As a general rule, it’s probably best not to come to a press briefing with Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher armed with talking points on missile defense from Keith Payne. Apparently two reporters at Monday’s State Department press briefing on New START didn’t get the memo – though it sure did make for some excellent entertainment.
To bring everyone up to speed, on Monday the Brookings Institution hosted an event on the NPR with Michael O’Hanlon, Steve Pifer, Tom Donnelly, and Keith Payne. During the Q/A portion of the discussion, Payne stated that he was concerned about the language on missile defense in the White House fact sheet on New START for two reasons.
First, he argued that while the fact sheet says that the treaty “does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs,” we ought to be worried about potential restrictions on missile defense activities that aren’t part of the planned program (I kid you not). Second, he expressed concern about rumblings in the Russian press that there are in fact limitations on missile defense in the treaty.
Enter CNN’s Jill Dougherty, who took Payne’s comments with her to the briefing with Tauscher:
QUESTION: …You know, I hate to bring you back to the same subject, but missile defense. Just this morning I was at a briefing over at Brookings and an expert was quoting the Russians as saying that this treaty does – and I’m not quite sure what word they’re using, but link or limit – he seemed to be saying that they interpret it as limit missile defense. Can you just, you know, definitively explain that?
Tauscher went on the offensive:
UNDER SECRETARY TAUSCHER: I can definitively tell you that I’m kind of an expert, too. I was chairman of Strategic Forces in the House. I know a little bit about missile defense and was certainly there when most of this was discussed and negotiated. As we’ve talked before, the presidents met in July and they made it very clear that there is an interrelationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons. But there is no limit or constraint on what the United States can do with its missile defense systems.
QUESTION: So that – definitely, the U.S. can go ahead and build and develop –
UNDER SECRETARY TAUSCHER: Definitely, positively, and no way, no how – there are no limits to our ability to put the phased adaptive approach forward and the other systems that we have worked on in the past. Certainly, we have our CONUS system in Fort Greely and in Vandenberg, but there’s no limit, no constraint now.[emphasis mine]
Apparently unconvinced by this response, another reporter (whose name I’ve been unable to ascertain) brought up Payne’s concerns again later in the briefing:
QUESTION: Just to follow up on Jill’s question, I think what the expert was saying today at Brookings was that the fact sheet that he saw said there were no limits on current or planned missile defense programs. And his concern was, well, what about the unplanned ones. (Laughter.) Well, and Lavrov on Friday was also going into this and he had some comment from Moscow which was to the effect that he was implying that the understanding is that missile defense is more or less at the current levels, and if there is a jump on one side or the other, then the other side can pull out of the START treaty. Now, is that your understanding as well?
UNDER SECRETARY TAUSCHER: Well, let me just say this. There are no constraints to missile defense in the START treaty. That’s one piece of it. Each party – if you look at the START treaty itself, each party has the ability to include unilateral statements. Those statements now are still being negotiated. But each party has the ability to make a unilateral statement.
For example, in the START treaty, both sides had statements. One had – certainly from our side, we had certain statements and the Russians had certain statements, and in the end, we abrogated the ABM Treaty and they didn’t get out of START even though we have missile defenses.
QUESTION: Well, would that not undermine this treaty somewhat, though, if that’s their understanding of it that missile defense is somehow frozen at its current and planned levels –
UNDER SECRETARY TAUSCHER: Nothing that we have done or said leads anybody to believe that missile defense is either frozen or will be constrained. [emphasis mine.]
The “Laughter” parenthetical in the transcript really doesn’t do Tauscher’s reaction justice.