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Secretary Cohen's interview with National Public Radio

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
July 07, 2000

Friday, July 7, 2000

Secretary Cohen's interview with National Public Radio

Q: Joining us from the Pentagon is Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Secretary Cohen, first, how important is tonight's test for you in making a recommendation to President Clinton on whether to proceed with a national missile defense system?

Secretary Cohen: Well, it's an important part of the analysis that needs to be done. As I've indicated before, the test itself is not dispositive of a recommendation to go forward, and a failure would not be dispositive of a recommendation not to go forward.

What we have to do is analyze the totality of the information that we have gathered to date, and then put that through a very critical analysis before a recommendation is made.

So I would suspect that following the test this evening that there will be at least three or even four weeks before a recommendation to the President will be made.

Q: Two critics of the missile defense system from MIT, Theodore Postol and George Lewis, write today in the New York Times that this test has been "dumbed down". Here's what they say. They say instead of the ten objects that confounded the kill vehicle in the first test in '97, today's test, like the two before it, will use a single mock balloon which is nearly ten times brighter than the warhead and the kill vehicle will be programmed to home in on the dimmer of the two objects.

Is that true?

Secretary Cohen: It's somewhat ironic that this is a criticism now being leveled at this particular test. We are responding and have responded to an independent review committee or commission headed up by General Welch, Larry Welch, who in the past has been critical of the testing program, saying it was a rush to failure.

As a result of his initial recommendation we responded to it by restructuring the program so that we would walk before running, and that we would start out incrementally to test this interceptor against a relatively simple type of target missile and decoy with the idea that we will progressively increase the level of complexity as the tests continue.

So we are responding and have responded to the independent review saying we should walk before we run. Then to be criticized for doing that it seems to me to be rather ironic.

Q: But this is a test designed then for easier success than the earlier tests.

Secretary Cohen: In the earlier phases, with the understanding that we have at least another dozen or more tests coming before a system would actually be deployed. So there are plenty of checks and balances against deploying a system that would be ineffective.

Frankly, I have no interest in recommending to the President that he deploy or make preparations for the deployment of a system that would be ineffective to protect the American people. That is not something I would advocate, and certainly the President wouldn't support it.

Q: But why shouldn't we expect that any enemy that was capable of launching a missile with a nuclear device it had made would also be sophisticated enough to devise sophisticated countermeasures that would thwart whatever you could do in the way of the missile defense issues.

Secretary Cohen: I notice that part of the argument is that a North Korea or an Iran doesn't have the capability of producing a long range missile in the near future. At the same time that argument is made, they suggest that they would certainly be capable of including the kind of sophisticated decoys that would be able to fool a national missile defense system. But it seems to me they can't have that both ways.

We believe that the kind of system that will be put up by the North Koreans or the Iranians or others in the initial phases we would be able to contend with this national missile defense system. In fact General Welch has indicated in his most recent report, that there are no technological reasons why we couldn't deploy a limited system against a limited type of attack, understanding that there are reasons why we may not be able to hit the 2005 deadline should the President decide to go forward. But also understanding that we need to increase the complexity of the decoys that would be used, the ability to counter that.

That's precisely the reason I've asked General Welch to oversee this particular project, to make sure that I am satisfied that the complexity involved would be addressed.

Q: The head of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces was quoted today as calling this test the first step toward global nuclear instability.

If the U.S. were to go ahead with a national missile defense system, why shouldn't the Russians and other nuclear powers develop at least countermeasures to defeat such a system, if not their own national missile defense systems?

Secretary Cohen: First of all, the Russians have the only anti-ballistic missile system in the world today -- one that's centered around Moscow. It is limited in area and scope, but nonetheless it's the only one in existence.

Secondly, I met with President Putin during my recent visit to Moscow and also during the course of my visit in Moscow the same Strategic Rocket Forces commander put a statement out in the Moscow news indicating there are at least five to eight nations that were presenting an emerging threat to use intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The third point I'd point out is this system, limited as it is, and we have taken pains to point this out in great detail to the Russians and others, would not in any way undercut the Russian strategic systems. They have many thousands of nuclear weapons now. Those will be reduced under the START agreements, but even so under the reductions, be they to 2,000 or 2,500 or indeed 1,500 which the Russians have proposed, they would still have more than enough to overwhelm any limited system that we would construct.

So there is no threat to the Russian system, and I think the argument being made now is not with merit. But that's something I think they clearly are trying to divide the Europeans and to divide the American people in the suggestions they're making.

Q: But if such a system would actually make the U.S. safer, why wouldn't a Chinese missile defense system make China safer, or a French missile defense system make France safer? Why is it only the United States?

Secretary Cohen: Well it's not only the United States. As a matter of fact during my visit to Moscow and during President Clinton's visit to Moscow the issue was discussed or at least raised that perhaps they could work with NATO to have a theater missile defense system, and we have said we are eager to do that. We have at least five programs underway now as far as research and development to construct a theater missile defense system to protect our soldiers and our forces out in the field, so to speak.

We have agreed with the Russians that let's work together. If you have a system that we can share and work with, we're prepared to do that.

Secondly, they also suggested -- not during the Summit, but prior to the Summit in a news broadcast -- that they had a system that would help protect the Europeans and presumably the United States with a so-called boost phase intercept system. We have tried to get clarification on that, but I represented to President Putin and to my counterpart Marshal Sergeyev and others, that we are eager to explore that with the Russians as well. But so far it has been simply a "concept" without any substance that we can determine that they would be forthcoming with. But we are eager to see what kind of technology they are suggesting, that we could have a boost phase intercept that we could work on together. It would not be a substitute for our system, but certainly something we could work together on. But so far it has been mostly rhetoric and nothing behind it.

Q: Given that the system that's being talked about and tested has critics on both sides -- those who say it's too small a system to be effective, and other who say there shouldn't be any kind of national missile defense system at all. Do you think the most sensible thing here is to keep testing and push off big

decisions about what to develop for another year or two and perhaps into another administration?

Secretary Cohen: We are responding to a law that was passed by Congress and signed by the President. It had strong bipartisan support -- Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, mandating that we deploy a national missile defense system as soon as technologically feasible, and that's precisely why we have been conducting the research and development to achieve that goal. This is not something that is suddenly being rushed into judgment by President Clinton for any legacy purposes. He has been trying to respond to, number one, the nature of the threat; and number two, complying with congressional demands.

Q: But there seems to be something circular about saying when technologically feasible. As you've said, the test that you're putting the system through tonight is designed to be easy. Not to show that it's technologically feasible. You can continue taking new steps and advance this process for years with such tests, making them harder and harder.

Secretary Cohen: The question really is whether or not we can deploy a system that would be capable of intercepting a limited type of an attack, and that is something we believe we are on track -- we will determine that ultimately after this test and more as to whether or not that is technologically feasible.

But again, I point to General Welch who indicated that there is nothing that would preclude, from a technological point of view, the deployment of a system to achieve this goal -- although he questioned whether or not we could reach that goal by 2005.

What is driving this, of course, is the nature of the threat. We believe that the North Koreans will be in a position by that point in time, 2005, and the Iranians certainly within a short time thereafter if not before, to achieve the same. They do not need missiles to intimidate their neighbors. The reason they are developing long-range missiles is to be able to certainly inhibit the United States and our European friends from taking any action which might protect our own security interests in the region.

Q: How do you factor into the analysis political developments in North Korea? The state that was a rogue state a few months ago, has been downgraded by the State Department to a "state of concern," and is in a state of detente with South Korea right now. Does that change the equation at all?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not sure exactly what the state of detente is between the North and the South. We are encouraged by the recent Summit and look forward to seeing that evolve in a very positive and productive way. But in the meantime we can't put on hold any defensive system that we may develop simply based on one summit. We have to make sure that we protect the interests of the American people and that could evolve in a way that's positive and reduces the threat, but in the mean time the capability we think is still there.

Again, I have to remind everybody that the President has not made a decision on this yet and will not make it until he receives a recommendation from me as to whether or not the four criteria that he has laid out -- namely the nature of the threat, the technology in terms of its maturation, the costs involved, and the impact upon arms control itself -- will all be taken into account before he makes any decision.

Q: Before letting you go I want to just run past you what one British journalist wrote from the Washington this morning. Julian Borger writes in the Guardian newspaper, "Senior officials in the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House itself are opposed to a planned $60 billion defense system and are privately hoping that a crucial test planned for late tonight will end in failure."

Does that strike you as describing at least some of your colleagues in the administration?

Secretary Cohen: It has no bearing from my perspective, certainly on anyone in this building. I don't know what his sources are. But the President, the State Department, Secretary of State Albright, Deputy Secretary of State Talbot, all of us have worked together, and we are proceeding according to plan. That is to conduct the research and development and then we will see exactly what the results are and make a prudent recommendation to the President.

But I can't account for his sources of information, but I don't think there's any relation to the truth as far as senior officials in this department are concerned, if he's talking about people that I talked to.

Q: Secretary Cohen, thank you very much for talking to us.

Secretary Cohen: Thank you.

- END :special

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