missile defense data would enable Russia and other states to design offensive ballistic missiles that could defeat U.S. defenses, she said, rendering U.S. defenses less effective and thus causing further U.S. investment that would be required to offset increasing ballistic missile threats as a result.

"Second, there is no benefit to doing so since, as we saw during protracted efforts during the Bush administration, no technical data, threat rationale, or policy arguments will ever persuade Russia to agree to U.S. deployment of missile defenses," DeSutter said.

Additionally, the United States should develop and deploy "the best possible defense of the United States, our forces, and our allies against the threat of ballistic missiles carrying nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and stop giving Russia veto power over U.S. national security requirements," she said.

A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment.