The Cable

Senate committee approves New START treaty amid concerns over Russian cheating; DeMint a no-show for vote

The Senate Foreign Relations committee approved a resolution to ratify the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia on Thursday, overcoming objections by Sen. James Risch about new top secret intelligence and after reaching a compromise over strategic posture with Sen. Jim DeMint.

The vote was 14-4, with all Democrats voting to approve the resolution along with Republican Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK), John Barrasso (R-WY), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Risch voted no.

South Carolina's DeMint, whose attempt to add language on missile defense to the resolution was the focus of intense backroom negotiations, did not return from a break to attend the final vote. Since he did not tell ranking Republican Lugar which way he wanted to vote, his expected no vote was never entered.

Lugar and Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) praised the committee's approval of the resolution and Kerry said he would not rule out holding a Senate floor debate and vote before the November elections.

But a Senate leadership aide ruled it out, telling The Cable, "There's no way we can do it this month, they don't have the 67 votes yet (needed for full Senate ratification)."

All morning, the committee room was abuzz regarding Risch's disclosure that he had received late-breaking intelligence information that he argued should prevent the Senate from moving forward on the New START treaty.

In a brief interview on the miniature subway between the Dirksen building and the Capitol, Risch confirmed to The Cable that the information was contained in a top secret intelligence community document sent to the Intelligence Committee this week and a follow-up letter sent to foreign relations committee members by ranking Republican Kit Bond (R-MO).

Risch confirmed that the information concerned Russian cheating on arms control agreements and said it was only the latest in a stream of documents and information that led him to have grave concerns that the New START treaty could move forward in a credible way.

The Cable pointed out to Risch that allegations of Russian cheating, especially regarding the first START treaty, have been well reported and subsequently addressed by the administration (via The Cable). But Risch responded that the problem was worse than what's publicly known.

"You haven't seen the stuff that I've seen," he said.

Bond's office confirmed the existence of the letter but declined to discuss because it was classified. Kerry convened a Wednesday briefing on the issue for SFRC members and consulted Vice President Joseph Biden on the issue before deciding that he believed the ratification process could proceed.

Before disappearing, DeMint's proposed amendment to "commit" the United States to build a multi-layered missile defense system to defend the American people and deployed U.S. forces from missiles of all ranges became the most controversial amendment brought forth at the committee's business meeting, where the debate and vote on New START was occurring.

Kerry was adamantly opposed to the DeMint amendment, saying it could imperil the treaty altogether. But after Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) said he would support DeMint's amendment, meaning that it could actually pass, Kerry huddled behind closed doors with DeMint, Corker, Isaacson, and Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller (who was hanging out nearby) to iron out a compromise.

The Cable obtained copies of both DeMint's original amendment as well as the compromise that Kerry eventually endorsed and that was added to the resolution of ratification by unanimous consent voice vote.

The compromise version changes DeMint's amendment from an "understanding" to a "declaration," which makes it non-binding. The compromise version also no longer says the U.S. is "committed" to building an expansive all-encompassing missile defense system; the new language says the U.S. is "free to reduce the vulnerability to attack by constructing a layered missile defense system capable of countering missiles of all ranges." The compromise also removes language that makes it seem that missile defense should be aimed at Russia.

In a concession to DeMint, Kerry agreed to language that now says "policies based on mutually assured destruction can be contrary to the safety and security of both countries and the United States and the Russian Federation share a common interest in moving cooperatively as soon as possible from a strategic relationship based on mutually assured destruction."

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The Cable

Kerry and DeMint spar over missile defense

At today's Senate Foreign Relations committee business meeting on New START, chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Republican Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) got into an open argument about whether the United States should build a giant missile defense system to protect every American citizen around the world.

That's the idea put forth by DeMint in an amendment to the resolution of ratification that the committee is considering, in advance of a full senate debate and vote on the nuclear reductions treaty after the November elections. DeMint said at the meeting that if the United States is going to draw down its nuclear arsenal, it should commit to building missile defense such that every U.S. citizen and all U.S. troops abroad are protected.

"This START agreement does not defend the people of the United States," DeMint said. "This amendment commits us and the United States of America to defend the United States to the best of our ability with a missile defense system capable of shooting down multiple missiles."

In an interview with The Cable during a break in the meeting, DeMint said he wanted to scuttle the entire idea of mutually assured destruction, the basic framework of nuclear balancing that has governed the U.S.-Russia security relationship for decades, and build a missile defense system that could defend against Russia.

"If we can shoot down their missiles, they won't build nuclear weapons," DeMint said. "We are agreeing with the START treaty to continue the policy of mutually assured destruction, which doesn't protect the American people."

Kerry was visibly frustrated with what he and other committee Democrats saw as a set up that would put them in the position of casting a vote that could later be portrayed as being against defending America.

"We can have a vote whether or not we are going to have a new arms race or whether or not we are going to move in the opposite direction," he said.

Kerry said the DeMint amendment would have the "simple effect of killing the treaty" because it would force the U.S. and Russia back to the drawing table for protracted follow-on negotiations.

He bristled at DeMint's implications that the START treaty leaves Americans vulnerable to attack and he rejected DeMint's assertion that the policy of mutually assured destruction was dangerous for American security.

"The notion that strategic defense does not protect strategic stability is absurd," Kerry said at the hearing.

In a brief interview with The Cable, Kerry said that DeMint "wants to build a missile defense system that covers the whole world."

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), the newest champion of the START treaty, said at the hearing that he does not believe the treaty constrains U.S. missile defense plans but he nevertheless supported DeMint's amendment.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), came to Kerry's defense. "No president of either party has advocated a missile defense system geared toward Russia ever since the Cold War ended," she said.

But then, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) also came out in support of DeMint's amendment, which meant that it might pass, forcing Kerry to take it seriously. When the committee broke for a short break, Kerry huddled with Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemeoller, who was waiting in an adjoining room. He then scrambled to meet with DeMint and Corker, presumably to work out a compromise.

The Democrats definitely see DeMint's amendment as a political stunt.

"If you really want this to be something other than a political message, perhaps we can take a couple of days and work on it," said Webb, who promised to vote for the DeMint amendment either way because agreed with the basic thrust of it.

"[Demint's] just building up enough material to make a 30-second campaign ad," The Cable overheard one Democratic senator say in the elevator. "That's what this is really about."

Following the backroom meetings, Kerry and DeMint agreed to compromise language, which hasn't been released because it was being written up furiously, but does endorse the idea of eventually moving away from mutually assured destruction, according to Kerry.

"That's something we all have tried to move away from for a long time and something we should try to work on in the future," he said.