Demanding Answers

Russia’s Nuke Cheating Could Blow Up a Top Pentagon Pick

Before a confirmation hearing for a top Pentagon official, two GOP senators are pressing the Obama administration for answers about Russia’s violations of an arms control treaty.

02.21.14 10:45 AM ET

Two GOP senators wrote to the White House Thursday to demand more information about the administration’s knowledge Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The letter is being sent in advance of Senate hearings on the confirmation of Brian McKeon, the current chief of staff at the National Security Council, to a top position at the Pentagon.

The Daily Beast first reported last November that the Obama administration had concluded Russia violated the INF Treaty in 2012 and briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the violations at the time. In January, the New York Times confirmed the report and revealed that Russia’s violations dated back to 2008 and included the testing of a ground based cruise missile, which is banned under the treaty.

On Jan. 30, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged that the administration had raised the issue of the tests with the Russians and briefed NATO allies on the violations as well.

“We have nothing to refute in the report,” she said. “But there is a review, an intensive interagency review, as to whether this is a violation of the treaty. That is a process that is ongoing. It has been ongoing. There have been consultations for months on this.”

Now, McKeon has been nominated to be Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and will face a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) next week. But, in a letter from SASC committee members Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Roger Wicker R-MS), obtained by The Daily Beast, the senators want to know if McKeon knew about the violations in 2010, when he was the White House’s liaison to Congress during negotiations over the New START Treaty, which provided for limitations on nuclear weapons, with Russia. The senators also want to know why it took so long for the administration to inform Congress about the violations.

“If the administration knew about potential violations during consideration of the treaty and did not fully inform the Senate of these violations while it debated New START, this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities,” the senators wrote. “Based on your role as Vice President Biden’s lead negotiator on the New START Treaty and as one of the Obama administration’s primary liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification process, we are interested in what you knew about potential violations of the INF Treaty and what information was shared with the Senate.”

Ayotte and Wicker specifically want to know if McKeon was aware of the potential violations in 2010, whether McKeon believes the Senate was made aware of the situation at the time, and whether he would advocate for continued U.S. compliance with the treaty if these violations continue after a year.

A Senate Armed Services Committee staffer told The Daily Beast that McKeon’s role in the issue could become a problem for his confirmation to the new Pentagon post. 

“This could be an issue for McKeon since he was a lead negotiator on the New START Treaty and led efforts to secure its ratification in the Senate in 2010,” the staffer said. “It is not yet clear whether the Administration’s failure to inform the Senate during treaty consideration was because of negligence or a deliberate act of bad faith.” 

National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on the Ayotte-Wicker letter or McKeon’s knowledge of the Russian treaty violations.

Congressional anger over Russia’s INF treaty violations could impact other nominations as well. Several aides on Capitol Hill said that the issue is also an obstacle in the confirmation of Rose Gottemoeller, the acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, whose nomination to assume that position formally has lingered for over a year. Psaki said that Gottemoeller was in charge of dealing with the Russians over the INF Treaty violations.

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was finally made aware of the violations in 2012 in a classified setting, Secretary of State John Kerry, then the committee’s chairman, was outraged and warned that if the violations became widely known, future efforts to convince the Senate to ratify arms control treaties would be harmed.

“If we’re going to have treaties with people, we’ve got to adhere to them,” Kerry said, according to two U.S. officials who read the classified transcript of the hearing. “We’re not going to pass another treaty in the U.S. Senate if our colleagues are sitting up here knowing somebody is cheating.”