WASHINGTON (AP) -- What it's worth to be under a nuclear missile shield?
That's a question that Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., wants answered as he continues his efforts to have a missile defense site located in his state.
The Pentagon is leaning toward an Alaska site because the North Dakota one could not defend against the uninhabited outer Hawaiian chain and the lightly populated Aleutian Islands.
But Conrad argues that's not necessarily a deal-breaker: Why not just pay people living there to compensate them for not being protected?
Under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the United States designated its antimissile site near Nekoma, N.D., which was designed to protect an ICBM field. Any national missile defense system would require a change in the treaty, but moving the site to Alaska would require a second change that the North Dakota site would not.
If the Russians can't be persuaded to accept a change in sites, a North Dakota site could save the United States from having to choose between destroying the ABM treaty or not deploying a system at all, Conrad argues.
''Are we really going to say we aren't going to protect the whole rest of the country because of 1,500 people in the Aleutian chain, who could be offered a generous buyout package?'' Conrad said in a recent interview. ''Especially in light of the fact that it would make no strategic sense for them to be a target in the first place?''
Conrad, who said he's discussed his idea with several senators, doesn't know how much the government would compensate people in the Aleutian chain. But members of Alaska's congressional delegation said he shouldn't bother coming up with a figure.
''I can tell you that we aren't willing to sell our right to be defended,'' said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. ''I would be curious to see what the price might be, but that's incidental.''
''I don't really think it's a serious proposal, in the sense that it would be considered,'' he added. ''It may play well in North Dakota, but it won't play well with the joint chiefs of staffs.''
The state's at-large congressman, Republican Don Young, had a similar reaction.
''That's the senator speaking for his state,'' he said. ''He's just playing to the hometown audience is what he's doing. I think it's very shortsighted and relatively small of himself to just excuse 1,500 people as not really worth that much.
''By the way there are over 7,000 people on the Aleutian chain.''
A spokesman for Alaska's Democratic governor, Tony Knowles, was even more critical.
''It strikes me as somewhat callous, to be willing to just ignore one part of the United States and buy the security of those residents off,'' said the spokesman, Bob King. ''I'm sure the senator would not so easily propose leaving out a certain part of his state from a national missile defense initiative and attempt to buy off his constituents.''
Conrad said he understands how Alaska's elected officials feel, but said his idea was worth exploring.
Conrad argued that the North Dakota site is also preferable to the Alaska site because it would do a better job defending the East Coast. The Pentagon says the Alaska site provides the best defense for the ''most prevailing threat'' -- North Korea -- but a second site in North Dakota could be more effective against a threat from the Middle East.
Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said he had no comment on Conrad's idea. But he did note that current law requires that any missile defense system protect all 50 states.
Duane Sand, Conrad's Republican opponent in this year's Senate race, said he supports a site in North Dakota. But he called Conrad's idea ''an absolute insult to every American who has ever fought to defend this country. I totally can't believe he'd say that.''
''There's a man that does not understand the military defense system,'' added Sand, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former naval submarine officer. ''That's just ridiculous. You don't pay people to live on the fringe of safety.''
But the state's highest elected Republican official, Gov. Ed Schafer, said Conrad is right to raise the issue.
''I think obviously, he and I are in agreement that the site ought to be in North Dakota,'' Schafer said. ''We've got billions of dollars invested in it, and it's a shame not to use it.''
The North Dakota site was actually briefly operational in the mid 1970s, but it's been mothballed for the past quarter-century.
''Taxpayer money, foreign relations, treaty negotiation -- all of that points to North Dakota,'' Schafer said. ''Anything that would place an advantage to the North Dakota site is something we should look at.''
But he conceded, ''What makes sense to me might not make sense to someone whose great-great-great grandfather was whaling in the Aleutian Islands. What seems reasonable to us won't necessarily seem reasonable to the other side.''
On the Net: National Missile Defense Program: http://www.acq.osd.mil/bmdo/bmdolink/html/nmd.html
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