The Clinton administration yesterday defended its summit agreement with Russia on missile defenses from Republican critics who say it will slow efforts to build systems that knock out short-range missiles fired at U.S. troops overseas.
Robert Bell, the White House National Security Council arms control specialist, told reporters he wanted to dispel "a lot of misperceptions" about the agreement signed by President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki last week.
The agreement is aimed at clarifying what short-range defenses are allowed under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which curbs strategic defenses against long-range missile attacks.
"What's extraordinary is [that] in this agreement that we reached in Helsinki on Friday, we're now saying that it's okay as a TMD [theater missile defense] as long as you don't shoot at a target that goes faster than 5 kilometers per second or further than 3,500 kilometers," Mr. Bell said. "In other words, there's an elasticity in this treaty."
Mr. Bell said the administration, bowing to Republican pressure, will submit the missile defense agreement to Congress for approval as a modification of the ABM treaty.
The two sides must now draw up a formal side agreement to the ABM treaty that has eluded negotiators for over three years. It will define permitted regional anti-missile systems as those that are not tested against long-range, high-speed target missiles.
The agreement also will ban space-based lasers and interceptors and will contain language that could be interpreted by Russia as limiting both the speed of future missile interceptors and where and how many regional defense systems can be deployed, analysts said.
A senior defense official said yesterday he expects the formal pact to be completed in time for a June 20-22 summit meeting in Denver, or possibly at a later Madrid summit on NATO in July.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Robert L. Livingston, Louisiana Republican, and Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, denounced the summit accord in a statement Sunday. "If allowed to stand, this agreement will place the lives of our brave fighting men and women - and ultimately millions of Americans - in jeopardy," the lawmakers said in a statement issued from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, en route to Asia. They called effective missile defenses "a matter of life and death."
Administration officials also were responding to a critical Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday that suggested the agreement was "another ABM giveaway" to Moscow that "stifles further progress unnecessarily" and bans space-based missile defenses.
The senior defense official said the United States regards the ABM agreement as finished and rebuffed Russian attempts to keep open difficult negotiations in Geneva.
"We didn't want to go through a bunch more rounds of negotiations," the official said. "We wanted to be finished with this and we said that's all we'll do.... This is it. This [agreement] now closes it off."
The agreement will contain non-binding statements on interceptor speed that will not affect the six current regional missile defense systems now under way, the official said.
Instead of a two-part agreement as proposed last year, the final "demarcation" accord will be a single document covering both slower defenses and faster systems that are not defined by speed limits, but by the speed and range of the target missiles used in their tests.
Administration officials made no mention yesterday of a separate agreement on the table in Geneva that would add new signatories to the ABM treaty.
Critics say adding Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to the ABM treaty will make it impossible to work out modifications needed for deploying national and regional missile defenses.