- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

President Obama signed one of his top foreign-policy priorities Wednesday, and set off a row with the White House press corps in the process.

The White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) sharply criticized Mr. Obama’s decision to sign the New START nuclear-arms pact with Russia in a private Oval Office ceremony with virtually all of the press barred from the event.

The New START deal, key to Mr. Obama’s hopes for a “reset” of troubled relations with Moscow, was one of the administration’s big victories in the closing days of December’s lame-duck session of Congress and the first major treaty ratified by the Senate since Mr. Obama took office.

But still photographers were the only members of the press allowed in as Mr. Obama signed the pact, alongside several top government officials, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Sens. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican.

The administration’s decision to block press access to the treaty signing comes after Mr. Obama and his deputies devoted considerable time late last year to the very public push in the Senate ratification battle.

It also comes as Mr. Obama implores the government of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to respect the basic rights of that nation’s citizens, including the freedom of information and of the press.

The WHCA immediately blasted the move in a pointed letter to press secretary Robert Gibbs, pointing out that the “START treaty was held up as one of the president’s most important foreign-policy priorities for almost a year.”

The WHCA also hit Mr. Obama’s press operation for failing to provide journalists with a “substantive update” as events in Egypt unfolded Tuesday prior to Mr. Obama’s evening remarks.

“Now for two straight days, the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities to try to ask the president a question,” according to the board’s protest.

The White House does not always hold a public ceremony when Mr. Obama signs bills into law, but it usually does on key pieces of legislation. Even in the absence of a public signing, the administration often opens up the event to a small group of pool reporters representing the larger press corps.

The treaty will formally enter into force Saturday when Mrs. Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchange ratification documents. The two will exchange instruments of ratification on the sidelines of an annual security conference in Munich, the State Department said Tuesday.

Under New START, the two sides must reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 in seven years and reduce deployed long-range missiles and bombers to no more than 700.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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