June 8, 2011 | Foreign Policy

Giving Away the Farm

The Obama administration is freely giving Russia sensitive information about missile defense that weakens U.S. national security
June 8, 2011 | Foreign Policy

Giving Away the Farm

The Obama administration is freely giving Russia sensitive information about missile defense that weakens U.S. national security

President Barack Obama's administration recently threatened to veto the defense budget, citing “serious concerns” over provisions that limit the U.S. missile defense know-how that the White House is permitted to share with Moscow. This is the sort of information that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in his earlier days, would have assigned his spies to steal. Through its single-minded pursuit of “resetting” relations with Russia, the Obama administration may simply be willing to hand over this information and, in doing so, weaken U.S. national security.

Only two days after issuing the veto threat — and as Obama tried to warm Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to U.S. missile defense plans at the G-8 Summit in Deauville, France — the House of Representatives passed the defense bill. It included the provision that the president's team finds so offensive: Section 1228 requires that no funds can be used to provide the Russian Federation with sensitive U.S. missile defense technology.

This act of congressional prudence did not come out of nowhere. The Senate debate over New START raised questions about what the Obama administration may have promised Moscow regarding U.S. missile defense plans. The debate stemmed from the treaty's preamble, which linked offensive and defensive weapons, and a Russian unilateral statement that stated ratification of the treaty was conditional on whether the United States made improvements to its missile defense systems. In a treaty about reducing offensive weapons, it was clear the Russians required the Obama administration to include U.S. defenses in the bargain.

With that issue still unresolved, Congress discovered that the administration has been working on a missile defense agreement with the Russians and that Moscow had requested that the United States share with it loads of sensitive U.S. missile defense technology and operational authority as part of that deal. In the administration's eagerness to please the Kremlin, it may just oblige.

The House of Representatives has given a firm “no” to that prospect through its decision to ignore Obama's veto threat and approve the defense appropriations bill by a veto-proof vote of 322 to 96. The Senate may act similarly. On April 14, 39 Republican senators sent a letter to the president expressing their concern over the administration's consideration of granting to the Russians sensitive U.S. technology and “red button” authority to prevent the interception of incoming missiles headed for U.S. troops or allies. This would allow Russia to deny the United States the ability to intercept a missile Washington had determined to be a threat.

The letter, spearheaded by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), requested the administration provide the Senate with assurances that it will not share sensitive information with Moscow. The senators cited the problem that sharing this information with Russia poses in light of its history of espionage and technological cooperation with Iran and Syria.

They're right to be concerned. Tehran is thumbing its nose at Washington and doubling down on its missile program. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told a congressional panel in March that Iran “would likely choose missile delivery as its preferred method of delivering a nuclear weapon” and that the Islamic Republic “continues to expand the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload.”

Russian assistance has contributed to the progress made by Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Should the United States share critical information about its missile defenses with the Russians, a Russian entity — official or otherwise — could pass that information along to Tehran, enabling the Iranians to capitalize on the weaknesses in the U.S. system.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration continues to demonstrate its penchant for bargaining away missile defense, and the United States is not currently developing and deploying missile defense technology at the rate and quantity the threat demands.

The proliferation of missiles, especially short-range devices, continues to accelerate. As a result, the United States has a greater need than ever for short-range defensive systems like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Patriot air and missile defense system. The United States, its forces abroad, and its allies are also vulnerable to short-range missiles fired from ships at sea and long-range missiles fired in large quantities. The only system the United States currently has to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system, which is limited in its ability. The sea-based Aegis system is supposed to complement the GMD system in defending the homeland against long-range missiles by 2020, but the intelligence community continues to estimate that Iran will have an ICBM by 2015.

Leaders in the House, and particularly the Armed Services Committee, deserve commendation for trying to address these weaknesses. The House defense bill added funds for short-range defenses, the GMD system, and Aegis; and perhaps most strikingly, it mandated the administration to conduct a study on the technical and operational feasibility of space-based interceptors — the ideal type of system to intercept missiles at the optimal point, during their boost phase.

But as the administration's veto threat demonstrates, the future of U.S. missile defense requires more than Congress alone can provide. Here's hoping that the White House comes to its senses and stops trying to use a degradation in U.S. national security to purchase a Russian “reset.”