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 priorities.
As Pentagon officials unveiled plans to hike antimissile spending and build a 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 its plans and suggested that it is concealing its intention to quickly deploy a system that would conflict with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz at a hearing that he had repeatedly 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 antimissile spending by $3 billion next year, to $8.3 billion, and to conduct a wide range of tests on a variety of technologies. The Bush administration wants to develop a "layered" system that could 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 Ft. Greely, Alaska, near Fairbanks. The test site would include five to 10 missiles and could be deployed as an emergency response to the threat of missile attacks on the United States.
Administration officials said 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 construction 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, since the rate of progress on the program can't be foreseen.
Yet news of the administration's policy statement brought a swift reaction from abroad.
Vladimir B. Rushailo, head of Russian President Vladimir V. 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 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.
Cleland said that, although he supported missile defense programs aimed at protecting troops against shorter-range missiles, longer-range systems that threaten the treaty "throw the baby out with the bathwater. That's where I get off the boat," Cleland said.
Lawmakers and analysts predicted that the fight over the new missile defense site and the budget would be a pitched contest.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a leading advocate of the system, declared at a Capitol Hill meeting that the fight over missile defense would become "the mother of all battles."
As chairman of the authorizing committee, Levin will have considerable influence over the defense authorization bill that is due for completion in the next few weeks.
Levin may be able to cut deals to shift missile defense funds to unrelated home-state projects in return for some lawmakers joining his opposition to the system; he may also be able to shift money from the missile defense pot to other military accounts that are considered underfunded.
"He's very good at it," Kyl said.
Many Democratic senators are skeptical of the program, starting with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who has called it a "lemon."
But other prominent Democrats are sympathetic to the administration, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who argued in the committee Thursday that the administration should be given some leeway to carry out its plan.