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New nuclear arms treaty with Russia passes Senate panel

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 8:28 PM

One of President Obama's key foreign policy priorities got a boost Thursday as a Senate committee approved a nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia, sparking hope among supporters that the pact may win final approval this year.

But a wild card emerged when Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) told the hearing that intelligence agencies had, at the last minute, produced "some very serious information that directly affects what we're doing here."

He did not reveal the information, but later told the blog the Cable that it involved Russian cheating on arms-control agreements.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) warned Risch twice that it was "inappropriate" to discuss secret intelligence in public.

Kerry said he had consulted Vice President Biden and intelligence experts about the new information. "The conclusion of the intelligence community is [that] it in no way alters their judgment already submitted to this committee with respect to the START treaty," he told the hearing.

The senators approved the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) on a vote of 14 to 4. A senior Democratic aide said it is likely to go to the full Senate during a lame-duck session in November.

"The administration is still going to have to work on these votes" to get the two-thirds majority required for passage, the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The treaty won the support of all 11 Democrats on the committee, as well as that of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), a longtime arms-control proponent, and two other Republicans the administration had wooed - Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).

Diplomats consider passage of the treaty crucial to Obama's ambitious nuclear-reduction plans and to his credibility internationally.

New START trims the Cold War foes' long-range deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 and limits their launchers to 700, a modest reduction from current levels.

The treaty would also allow the nuclear giants to resume inspections of one another's stockpiles, which they had done for 15 years under the START treaty that expired last December.

"This treaty is essential for our own security," Lugar told reporters, noting that it puts "American boots on the ground" in Russia to make sure they are keeping their nuclear promises.

The resolution on ratification that was approved Thursday was crafted by Lugar and sought to assuage some senators' doubts on issues such as missile defense and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Risch, who voted against the treaty, said the intelligence community "thought this serious enough that they knocked on the doors" of key senators "and said, 'Look, folks, you need to know this before you move ahead.' "

A classified State Department report produced this year determined that New START was "effectively verifiable." Another State Department report said that Russia had observed the "central limits" of the first START treaty, although it noted there were disputes over compliance.

The new intelligence "clearly impacts your view of whether Russia would violate the treaty," said a congressional official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The official declined to describe the intelligence.

Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, played down the significance of the new information, with some suggesting treaty opponents were using it for their own ends.

In an interview, Kerry said the new intelligence "is not really bearing directly on the treaty." He described it as "a piece of information that's not yet fully ripened," declining to elaborate.

Staff writers Greg Miller and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

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