Subscribe for 17¢ / day

WASHINGTON — The administration’s ambitious plans for missile defense came under sharp attack Thursday from Senate Democrats, in the opening clash of a gathering congressional battle over one of President Bush’s top priorities.

As Pentagon officials unveiled plans to hike anti-missile spending and build a new missile site in Alaska, Democrats challenged the wisdom of a program that could require withdrawal from an arms control treaty signed 29 years ago with the Soviet Union.

Some Democrats accused the administration of withholding key details of their plans, and suggested that they were concealing their intention to quickly deploy a system that would conflict with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at a hearing that he had pressed administration officials to answer whether their development plans would require withdrawal from the treaty.

But the administration had provided no answers, and hadn’t done a legal analysis on whether a new round of tests would violate the treaty, said Levin, a leading critic of the administration’s plans.

“You’re proceeding without it, and you’re asking us to proceed without it (in approving the fiscal 2002 defense budget),” said a visibly angry Levin. “And I hope we don’t.”

As part of its pledge to deploy a missile defense system as soon as possible, the administration has drafted plans to increase anti-missile spending by $3 billion next year, to $8.3 billion, and to conduct a wide range of new tests on a variety of technologies. The administration wants to develop a “layered” system that could try to knock down incoming missiles at three stages in their flight — in the first few minutes, in the “mid-course” phase and in the final seconds before the fall to Earth.

The most controversial element in the new program is a plan to begin building a new missile test site at Fort Greely, Alaska, near Fairbanks. The test site would include five to 10 missiles, and it could be deployed as an emergency response to the threat of missile attack on the United States.

Administration officials say they intend to begin clearing the site of trees next month, and want to begin construction of the test bed in April, 2002. Wolfowitz, in an apparent reference to these plans, told lawmakers that the new construction program could put the United States in conflict with the treaty by April.

Administration officials continued to give off contradictory signals about their plans regarding the treaty.

In recent days, the administration has been circulating within the government and to allies a new policy statement on missile defense that says the program “will conflict” with the treaty “within months, not years.”

But at an appearance Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to distance himself from the official statement. He insisted that he had no hand in drafting it, and asserted that officials “can’t know” when the program will conflict with the treaty, because the rate of progress on the program can’t be foreseen.

News of the administration’s policy statement brought a swift reaction from abroad.

Vladimir Rushailo, head of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Security Council, told reporters in Belarus that unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty “would lead to the destruction of strategic stability, a new powerful spiral in the arms race, particularly in space, and the development of means for overcoming the national missile defense system.”

The administration’s program also came in for criticism from Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.

He chided Wolfowitz for asserting that the test program could “bump up” against the treaty without violating it, until the lawyers determined that a violation had occurred.

Cleland called this “bumping up against the treaty … but not inhaling,” in a reference to former President Clinton’s 1992 description of how he had tried marijuana.

Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.