Defense: Mutual Assured Obstruction

How the START treaty disarms investigative journalists


America's free press is anything but free when it comes to reporting on compliance with the START I arms control agreement. Under the terms of START I, the United States' and the Russian Federation's nuclear republics are supposed to downsize their still-formidable fleets of strategic nuclear bombers, ballistic missiles, and missile-firing submarines. But despite evidence that the Russians are backsliding on the deal, the U.S. government is holding up its end of the bargain, including a provision that bars independent investigations of compliance.

Four years after the initial strategic arms reduction agreement was signed, the first compliance inspections have finally gotten underway. The gap between ratification and implementation was caused by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet ratification bound Russia to the deal, the Federation's other nuclear republics—Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—had to independently ratify the accord before the two nuclear superpowers could exchange inspectors to start the on-site verification process.

START I triggered a timetable by which various on-site inspections would have to be initiated within 45 to 165 days of December 5, 1994, the day the treaty went into force. Both sides are pledged to reduce their nuclear warhead counts from Cold War highs that topped 11,000 super bombs to only 6,000. A second START accord, which would further decrease warhead numbers to 3,000-3,500, is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma for ratification.

But forget about getting solid, independently verified details about compliance with the most important disarmament treaty ever negotiated by the United States. Other than official announcements, highly sanitized reports, and carefully worded press releases, there is virtually no information available to the media on how Russia and the United States are living up to their START obligations or how they are cooperating with the first cadre of on-site inspectors.

This cold shoulder is by design, not accident: The treaty itself bars the U.S. government from allowing reporters to conduct independent investigations or to consult unsanctioned sources in filing stories about START compliance. It doesn't matter whether journalists want to visit a missile base in Siberia or South Dakota that's undergoing compliance inspections: They won't get permission.

Think about it: If Washington had maintained equally tight controls over a minor burglary in a posh apartment complex or an Arkansas land-development scheme, Watergate and Whitewater would not have become household words. With both political parties deeply committed to arms control, it's unlikely that official Washington would expose any Russian cheating until well after it became a major threat to national security.

As a freelance writer on strategic nuclear issues, I only learned by chance about Pentagon and State Department efforts to muzzle would-be independent arms control reporters. I asked the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency's press office if I could accompany U.S. inspectors to Russia to see for myself the final meltdown of the Cold War. My interest was more than professional: I also wanted to observe the concluding chapter of the Mutual Assured Destruction era because I once stood on the front lines of Armageddon as a Minuteman combat crew commander.

ACDA denied my request. My appeals to the Pentagon and the U.S. On-Site Inspection Agency produced the same results. Reporters, I was informed, cannot witness a compliance inspection, observe the destruction of a bomber or missile silo, or conduct detailed interviews with American or Russian START inspectors. Other than a photo opportunity or an occasional brief Q&A session when inspection teams arrive in the United States or Russia, no other contact is permitted between the working press and the military and diplomatic officials charged with enforcing START rules.

Why? Because the United States—or, more precisely, the 93 Senators who voted for START I ratification—accepted without debate restrictive clauses limiting public scrutiny of compliance information. The origin of the ban is unclear—some government sources told me it was the work of the Russians, others claimed it was a U.S. initiative—but there it is, artfully buried in 280 pages of tedious text.

According to the START I Protocol on Inspections and Continuous Monitoring Activities, "[T]he Parties shall not allow representatives of the mass media to accompany inspectors during inspections…." Article VIII, paragraph six, takes the restrictions a step further, dictating that "[t]he Parties hold consultations on releasing to the public data and other information…in fulfilling the obligations provided for in this Treaty." This clause gives Russia veto authority over release of inspection data to the American public.

Beyond press releases and official statements, the only information available for public review is an annual report to Congress required under Section 22 of the Arms Control and Disarmament Act. The current edition, signed by President Clinton, contains several statements critical of Russian compliance efforts.

The report, for instance, cryptically states that "the Soviets refused to allow U.S. inspectors to take a critical measurement." After START I was ratified in 1991, technical exhibitions were hosted by each side for close-up inspections of the bombers, missiles, and submarines monitored by the treaty. The refusal was referred to the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission created by START to arbitrate disputes. Though their rulings are "confidential," Russia agreed that the Americans could "measure the item in question no later than 30 days after the treaty's entry into force."

I figured that the ACDA, which prepares the annual report, might at least clarify its own vaguely negative account. I asked ACDA spokesman Matthew Murphy three questions concerning the measurement dispute: What is the "critical measurement"? Does it apply to a bomber, missile, or submarine? Since the treaty had been in force for more than 30 days, had Russia kept its word on permitting the measurement?

Murphy's stock answer to each question was as brief as it was unhelpful: "That's classified information."

Russia also failed to meet their START obligation of giving advance notification of a major strategic exercise held in 1993. I asked Murphy if the United States filed a protest.

His answer was again succinct and unhelpful: "That's classified because it would disclose diplomatic relations between countries."

From The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I learned that Russia held another strategic exercise in 1994. Last June 22, Moscow military leaders test launched an SS-25 ICBM, an air-dropped cruise missile, and a submarine-launched ballistic missile in a mock attack against the United States. I asked ACDA if Russia had mended its ways and given advanced notice this time.

Murphy's stonewalling continued: "Information requested in your question is obtained from intelligence collection sources so I cannot confirm or deny the exercise took place."

So, is Russia living up to its START obligations? A fair question, especially since the administration's own compliance report lists several violations and its spokesmen offer virtually no information on recent deviations. More alarming are persistent reports that Russia is dragging its feet in downsizing strategic forces. While the United States is currently below the 6,000-warhead ceiling, Russia is believed to have more than 9,000 strategic nuclear weapons available for military operations. Given the dubious stability of the Yeltsin regime and the continuing unrest throughout the former Soviet Union, a stockpile that huge is not comforting.

Ongoing compliance inspections will test Russia's sincerity in living up to treaty obligations. But forget about getting anything close to nonpartisan verification. Only Pentagon yes men, State Department hacks, self-interested ACDA spokesmen, and politicians enamored of a bipartisan fixation for arms control know for sure—and they're not talking.

Government officials in Washington and Moscow retain a monopoly in reporting START compliance. Investigative reporters have effectively been disarmed by the arms control process. The free speech standards for the START process are those of a former police state, rather than those of an open society.

Michael R. Boldrick is a retired Air Force colonel who writes on arms control issues.