Six Republican senators have asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to provide documents on secret talks between U.S. and Russian officials on missile defenses, amid conflicting reports that a deal with Moscow is close to completion.
"We are writing to request information pertaining to press reports suggesting the imminent conclusion of a missile defense agreement between Russia and the United States," the senators stated in the letter sent Monday.
The senators asked Mrs. Clinton to turn over for review documents and transcripts of talks at the Arms Control and International Security Working Group headed by Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.
The group of senators, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, suggested in the letter that a failure to provide the documents could affect the upcoming Senate debate on the ratification of the New START, the strategic arms treaty with Russia signed in April.
"Senators must be assured that these talks and potential missile defense agreements will not limit U.S. and allied missile defense development and deployment in any fashion whatsoever," they stated.
The senators also stated that, under Section 33 of the 1961 Arms Control and Disarmament Act, the administration cannot limit missile defenses with the Russians without following rules for treaties outlined in the law.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in response to the letter that "we are not pursuing a missile defense agreement with Russia."
A classified U.S.-Russia joint assessment of ballistic missile "challenges" should be completed by the end of the year that will "analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century," Mr. Crowley said, noting that it "will not affect our ballistic missile defense policy, which is a response to the evolving threat we see from the Middle East and Northeast Asia."
"The purpose of the joint assessment is to increase our mutual understanding of the ballistic missile threat," Mr. Crowley said. "There is nothing in these discussions that contemplates limits on missile defense, but rather cooperation between the U.S. and Russia."
A Senate aide said many senators fear the administration is secretly working with Moscow on a deal that will constrain U.S. defenses at a time when missile threats are growing.
"The concern is that the administration is not being honest and forthcoming about the discussions that are going on," the aide said.
Missile defense limits in New START are a major point of debate between treaty opponents and advocates. The new treaty contains a limit on using existing intercontinental ballistic missile silos for future missile defense interceptors.
The Obama administration has said the treaty will impose no limits on U.S. missile defenses.
Russia has said that strategic missile limits cannot be addressed apart from strategic defenses and that Moscow will withdraw from the treaty if the United States expands its current system. The limited missile defense system includes long-range interceptors in Alaska and California, radar and tracking systems around the world, and plans for future shorter-range defenses in Europe.
State Department officials have denied the Tauscher-Ryabkov talks are secret but have shared few details of the talks either in public or with members of Congress. The officials also have denied there were "backroom deals" on the matter with the Russians as part of the START negotiations.
The Washington Times reported June 17 that the U.S. officials had presented a draft agreement on missile defenses to the Russians in the Tauscher-Ryabkov talks.
Days later, Mrs. Clinton told a Senate hearing that "there is no secret deal" on missile defenses and no "plan to limit U.S. missile defenses, either in this treaty or in any other way."
However, she did not address whether a draft agreement was presented in the Tauscher-Ryabkov talks.
The Russians added to the confusion. On July 8, Lt. Gen. Alexander Burutin, deputy chief of the general staff, said work on an agreement "is in progress." Hours later, he issued a contradictory statement, saying "no drafting of a new document [on missile defense] is being conducted."
Then on Oct. 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the United States and Russia were close to reaching an agreement on the risks of missile proliferation. "The document should be ready soon," he said.
The foreign minister said that, based on the risk assessment, "we will be able to talk about taking the next step and finding a common way … to parry such risks" through diplomatic, political, economic and perhaps military means.
In addition to Mr. Sessions, the letter was signed by Republican Sens. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, David Vitter of Louisiana, John Cornyn of Texas, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and John Thune of South Dakota.
Asked by Mr. Inhofe this past summer about a missile defense pact, Mrs. Clinton did not answer directly in her written answers to questions posed to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Within the Arms Control and International Security Working Group, the Obama Administration has provided briefings to, and discussed U.S. missile defense (BMD) policy, plans, and programs with the Russian government," Mrs. Clinton said in a June 17 response.
According to Mrs. Clinton, the Tauscher-Ryabkov talks included discussions of missile defense cooperation, confidence-building and transparency measures, along with data exchange proposals on ballistic missile and space launches tracked by U.S. and Russian early warning systems.
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