Cliff May

Were there an award for the worst idea produced in Washington in recent days, there would be many worthy competitors, but I think I’d put my money on this one: Granting Russians the power to tell Americans whether we can or cannot shoot down missiles flying toward their intended victims.

Who would even consider such an idea? The Obama Administration -- or so it appears. In response, last week, 39 Republican Senators sent the President a strongly worded letter requesting his assurance, in writing, that he will not give Russia such “red-button” rights. The letter asks for reassurance, as well, that the Administration will not give Russia access to American missile defense information “including early warning, detection, tracking, targeting, and telemetry data, sensors or common operational picture data, or American hit-to-kill missile defense technology.”

Here’s how this came about: In recent months, the Obama administration, as part of its policy to “re-set” U.S. relations with Russia, has offered to integrate the Kremlin into both the American and the NATO ballistic missile defense systems. Last month, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher said the Administration is “eager to begin a joint analysis, joint exercises, and sharing of early warning data that could form the basis for a cooperative missile defense system.”

This month, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said his government was inclined to favor such cooperation but would “insist on only one thing … a red button push to start an anti-missile …” To 39 Republican senators, this sounded like an outrageous demand. How this sounded to President Obama and his national security team remains unclear.

In their letter, the Republican senators, led by Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill), make this larger point: “No American President should ever allow a foreign nation to dictate when or how the United State defends our country and our allies. In our view, any agreement that would allow Russia to influence the defense of the United States or our allies, to say nothing of a ‘red button’ or veto, would constitute a failure of leadership.”

They note, too, that Russia “has not halted its support for nuclear infrastructure or sophisticated arms of states such as Iran and Syria.” Finally, the senators ask the President to “share with Congress the materials on U.S. missile defense cooperation that have been provided to Russia, which heretofore the Departments of State and Defense have refused to provide.”

Senator Kirk also drafted a memo providing “context” for what he fears is the Administration’s eagerness to reveal to the Kremlin “some of our country’s most sensitive technology, collection assets and real-time intelligence.”

“Admitting the Russians into the most important and time-sensitive parts of our nation’s defense,” the memo argues, “is extremely risky and could present a fatal vulnerability… Providing Russia any access to US sensitive data would undermine the national security of the United States.”

Kirk lists a dozen recent cases of Russian espionage targeting the U.S. and about the same number of instances of Russian collaboration with Iran’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles. In addition, as “part of its assistance to Iran in building the Bushehr nuclear reactor, Russia has trained some 1,500 Iranian nuclear engineers, according to the Congressional Research Service.”

So to be clear: Russia is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to its enemies – America, the “Great Satan” tops that list – while simultaneously “insisting” the US give Russian officials – for example, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin -- the power to decide whether Americans can defend themselves and their allies from Iranian attacks.

If President Obama sees such ideas as ludicrous, if this is not at all where he’s heading, he should say so. A brief letter would do. At least 39 Senators will be anxiously checking their mailboxes.

One addendum: In 1995, Lowell Wood, a respected astrophysicist involved with the Strategic Defense Initiation and affiliated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, proposed a rather different model of international cooperation: “a world-wide missile defense based on space-based interceptors in which each of the sponsoring nations could independently elect to cause the system to block a missile launch coming from anywhere and headed to anywhere, but no nation could defeat or delay operation of the system if another nation had authorized it.”

In other words, all the participating nations would have the right to defend themselves – none would have a finger on a “red button” that would leave a target defenseless. This good idea – a global, space-based anti-missile umbrella -- won no awards at the time. Memo to the President: Why not revive it?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.