Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul provided new clues recently about a controversial open-mic comment in 2012 by President Obama, widely viewed as secret collusion to limit U.S. missile defenses.
A boom microphone overheard Mr. Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a nuclear security summit in Seoul on March 26, 2012, that he was facing his “last election” and as a result would have “more flexibility” once reelected. Mr. Medvedev promised to tell “Vladimir” — Vladimir Putin, the real power in Moscow who would again become president two months after the meeting.
The disclosure set off widespread criticism of the Obama administration amid concerns that the president was preparing to limit American missile defenses in exchange for a Russian agreement to a follow-on strategic arms treaty to the 2010 New START accord.
Mr. McFaul first disclosed details about the exchange between Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev in his book “From Cold War to Hot Peace.” In the book, Mr. McFaul wrote that the president, unaware of the overheard comment, told him after the Seoul meeting that he had discussed “missile defense and me.” The American ambassador had been subjected to a campaign of physical and media harassment by the Russian government.
In a car ride after the meeting, Mr. Obama told Mr. McFaul, “Well, the first thing I told him is, I said, ‘Stop f—-ing with McFaul,’” Mr. McFaul recounted when asked about the exchange during a recent conference at the Hoover Institution.
“I lament in the book I wish that would have been the [comment] picked up instead of the other one,” he said.
Mr. McFaul, in the book, did not go into detail on the missile defense part of the overheard discussion.
But when asked by Inside the Ring at the Hoover meeting if the president at the time was willing to make concessions to Moscow on missile defense, Mr. McFaul said, “You’re right. President Obama wanted another arms control treaty. And he had been working with them.
“So what he was saying is [that] we’re not going to be able to negotiate on [a follow-on] New START or missile defense until the election,” he said. “And by the way, I don’t understand why that’s such a shocking statement. Elections matter, and he was not going to be focused to talk about it.”
Mr. McFaul said presidents use second terms to focus more on foreign policy, but he denied that the United States planned to give away advantages for U.S. missile defenses. The plans for another agreement fell through after the election because Mr. Putin showed no interest in further arms control negotiations when he regained the presidency, he said.
Later in an email, the former ambassador explained that he had missed hearing the exchange and based his knowledge on what Mr. Obama told him in the car ride.
“Of course, any ‘deal’ on missile defense would have been very minimal, since a new treaty would have to be ratified by the Senate,” he said.
The policy at the time was that “we, the Obama administration, had no plans whatsoever to constrain our missile defenses,” Mr. McFaul said. “On the contrary, we were in the process of expanding deployments in Europe as guided by [European Phased Adaptive Approach], and we successfully stuck to that deployment plan, contrary to all the heated, incorrect rhetoric of there that we had ‘abandoned’ missile defense.”
During a 2011 meeting between U.S. and Russian officials at the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, “we could not even agree with the Russians on some very basic language on missile defense cooperation,” he said.
“My personal view is that the significance of this quip is it has been grossly exaggerated,” Mr. McFaul said.
NEW POLICY ON CHINA MEETINGS
The Trump administration has adopted a new policy toward holding large, expensive meetings with Chinese officials. Under President Trump, all meetings and exchanges must be focused on producing tangible results.
According to administration officials, the new policy is aimed at curbing sessions like the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a regular high-level confab held with great fanfare first under President George W. Bush and accelerated under President Obama. The meetings produced hardly any results other than gaseous joint statements and fact sheets.
The Bush administration held five of the meetings from 2006 to 2008 in Washington and Beijing. The Obama team held eight meetings from 2009 to 2016. The sessions were attended by secretaries of state and Treasury and others, along with military officials.
Officials familiar with the sessions said the Chinese delegations were notorious for reading off the same talking points in meeting after meeting about how China was not a threat and was not seeking to steal U.S. technology through cyberespionage or other means.
The closest the Trump administration came to similar meetings was the creation of the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue in April 2017. That dialogue is headed by Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, along with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang.
Only a single meeting was held in July 2017, and bilateral ties have been dominated by meetings related to the ongoing trade dispute over the massive theft of U.S. intellectual property and unfair trade practices by Beijing.
The Pentagon also limited its high-level meetings with the Chinese despite Pentagon bureaucracy seeking to continue an aggressive program of military-to-military exchanges. The most visible meeting was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis‘ visit with senior Chinese officials in Beijing in June 2018.
Military-to-military exchanges with China have been among the least productive bilateral meetings over the years. The exchanges are notorious for China using the meetings and visits to provide disinformation about Chinese military capabilities while seeking intelligence on American war-fighting through Chinese military visits to the United States.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan apparently is not on board with the new policy. In Singapore this week, he met with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe and discussed ways to increase military exchanges. “My interaction with Gen. Wei was really about, ‘How do we establish more military-to-military interaction?’” he told reporters traveling with him in Asia.
Gen. Wei, in a speech at the defense conference in Singapore, threatened the United States over the ongoing trade dispute. Talks broke down recently after China reneged on agreed steps to resolve the dispute.
“As for the recent trade friction started by the U.S., if the U.S. wants to talk, we will keep the door open,” he said. “If they want a fight, we will fight until the end.”
SCHIFF: U.S. SHOULD SPY ON CLIMATE
Rep. Adam Schiff, the new chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, presided over a committee hearing on climate change Wednesday and said he favors American intelligence agencies resuming spying on the environment.
Mr. Schiff said he believes climate change is “the greatest long-term national security threat to the U.S.” and praised a 1990s program that used valuable intelligence resources to spy on climate change around the world.
The Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis program, known as MEDEA, gave security clearances to scientists who were allowed to program multibillion-dollar satellites to study climate change and try to predict how it could affect future instability.
The program was shut down in the early 2000s by the George W. Bush administration and restarted under the Obama administration, before it was shut down again in 2015.
The program was opposed by Republicans and many in the intelligence community as a waste of scarce resources for spying on polar bears and penguins.
“Intelligence is about stealing secrets, not spying on polar bears,” said one former intelligence official.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.