Washington (AFP) June 15, 2000 - President Bill Clinton has been given a new legal opinion on how far work on a National Missile Defense (NMD) radar in Alaska can go before violating the 1972 ABM treaty, spelling out the president's options, US defense officials said Thursday.
The New York Times, which first reported the development, said that the administration's lawyers he can begin construction of the first piece of the NMD system without violating the treaty.
Although such an interpretation would likely be rejected by Russia, it would give Clinton leeway to announce he is going ahead with the missile defense system but leave it to the next US president to decide whether to break the ABM treaty.
"I can tell you that lawyers have analyzed deployment timetables, as they have analyzed construction requirements for the radar in the Aleutians on Shemya island," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.
"They have come up with a number of options," he said. "The president at the appropriate time will review the legal analysis and their options and make a decision."
A defense official said the new legal opinion was drawn up by lawyers representing the National Security Council, the State Department, the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He said the team was tasked to examine the construction schedule and determine "at what point in the process it would constitute a violation of the ABM treaty."
The lawyers' analysis, requested by the White House, rests on a unilateral interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty that would allow different stages of construction well short of full deployment of the missile shield, unidentified senior officials told the Times.
The interpretations offer three construction options, from pouring a concrete pad to raising a concrete structure with metal tracks to hold a radar.
"There are several points where you could reach a violation of the treaty," Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Stephen Pietropaoli was quoted as saying by the daily. "The lawyers have produced points along a continuum and the legal analysis to back each up."
Clinton, whose mandate ends in January, is expected to decide later this year whether to order construction of the 60-billion-dollar (62.8-billion-euro) system, so that it can be in place by 2005.
Russia strongly opposes NMD, saying it would violate the ABM treaty, which includes a legal understanding that even breaking ground for a missile defense would constitute a violation of the treaty.
The United States seeks to modify the treaty with Russia's consent to allow limited missile defense systems that can protect against accidental nuclear attacks or strikes from rogue nuclear states such as Iraq and North Korea.
"Basically the administration is working hard to free up as much wiggle room as it can before it has to make a decision," one official said.
"And that makes sense," he added. "There's still a long way to go to come to an arrangement with the Russians."
The lawyers' advice would overturn the legal understanding on what would constitute a violation of the ABM treaty, but may be welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in that it would avoid a diplomatic crisis over NMD early in his presidency, the daily said.
Putin has vowed to tear up all arms controls accords with the United States if Washington unilaterally decides to deploy NMD.
On Tuesday, he offered to work with the United States to develop "a boost-phase" anti-missile system but warned that any change in the landmark ABM treaty would ignite a new arms race.
US Defense Secretary William Cohen said Tuesday in Moscow that the United States was interested in exploring the Russian proposal, but not as a substitute for its own national missile defense system.
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