Fine Print: State Department reports play role in START ratification

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In 2005, the State Department told Congress that Russia had not reported that a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launcher had left its production plant and therefore should have become an entry under the accountability section of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The State Department then said that "Russia continues to violate START provisions relevant to these obligations," according to the State Department Compliance Report. In that report, State also said Russia had "hampered" U.S. inspectors from determining that covered objects in the nose cones of Russian ICBMs were not nuclear warheads.

That 2005 compliance report suddenly has become relevant to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's consideration of the new START follow-on treaty. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the panel's chairman, has been pushing to have his committee vote on the pact before the August recess. But last week seven of the eight GOP committee members sent him a letter raising issues they wanted settled before any vote. One was the need to see updated State compliance reports for the years since 2005 because, as the Republicans said, that report "highlighted a number of direct violations of START I by the Russians."

"For five years and two administrations we have not seen a single report to confirm if Russia has improved its transparency with the United States and is completely honoring its treaty obligations," the Republicans wrote.

Another document they requested is the State Department Verifiability Assessment. The department is required by statute to prepare such an assessment for any proposed arms-control agreement that involves nuclear warheads and strategic nuclear forces. The document is prepared by State's Verification, Compliance and Implementation Bureau's Office of Strategic Issues and has yet to be received by Congress.

Last week, the committee received one document the GOP senators had sought: the long-awaited, highly classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), prepared by the National Intelligence Council. It represents "the consensus of the 16 intelligence agencies in the U.S. government on the United States' ability to monitor Russia's compliance with the agreement, which limits both nation's strategic nuclear forces," Kerry said in a statement last week announcing receipt of the material.

The Republicans also noted that they had not received the "full negotiating record" of the treaty provisions, which they sought last month via a letter sent to President Obama. At issue are all instructions to U.S. negotiators, transcripts of their conversations with the Russians, correspondence and other backup materials relating to those documents. It is usually voluminous.

Depending on how serious the demand, this could lead to a prolonged dispute, since most past presidents, starting with George Washington, have opposed such requests. The tradition in most instances has been for a president to claim executive privilege. But there have been two exceptions in the past 25 years.

In both cases Senate Democrats were seeking access, and in both cases they gained access through agreements with the Reagan administration. The first was a 1988 review of the record of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty negotiations to determine whether it barred President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

More pertinent to today's situation is the review of negotiating records that year preceding the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which ended with removal of those types of U.S. and Russian missiles from Western Europe. In its report on the treaty, the Foreign Relations Committee said such a review of negotiating records should not become a regular procedure but should be done on a case-by-case basis. "A systematic expectation of Senate perusal of every key treaty's negotiating record" could result in less candor in future negotiations, the panel's report said.

In responding to the GOP letter last week, Kerry said there had already been 10 hearings on the treaty with administration witnesses and then experts representing both political parties who criticized or supported the pact. He said the NIE and the State Department Compliance Reports were available for review.

He also said that a closed committee session to go over the NIE would be held shortly and that another hearing with the directors of the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories would take place in mid-July. The latter were to discuss the administration's plans to maintain the viability of the nation's nuclear stockpile, an issue stressed by Republicans as a requirement for their support.

As for ratification of the treaty, Kerry said: "I look forward to completing this process as soon as possible."

With Democrats needing at least eight Republicans to get the two-thirds Senate vote for ratification, Kerry has to avoid irritating his panel's minority members. But there is one bit of sunlight for him in their letter: The minority member who did not sign it was Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking GOP member and former panel chairman whose vote is needed to draw other Republicans if ratification is to pass.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company