- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

State Department officials admitted yesterday that details of secret deals between Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin were kept from Congress.
But they insisted that the overall "understandings" with Moscow helped curb weapons transfers to Iran despite an apparent violation of a 1992 law sponsored by Mr. Gore himself.
"Of course certain sensitive documents were classified and were closely held in the executive branch that is before they were published in the newspaper," said John P. Barker, deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.
"This is the common practice for all administrations on very sensitive diplomatic negotiations. But the thrust of these documents was widely telegraphed to both the Congress and the American people."
But Mr. Gore's secret Russian deals may not be "fully consistent with U.S. law," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, referring to the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992, which he noted "the vice president himself introduced during his years in the Senate."
Mr. Gore's secret deal with Russia to circumvent U.S. laws requiring sanctions for sales of conventional arms to Iran was reported Oct. 13 by the New York Times.
The Washington Times reported Oct. 17 that Mr. Gore had struck a similar deal with Russia covering nuclear sales to Iran, and published excerpts of a letter from Mr. Chernomyrdin stating that terms of the agreement were "not to be conveyed to third parties, including the U.S. Congress."
Mr. Barker and other State Department officials testified before a joint hearing of two Senate Foreign Relations subcommittees that disclosures of Mr. Gore's back-channel agreements with the Russians had undermined diplomacy.
"Classified documents are appearing in the press as photo inserts, and our negotiating strategy with Russia on sensitive national security matters is being compromised by discussing these matters in public," Mr. Barker said.
The "aide-memoire" of Mr. Gore's 1995 agreement with Mr. Chernomyrdin, stamped "secret," states that Russia would end conventional arms sales to Iran by Dec. 31, 1999. It also obligates the United States not to impose penalties under "domestic law" for the arms sales.
At yesterday's hearing of the subcommittees on Near East affairs and European affairs, State Department officials said in a prepared statement that provisions of the deals to keep details secret from Congress "had no effect" and did not constitute a secret pact kept from Congress.
The department notified the Russians before and after the letter that Congress would be briefed and were told the Russians agreed. However, the statement also noted that "we agreed that we would do this in a confidential manner as we do for many negotiations."
"A partisan brawl that drags legitimately classified material into the newspapers as photo insets can only benefit Iran and those forces in Moscow most hostile to our objectives," said Joseph DeThomas, a second State Department nonproliferation official.
"If these arrangements are not in place, Iran will be in a position to acquire new weapons and a wide array of sensitive nuclear technology. That will not be in the interests of future administrations of either party or the American people."
But former Secretary of State George P. Shultz said yesterday the sales "upset the strategic balance" in the region and posed a "real threat" to U.S. forces there.
In an interview with reporters arranged by the presidential campaign of Republican George W. Bush, Mr. Shultz also said the deal reflected poorly on Mr. Gore's supposed foreign policy expertise.
"His foreign policy experience is experience with catastrophe," Mr. Shultz said of Mr. Gore. "Somehow the administration decided to make the vice president sort of the point man [with Russia]. I think the whole handling of our relationship with Russia for the past six or seven years has been bad."
Mr. Smith, a subcommittee chairman, said the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement was not shared with Congress and "raises disquieting questions about the administration's commitment to forging a bipartisan foreign policy."
"Such bipartisanship cannot be achieved when the president develops and implements an initiative in secret, and keeps hidden crucial details from the American people and their representatives in Congress," the Oregon Republican said. "When congressmen and senators have to turn to newspapers as opposed to the White House to be fully informed on U.S. foreign policy, this is not right."
"What we do know about the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and its implications for our interests abroad is disturbing," he said. "This agreement reportedly may have limited our response to Russia's arms sales to Iran, a country which is a significant sponsor of international terrorism directed against the West and its allies."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said he views the disclosures about the deals as politically motivated because of the timing so close to Election Day. "I hope this is not going to turn into something that is more political than substantive," Mr. Biden said.
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said a check of committee records shows the panel never had a briefing "on the existence of a legally binding international agreement with the Russians."
Since the 1995 agreement, Mr. Smith noted, Russia delivered an advanced Kilo-class submarine and long-range torpedoes and anti-ship mines.
"It is an understatement to say that the secrecy with which the administration has handled the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, and the legalisms employed to justify it over the last week, indeed over the last five years, has fostered a measure of distrust between the executive and legislative branches of government," Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Barker also denied that a January letter from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, first reported Oct. 17 in The Washington Times, was evidence that U.S. sanctions would have been imposed under U.S. law but for the 1995 deal.
"The fact is that Secretary Albright's letter was intended to deliver a stern warning that failure to abide by the restrictions embodied in the aide-memoire regarding arms sales to Iran could have serious consequences, including the possibility of sanctions," he said.
The State Department officials insisted that Russian arms sales to Iran were not covered by the 1992 law that requires imposing sanctions for transfers of destabilizing weapons to Iran, or a 1996 amendment to another law requiring sanctions for arms transfers to terrorist states.
"It has always been the case that the transfers subject to the aide-memoire do not trigger U.S. sanctions laws," Mr. Barker said. "There were no sanctions to impose. So in fact we have never taken any steps to avoid penalties against the Russians for transfers in the pipeline. That was our conclusion in 1995; it still stands today."
Mr. Barker said breaches of secrecy in the U.S.-Russian deals have put "these understandings … at risk."
"Playing this out in public can only have a chilling effect of the ability of any administration this administration and any future administrations to continue this process, and could seriously undermine U.S. national security," he said.
Mr. Smith criticized the officials for their failure to brief Congress. "They've used the word that they 'telegraphed' to Congress what it is we were supposed to know," Mr. Smith said. "I hope there is a precedent that comes out of this that 'telegraphing' through the media isn't enough to comply with U.S. law. There are other ways in which this is supposed to happen."
Mr. Brownback said he wants to see the documents that were kept from Congress.
Regarding Mrs. Albright's letter, Mr. Brownback said: "I see no other way to read [it] except as a blatant admission that this administration concluded a secret agreement with Russia in which it promised to ignore U.S. nonproliferation laws."
A law requiring all international agreements to be transmitted to Congress also "appears to have been broken," Mr. Brownback said.
Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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