WASHINGTON (AP) -- Administration lawyers agree that President Clinton could approve the first steps toward building a national missile defense without violating a 1972 arms control treaty, Defense Secretary William Cohen said Wednesday.
The lawyers' interpret the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty as allowing preliminary construction work on a new X-band radar -- a critical piece of a national missile defense -- on Shemya Island in the western Aleutians up to the point where rails are laid for placement of the powerful missile-tracking radar on a concrete pad, Cohen said.
Defense officials have proposed basing the interceptors in Interior Alaska.
The rails are scheduled to be laid in 2002.
Clinton has not yet accepted his lawyers' analysis. If he does, it would make it easier for him to give the Pentagon the go-ahead this year to award contracts for groundbreaking on Shemya, while letting the next president decide on the more advanced construction work that would breach the treaty.
Cohen said he expected Clinton to make that decision by September.
''As far as a technical breach of the ABM treaty, his decision in August or September would not constitute that, in our judgment,'' Cohen said.
The timing of these decisions is important because the Pentagon has set a target date of 2005 for having a national missile defense ready for use. Any delay now would mean missing the target date.
Construction work on Shemya, in the Aleutian Islands, cannot start until next summer because of weather limitations. The contractor needs months of lead time because of the remoteness of Shemya; if Clinton did not give the go-ahead this year, then construction work on the island could not begin until summer 2002.
Russia, which strongly opposes U.S. plans for a national missile defense, is certain to insist that any construction work on Shemya would constitute a violation of the treaty.
U.S. critics of national missile defense question the administration's interpretation of the ABM treaty.
''If they're moving in the direction of a reinterpretation of the ABM treaty as meaning construction is not construction, ... I think that's going to be hard to sustain,'' said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, an advocacy group opposed to national missile defense.
The administration has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Russians to accept treaty amendments that would permit national missile defenses. If the Russians continue to resist, then Clinton's successor would have to decide whether to withdraw from the treaty or abandon missile defense.
Cohen said a decision by Clinton to begin the construction work on Shemya might have the added benefit of moving the Russians toward an accommodation on the ABM treaty. On the other hand, awarding the construction contracts this fall would mean the next administration would have to decide quickly whether to proceed with the actual work in summer 2001 or to take a different approach to missile defense, Cohen said.
''A consideration will have to be -- by President Clinton -- whether or not this puts any undue pressure on his successor'' to go forward with the initial construction phases, Cohen told reporters at the Pentagon.
''That's a factor we'll have to measure and weigh,'' said Cohen, adding that he soon will make a recommendation about whether Clinton should approve starting construction on Shemya.
On the Net: Pentagon missile defense office site: http://www.acq.osd.mil/bmdo/bmdolink/html/
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