The Cable

Conservatives seeking to deep-six nomination of missile-defense critic

President Obama's nomination of a key White House science advisor is facing strong and mounting opposition from GOP senators, with help from leading conservative Washington think tanks, due to his views on missile defense.

In October the president nominated former lead Pentagon weapons tester Philip Coyle to become the associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There he would lead a team tasked with giving scientific advice to Obama on a range of national-security issues and would report to Director John Holdren.

But Coyle's nomination is stalled, despite the Senate Commerce Committee reporting his nomination out favorably on Dec. 3. Since that time, a steady and growing drumbeat of conservative opposition has been building, fueled partially by the Heritage Foundation, which has been locked in a decades-long struggle with Coyle over his well-known criticisms of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems.

The pushback against the Coyle nomination first surfaced in this Weekly Standard blog post written by missile-defense supporter John Noonan, who wrote, "If theology has crept into the missile defense debate, Coyle is the high priest of nay saying." Noonan is linked to the Foreign Policy Initiative, a new right-leaning national security organization that's acquiring increasing influence in Washington.

Shortly after that, the Heritage Foundation began circulating this one-page summary document on Capitol Hill, which criticizes Coyle's recent testimony to Sen. John Thune, D-S.D., and asks senators to stall the Coyle nomination unless the White House gives more information on Obama's pledge to explore U.S. accession to PAROS, a treaty aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space. Critics fear PAROS would limit missile-defense plans.

On Wednesday, FPI's Executive Director Jamie Fly took to National Review's blog The Corner to criticize the Coyle nomination and announce that a hold has been placed in the Senate.

"Some will argue that a position in the Office of Science and Technology Policy shouldn't deserve much attention, let alone concern. It is true that this is a part of the White House that traditionally has not played a key role in major policy decisions," wrote Fly. "However, it is likely that an individual like Mr. Coyle would be unable to resist the urge to use his position to attempt to influence policy debates about issues, such as missile defense, that he has worked on for years."

Then today, Hill staffers received a notice that the Heritage Foundation would convene a closed-door meeting on March 17 to discuss the nomination, to be held in the offices of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

It's not clear just who, exactly, has a hold on the Coyle nomination or whether there are several, but one senior GOP Hill source told The Cable that it didn't really matter because there were plenty of GOP senators willing to hold up the appointment.

"Just because there's one hold, that doesn't mean there aren't others," the aide said. "In this instance, there are several members who have deep concerns over this nominee."

Coyle has often argued that the testing done by the Pentagon on ballistic missile-defense components since 2001 has been either shoddy or thin. Moreover, he has repeatedly questioned the basic rationale for investing billions to deploy ballistic missile defense around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.

"In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles," he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee in 2009. "But if you believe that Iran is bound and determined to attack Europe or America, no matter what, then I think you also have to assume that Iran would do whatever it takes to overwhelm our missile defenses, including using decoys to fool the defenses, launching stealthy warheads, and launching many missiles, not just one or two."

Coyle declined to comment for this story and the White House did not respond to request for comment.

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