Three key Republican senators, including Senate Majority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) wrote to President Obama Monday to demand more information about the administration's dealings with Russia regarding missile-defense cooperation.
"As you know, the ballistic missile defense program touches some of our country's most sensitive technology, collection assets and real time intelligence," wrote Kyl, along with Sens. James Risch (R-ID) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). "We therefore request detailed responses to the following questions, before the administration enters into any agreement or joint study related to U.S. missile defenses [with Russia]."
The letter then ticks off a list of a dozen detailed information requests the senators have for the White House about the potential for cooperation on missile defense between the United States (or NATO) and Russia that was discussed at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon. The letter also requests a full briefing, "including documents," on the U.S.-Russia working discussions on missile defense led by Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher and her Russian counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov.
The letter does not once mention New START, President Obama's nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia, but the timing is no coincidence. Kyl is the GOP's point man on dealing with the administration as the White House pushes for a ratification vote during this lame duck session of Congress, and all eyes are upon him as Washington insiders try to assess whether Republicans will ultimately agree to debate and vote on the pact this year.
Risch and Kirk are also important for different reasons. Risch nearly derailed the Sept. 16 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on New START by declaring that a classified intelligence issue was giving him new concerns about the treaty. Kirk, who is moving over from the House in January, just replaced a Democratic senator and has said he is not yet ready to support ratification.
One signature missing from the letter is that of Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the senator has most often voiced concerns about missile defense in relation to New START. McCain seemed to indicate this week that he was leaning toward supporting a vote this year.
"I believe we can move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Senator Kyl's concerns and mine about missile defense and others," McCain told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Tuesday.
But now, even though Kyl, Risch, and Kirk aren't directly linking their missile-defense request to New START, they've set out a new request on a related issue just as the administration thought it had fulfilled the bulk of their outstanding demands.
Nobody, including the White House, knows whether the GOP leadership will ultimately agree to vote on New START this month. The administration isn't backing down from its call for a vote, despite the crowded Senate calendar. Behind the scenes, quiet discussions are ongoing.
The Washington Times today ran a story claiming that a new internal State Department report revealed "secret talks" between the Obama administration and Russia on missile defense and claiming that the report contradicted congressional testimony by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The State Department struck back, issuing talking points maintaining that there is no "secret deal" with Russia on missile defense, that discussions on cooperation with Russia have been ongoing and public for some time, and that any cooperation will in no way limit U.S. missile-defense plans or capabilities.
As for the Russians, they've been cold on the idea of missile-defense cooperation all along, based on their longstanding concerns about the very concept of missile defense and their abiding mistrust of U.S. motives. Lately, however, they have made it clear that if NATO and the United States are going to deploy missile defense all over Europe, they want to be involved.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both made statements recently to that effect.
In a provocative statement that is unlikely to be viewed as helpful in the White House, Putin told CNN's Larry King this week that without New START, Russia will have to build up its nuclear forces, which are also meant to deal with the "new threats" posed by U.S. plans for a European-based missile-defense system.
Putin also explained his skepticism of the missile-defense program. "We have been told that you'll do it in order to secure you against the, let's say, Iranian nuclear threat," Putin said. "But such a threat, as of now, doesn't exist."
King also pressed Putin to respond to Defense Secretary Robert Gates's contention that "Russian democracy has disappeared," as documented in a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable and first reported on The Cable.
Calling Gates "deeply misled," he said, "When we are talking with our American friends and tell them there are systemic problems in this regard, we can hear from them 'Don't interfere with our affairs.' This is our tradition and it's going to continue like that. We are not interfering. But to our colleagues, I would also like to advise you, don't interfere either [with] the sovereign choice of the Russian people."
He also said that it would take a "a very dumb nature" for the Senate not to ratify New START, which he said is in America's own interest.