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U.S. holds back on missile-defense testing

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced Thursday that the United States has opted to stand down a variety of tests on its in-development ballistic missile defense system, citing the Bush administration's ongoing dialogue with Russia about the application of the 1972 ABM treaty.

Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters in the Pentagon's daily operational briefing, said tests scheduled for October 24 were called off so as not to put the United States in the unenviable position of being accused of violating the Cold War-era accord.

"We have said we will not violate the treaty while it remains in force," Rumsfeld said. "In recent days, to keep from having it suggested that we might not be keeping that commitment, we have voluntarily restrained our ballistic missile defense testing program.

"Specifically," Rumsfeld continued, "the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization has refrained from conducting several test activities, each of which some lawyers could debate might have been a violation of the treaty were we to have proceeded."

The United States, Rumsfeld insisted, has reconfigured the testing program to ensure that it will not violate any tenets of the 29-year-old pact with the former Soviet Union. The treaty, as worded, bans the United States from deploying a continental ballistic missile shield.

President Bush reported significant progress on missile defense in his talks last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai, China. Russia has stringently disagreed with the United States on the issue of missile defense, believing that successful U.S. development and deployment of a missile shield would put Russia at a significant defensive disadvantage.

But the airborne terror attacks of September 11 have provided the Bush administration with impetus enough to press its point with the Russians. Bush and Putin are to take up the subject again when the Russian leader visits the president at his private ranch in Crawford, Texas, next month.

'We need to be prepared'

Use of fuel-laden commercial jetliners by the terrorists in the coordinated September attacks, Rumsfeld said, indicated their intention to take thousands of lives in one swift operation.

"If they had ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people, I don't think anyone would doubt they would have used them," Rumsfeld said. "As we prosecute today's war on terrorism, the president has made clear that we need to be prepared to defend against other emerging, asymmetric threats against our cities and people."

Still, as insistent as the United States is about moving ahead with its defense program, it will not do so at the expense of its reputation with the Russians, as long as cordial talks are ongoing.

"We are voluntarily avoiding steps that could be characterized as not consistent with the treaty," Rumsfeld said. Specifically, he said, the tests of the tracking ability of AEGIS radar systems scheduled for Wednesday were put off.

Get bin Laden? 'You bet'

The defense secretary found himself on the defensive with reporters as he sought to tone down unsure sentiments expressed in Thursday's USA Today banner headline, which declared Rumsfeld had told the paper's editorial board that al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden may never be found by U.S. and coalition forces.

"I don't think the headline writer was in that editorial meeting," a perturbed Rumsfeld said. Rather, he explained, he told the paper that bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate multimillionaire, has lots of money at his disposal and many sympathizers in many countries other than Afghanistan.

Finding him and his fugitive lieutenants, Rumsfeld said -- even if Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime crumbles -- will be a difficult task.

"We're sure trying, and do I expect to get them? You bet I expect to get them," Rumsfeld said.

"I think we're going to get him," Rumsfeld added of bin Laden. But getting him, he continued, may be contingent on several other developments, barring a stroke of very good luck.

"The success of the mission as I have defined it repeatedly, is to stop terrorists from terrorizing the world, and stop countries from harboring terrorists," he said. First on the list of priorities, Rumsfeld said, is the degradation of Taliban forces on the ground and the eventual removal of that regime.

U.S. warplanes widened their strikes Thursday against Taliban targets north of Kabul, and fierce ground battles raged between the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and Taliban forces.

On Wednesday, nine target areas were hit by 85 aircraft on Wednesday, officials said.


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