News Briefings

DoD News Briefing

June 7, 2000
Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

(Media availability en route to Belgium)

Secretary Cohen: What do you want now? (laughter)

Q: The real skinny. The Russian proposal, so far as you can tell, what does it involve? Was it discussed at the summit and do you all see it as being a serious proposal, the missile defense, the joint missile defense, or is there a possibility that the Russians are seeking to divide the alliance by...

Secretary Cohen: First of all, there has been a significant change in attitude or understanding on the part of the Russians. Just a few weeks ago, their official position was that there was no threat, that it was largely being exaggerated. Based on what I have read to date, I have not had a full briefing from the White House team just yet, but based on what I have read, the president, Russian president, now believes there is a threat, and he has proposed an alternative to a NMD program of the United States.

There's a lot of vagueness involved in his proposal, devils always reside in details, and they have yet to become clear. It could be a constructive proposal but it could be simply a tactic to divide the European members of NATO from the United States. We've got to look at exactly what he has proposed in great detail before we would be making any realistic assessment of what he has in mind. I think there has been an attempt over the last year or two to divide the Europeans from NATO and as you know, we have tried to, very hard, to explain exactly what the architecture of the NMD program would be for the United States and why it was important that the alliance be supportive of that, projecting that the Russians would try to split the alliance off and divide it.

So, we've made some headway with our allies, who I think were, initially, either doubtful, skeptical, or less enthusiastic about it, but based on my presentations to them, many changed their mind, and they understood the nature of the threat and were reasonably comfortable with the way in which we are approaching it, namely, with the context of a modified ABM. I think once you get beyond that, then there's some (inaudible) within NATO itself. So, I think the focus will be whether or not over a period of time, whether in this administration or the next administration, there could be a modification of the ABM treaty, and how that would be accomplished to allow the NMD program to go forward.

The next administration, hard to predict at this point, may decide that the ABM treaty is no longer relevant. If it were President Bush, for example, there are a number of his advisors who feel that ABM is no longer relevant and would then go forward with a much more robust NMD system. If it's President Gore, I think he would, again, concentrate on trying to maintain international support on the part of our allies for a limited NMD system that we have been talking about and planning for, for the past seven years, and what the implications would be for an unrestrained NMD program. How that would play out with our NATO allies remains to be seen, but to me, at least, I've expressed grave reservations about that. So, I think there's a lot that we have to discuss between now and the time we actually have an NMD system.

Q: Is the Russian proposal for a boost phase system, using theater missile defenses that would not require a change to the ABM treaty?

Secretary Cohen: Well, that's not clear. To the extent that you use TMD systems in order to take down ICBMs, it may very well involve the same restrictions and blockage that are contained in the ABM treaty. So, you know, there have been proposals that we simply put an Aegis cruiser up the coast to Korea and use a new missile system on a cruiser to take out a North Korean missile in its boost phase. Using a TMD system in order to provide protection to your national interest, seems to me, runs counter or violates some key provisions of the ABM treaty. So, I think however it's structured, if you're using it as a national missile defense system, it would have to be amended to allow that.

Q: From the limited White House briefing that you have received, are there any, were there any signs at last weekend's summit at all that Russia had even softened its position on the ABM treaty?

Secretary Cohen: Well, it softened its position saying it recognizes that the threat is now real. So, understand that that's a big change. In all of my dealings with the Russians, they have adamantly opposed any consideration of changing ABM because there was no threat. So, now that they said there was a threat, let's see if we can't work toward cooperating together to deal with the threat in a way that doesn't pose a threat to them. Now, I think we have more work to do in persuading them that the system we have in mind would pose no threat to the Russians (inaudible).

Q: So, does the White House believe that since the summit that some sort of an agreement can be reached?

Secretary Cohen: I haven't had that kind of detailed discussion (inaudible).

Q: Why not? You're going to NATO where you're going to meet all of the defense ministers.

Secretary Cohen: I will have it before (inaudible).

Q: I hope so! (laughter)

Q: Will you be discussing all of this with Sergeyev in Brussels?

Secretary Cohen: Well, yes, I hope to speak with him in (inaudible) Sunday meeting with him in Moscow, but (inaudible) ordinarily in Brussels, if he comes.

Q: At first blush, does the Russian system seem technically feasible?

Secretary Cohen: I don't know. I have no idea what they have in mind. It's always hard to even respond. I'll get more detail as soon as they develop more detail, but I think theirs is just a general concept at this point, and so, I think we have to do is to show them that the system we have in mind doesn't pose a threat, that it is limited in nature and that the changes in the ABM treaty can be accommodated and still preserves its central features.

Q: I'm sorry, does the tight time schedule that you are all under constrain what you can do with negotiating changes to ABM and convincing the allies to get on board?

Secretary Cohen: Well, I think it's really up to the Russians. If they make a decision that they would prefer to deal with a new administration then that obviously will manifest itself during our discussions, but I think some progress was made, I think significant progress made, on President Clinton's trip dealing with the disposal of the 34 tons of plutonium and also setting up the shared early warning center in Moscow. I think those are two very positive steps. Putin's a new president so I think he's going to move fairly cautiously, understanding that we have a new president coming up. Whether we can make enough progress in the next several weeks or months, remains to be seen, but much will depend upon how confident he feels based on his meetings with President Clinton that this is a subject matter that needs to be continued during this administration.

Q: Can there be a presidential decision to deploy without a Russian agreement to modify the ABM treaty?

Secretary Cohen: Could there? That's always possible, but as you know, the president's not going to make any decision until such time as he gets a report from me and a recommendation. So, any president can always make a decision. I think any president makes a decision without taking into account the strategic implications for arms control would not be acting responsibly. So, I think the president has set out the right four criteria: the threat, the cost, technology, and implications for arms control.

Q: Will you be telling the allies anything differently in light of the latest proposals and statements by Putin and so on?

Secretary Cohen: Only that since our last threat briefing, the Russian position has changed, that they now agree that a threat exists and we need to address it. So, that has been a change, and I think that anyone who is skeptical before will find the skepticism no longer exists.

Q: What about specifically what the allied defense ministers you're meeting with later today? What is going to be the main topic of discussion and what are you going to tell them?

Secretary Cohen: I will talk to you after I meet with them. (laughter)

Q: (inaudible) (laughter)

Q: Do you see any circumstances, if the third attempt for an intercept fails, that you could still go ahead and recommend that the system is technically ready?

Secretary Cohen: Well, I think the next test will be important, but it depends upon what the failure, if any, would be. If it's something that is minor in nature, that may have an important impact on my decision. If it's a major structural or scientific-based failure, then certainly, that would be a major factor in my recommendation.

Q: One more on this schedule, there's some criticism from outside that says 2005 is a number. It's just a guess, and if you can, it's a guess as to when someone else will have a missile ready to launch at the United States. If you could have more time and negotiate a change to ABM and delay it by a year, what would the problem be with that since you're just dealing with an estimate anyway in 2005?

Secretary Cohen: Well, it's not an estimate. It's based on intelligence assessment. You can either choose to accept the community's assessment or reject it. If you accept it, then there's no reason to say let's extend it another year and put us in the position of being vulnerable for another year to nuclear blackmail. If you reject it, you say we can do it at any time. So, I think that the assessment I've seen is the best that our community can make. That is a realistic time frame in which the North Koreans would be in a position to threaten the United States and that those other countries would soon follow. If you don't accept the assessment then, sure, you could say we could live with it for another year.

Q: But there are so many other threats that threaten the United States right now. I mean, there's chemical and biological weapons that are out there that could be held up as the same kind of blackmail against the country, even domestically. Cruise missiles are smuggling it in. Folks are saying, you know, this is just one tiny bit of a whole threat envelope. It's a huge amount of money and it's really imperils international stability.

Secretary Cohen: When you accept that argument, you say that because you cannot defend against all types of threats you shouldn't defend against those that are real and potentially catastrophic. It's a judgment you have to make, saying that do you want to leave the American people vulnerable to a threat in a scenario in which there is a conventional conflict going on and there is use of chemical and biological weapons on the battlefield in which we suffer considerable casualties. Then, the president is put in the position of saying, "Well, maybe we have to respond with overwhelming force." That country being North Korea or Iraq might say, "Don't think about it because if you even think about using nuclear weapons you will lose New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, or Bangor, Maine."