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GOP Senators: Obama Nominee Words on Alleged Russian Treaty Breach 'Misleading'

By Sebastian Sprenger

Global Security Newswire

A Russian policeman guards a Topol-M ICBM during a rehearsal for the nation's Victory Day parade in Moscow in May 2008. Some have speculated that Russia may have violated an arms treaty in testing the Topol-M weapon, but others point to a cruise missile instead. A Russian policeman guards a Topol-M ICBM during a rehearsal for the nation's Victory Day parade in Moscow in May 2008. Some have speculated that Russia may have violated an arms treaty in testing the Topol-M weapon, but others point to a cruise missile instead. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Two Republican senators charge they were misled by a senior Pentagon nominee over the handling of a reported arms-treaty breach by Russia.

Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) last week asked Senate Armed Services Committee leaders Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to make a panel vote on the nomination of Brian McKeon contingent on written, unclassified responses about the issue.

McKeon, a deputy assistant to Present Obama and executive secretary of the National Security Council, is nominated to become the principal deputy Defense under secretary for policy.

At issue is whether the Obama administration reported to the Senate information about a possible violation by Moscow of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, just as lawmakers were debating ratification of the New START strategic-arms control pact in the fall of 2010.

Ayotte and Wicker, in a March 6 letter to the committee's top Democrat and Republican, wrote that they found that information provided by McKeon at his Feb. 25 nomination hearing -- and in written material submitted in secret form -- to have been "misleading." A subsequent, closed-door briefing by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper contributed to their judgment, the senators wrote.

“We do not come to this conclusion lightly,” Ayotte and Wicker wrote. “However, we are convinced -- based on a thorough review of these materials and other documents in the committee’s custody -- that the administration did not inform the Senate, as was its obligation, of a potential material breach of one arms control treaty while asking for the ratification of another.”

The senators’ letter describes McKeon as having been the administration’s “lead coordinator” for New START ratification three years ago.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said in late January that a U.S. interagency review process was under way to determine if the reported testing of a Russian ground-launched missile actually constituted an INF Treaty violation.

More recently, a senior Pentagon official said the Kremlin had not resolved issues that the U.S. government brought up in discussions.

"Our concerns have been raised with the Russians. We've raised them a number of times," Elaine Bunn, the deputy assistant Defense secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy, said at a March 5 hearing of the Senate committee's strategic forces panel. "We were not satisfied with their response, and we'll continue to raise it."

One of the questions McKeon should answer is whether he believes the United States should continue to comply with the INF Treaty a year from now if Russia does not, Ayotte and Wicker wrote.

The Daily Beast reported in November that top State and Defense Department officials told then-Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in November 2012 about a possible Russian treaty breach.

The INF Treaty bans the former Cold War superpowers from possessing, developing or testing any missile with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

It is not yet publicly known which Russian missile or missiles may have introduced a problem, though some international speculation revolves around test flights of the RS-12M Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. A March analysis by the Arms Control Association raises the possibility that the weapon in question was an R-500 Iskander-K cruise missile.

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