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Rumsfeld urges missile defense system during confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A looming debate on a national missile defense system took center stage on Capitol Hill on Thursday as Defense Secretary-designee Donald Rumsfeld fielded tough questions from a Senate committee focusing on President-elect George W. Bush's national security agenda.

Rumsfeld
Defense Secretary-designee Donald Rumsfeld  

Although Rumsfeld's confirmation for a second stint as defense secretary is considered a safe bet, the ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. John Warner of Virginia promised a "thorough discussion" of the challenges he will likely face atop the military's vast bureaucracy. The confirmation hearings lasted six hours.

A top concern was the incoming Republican administration's plans to move forward with a national missile defense system. Rumsfeld -- who chaired an influential 1998 commission credited with convincing Democrats and Republicans alike that the United States faced a growing threat of an overseas missile attack -- is expected to spearhead those efforts.

"We must develop the capabilities to defend against missiles, terrorism and newer threats against our space assets and information systems," Rumsfeld said in his opening statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The American people ... must be protected against the threats with which modern technology and its proliferation confront us."

Committee members said Rumsfeld has broad bipartisan support and is expected to easily win the panel's approval. Senators said he is likely to get the full chamber's vote on January 20, the day Bush is inaugurated.

"No one is better qualified than yourself to advise the president on the direction to be taken," Warner told Rumsfeld during his opening statement.

Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary under President Ford from 1975 to 1977, was regarded as a well-organized and decisive manager during his first stint as Pentagon chief. But he acknowledged Thursday that the nature of the job has changed dramatically in the post Cold-War era.

MESSAGE BOARD
 

"Forces in world politics have created a more diverse and less predictable set of potential adversaries," Rumsfeld said.

"Effective missile defense -- not only homeland defense but also the ability to defend U.S. allies abroad and our friends -- must be achieved in the most cost-effective manner that modern technology offers," Rumsfeld said Tuesday.

After several failed tests, the Clinton administration left a decision on whether to build a missile defense system to the next administration. Such a system is also unpopular with the nation's European allies and with Russia, which regards it as violation of the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.

President-elect George W. Bush has hinted that the ABM treaty might be scrapped if Moscow does not to agree to amendments allowing a U.S. defense shield.

Levin
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan  

"Do you believe we should consider the possible negative impact that the deployment of a national missile defense system could have on our policy to seek continued negotiated reduction in Russian nuclear weapons?" asked Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, who is serving as the committee chair until next week when Bush is sworn into office.

"You would obviously want to be in negotiations with Russia," said Rumsfeld. "I must say, I think that the Russian stockpile, or capabilities, are going to go down anyway because of the circumstances of their economy."

Rumsfeld was expected to outline the other facets of the Bush defense agenda during the daylong hearing. The president-elect has promised to work for a $1 billion pay increase for the military and spend an additional $20 billion on new weapons technologies.

In particular, Rumsfeld told the committee that improving force readiness and strengthening intelligence and space capabilities should be top priorities. "The old deterrence of the Cold War era is imperfect for dissuading the threats of the 21st century," he said.

Bush has charged Rumsfeld with carrying out a "top-to-bottom review" of U.S. posture and strategy around the globe. Warner said the new administration deserves time to do that sorting-out after last year's prolonged presidential election.

"He's prepared to give good straightforward answers," Warner said Wednesday. "But how much more defense spending? He's not prepared to do that until he's made a good analysis."

Rumsfeld calls for boost in Pentagon spending

Rumsfeld did say that a substantial increase in the Pentagon budget would be needed to meet Bush's defense objectives. Democrats expressed concern about whether the incoming administration could secure funding for its ambitious program in a slowing economy.

Lieberman
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut  

"This is going to require some very tough leadership from you in priorities, the setting of priorities and the willingness to try to implement those," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut.

Rumsfeld said, "We must work together if we're to be able to address the problems of inadequate funding -- which has been the case -- unreliable funding ... and resistance to change."

Levin asked Rumsfeld about a 1971 conversation -- recounted in a Chicago Tribune column last week -- between the former White House aide and President Nixon, in which Nixon used derogatory comments about African-Americans. Nixon used the language as he was criticizing racist comments by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The then 39-year-old Rumsfeld is heard agreeing with Nixon's comments on the tape. Rumsfeld said Thursday that he has no memory of the July 1971 session with Nixon, and that large portions of the 29-year-old tape recording are inaudible.

"It appears that he was characterizing some remarks that were made by Vice President Agnew. And he was characterizing -- he was quoting them in a critical manner, saying that Agnew shouldn't have said that," Rumsfeld said.

"I agreed only with the fact that some people talk like that and that Vice President Agnew should not have used or thought such derogatory and offensive and unfair and insensitive things about minorities."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Thursday, January 11, 2001

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