Clinton Signs Controversial NMD Legislation

Craig Cerniello

ON JULY 22, President Bill Clinton signed into law the highly contentious "National Missile Defense [NMD] Act of 1999," sponsored by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS). Despite claims by some congressional Republicans that the United States is now obligated to field an NMD system, Clinton stated on July 23 that his signing of the legislation should not be interpreted as a final decision on deployment. Rather, he reiterated that the decision will be made next year based on four criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the "rogue nation" ICBM threat, cost factors and arms control considerations.

The bill (H.R. 4) states, "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective [NMD] system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate) with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for [NMD]." The legislation also says that "it is the policy of the United States to seek continued negotiated reductions in Russian nuclear forces."

Cochran, along with Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), initially introduced the NMD legislation in March 1998, but it twice failed to reach the Senate floor by one vote, first in May and again in September of that year. However, the July 1998 release of the Rumsfeld Commission report on the long-range missile threat to the United States, North Korea's subsequent test of the Taepo Dong-1 missile and Secretary of Defense William Cohen's January 1999 announcements on the restructuring of the U.S. NMD program gave congressional enthusiasts all the ammunition they needed to force a floor vote on the bill.

The Clinton administration opposed the original version of the legislation because it made NMD deployment contingent on just one factor: the effectiveness of the technology. After the adoption of two amendments on arms control and funding procedures, however, the White House dropped its veto threat and the legislation sailed through the Senate on March 17 by an overwhelming 97-3 margin. The House approved the amended bill on May 20 and it became law with Clinton's signature on July 22.

In his statement on H.R. 4, Clinton made clear that the United States is not obligated to deploy an NMD system today. "By specifying that any NMD deployment must be subject to the authorization and appropriations process, the legislation makes clear that no decision on deployment has been made. This interpretation, which is confirmed by the legislative record taken as a whole, is also required to avoid any possible impairment of my constitutional authorities," he wrote.

In deciding whether to deploy a limited NMD system in June 2000, Clinton stated that the United States will "review the results of flight tests and other developmental efforts, consider cost estimates, and evaluate the threat" and will also "review progress in achieving our arms control objectives, including negotiating any amendments to the ABM Treaty that may be required to accommodate a possible NMD deployment." The United States and Russia held "discussions" on the ABM Treaty and START III in Moscow August 17-19.