Bipartisan Senate concern over Obama decision on defense

Senators reacted with bipartisan concern Thursday over the Obama administration’s decision to scrap a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, saying Congress and foreign allies were kept in the dark.

The decision announced Thursday morning followed late-night phone calls to Czech and Polish officials, and at least one senior Democrat — Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — said those countries had no problem with the decision.

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But the committee’s ranking Republican, 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.), told The Hill the White House never notified his committee until Thursday morning. McCain also disputed Levin’s assertion that Czech and Polish leaders were consulted.

"It was an unfortunate decision,” McCain said. “It sends a message to the Russians that could encourage them, and it sends a message to our friends and allies not to count on our commitments."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was among several Republican leaders who told The Hill the decision caught them by surprise.

“As clearly as I can tell, there was little or no consultation on the matter,” said McConnell.

Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the calls to Polish and Czech leaders came “in the middle of the night” and could endanger foreign countries’ support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

“To do this kind of action without any more notification than that is certainly not a confidence-builder,” Lugar said.

Significantly, the senior Republicans were joined by a handful of centrist Democrats on the Armed Services Committee who said they want to see the intelligence behind the decision.

“I want to review what intelligence exists for that conclusion,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “Obviously the White House can’t consult with Congress on everything, but there are some things that are important enough, particularly as it relates to national defense. And there are some of us who have supported very strongly this defense system in the past — it seems we should have had some advance notice.”

“I’m concerned about scrapping it,” added Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), also a committee member. “I think missile defense is a very, very important part of our arsenal.”

The Bush-era missile defense program would have placed interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic to stave off any nuclear threat posed by Iran.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. will no longer pursue those plans in favor of a redesigned defense system that would be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.

At the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied that Congress wasn't properly advised, and said Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military officials would be briefing lawmakers on the Hill Thursday.

"I will certainly check with legislative affairs in terms of certain congressional notifications, but I don't think it's been a surprise to anybody, based on the fact that we've discussed it in here, that the review was ongoing,” Gibbs told reporters.

Levin rejected the criticism from Republicans that the decision could strain U.S. ties with Eastern Europe, noting that NATO already supported Obama’s decision and that Poland and the Czech Republic are satisfied with other missiles they have been offered.

“My understanding is that the Poles and the Czechs are very positive about it,” Levin said. “The Poles have been offered standard missiles, they’ve been offered Patriot missiles, and my understanding is that they’re satisfied. Nothing’s being undermined, since they’re supportive of it.”

Levin said he was notified by the White House several days ago that the decision was forthcoming, and that Congress should not have been surprised anyway since the issue of the missiles had been under review.

“Clearly, people knew that there was discussions going on, and they’d had previous opportunities to express themselves on it,” he said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he was “disappointed” with Thursday’s decision, echoing McCain’s complaint that it could endanger U.S. interests. But Lieberman also said it could leave large sections of the U.S. more vulnerable to a missile attack by removing an initial level of protection.

“If a missile is headed toward the U.S., the ideal is to get a first shot at it from a European site,” he said. “If we miss, then the Alaska and California sites have a second shot. The problem is, if you look at a map, the alternate system they’re talking about now is it leaves only once chance, which is the Alaska and California sites.”

But other Democrats said they had no problem with Obama’s decision because they never supported the Eastern European missile system in the first place.

“I’ve never thought that European option is a good one,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). ”We ought to have missile defense in the continental United States.”