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Cohen, critical of Bush, invites him to Pentagon briefing

Cohen makes the unusual offer after assailing George W. Bush's national security proposals as dangerous.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 29, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William Cohen offered George W. Bush access to the same Pentagon information Vice President Al Gore is privy to, saying that would keep politics out of national security and produce a more informed debate in the presidential campaign.

Cohen, a Republican like Bush, said Sunday he believes proposals the Texas governor made last week likely would lead to dangerous new arms races. Gore had similar criticisms Saturday in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy.

"I hope that national security will not become politicized, because it's too important to have a Republican or Democratic label on it," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.

To that end, Cohen said, "It would be beneficial for (Bush and his advisers) to have this information today, before the election, so that there can be a real serious and solid debate on the issue."

He said he would invite Bush to meet with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Adm. Richard W. Mies, commander of the American nuclear arsenal.

Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Cohen's implication that the GOP candidate might be ill-informed on security ignores the quality of his advisers.

"Surely Secretary Cohen is not suggesting that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, who led our (national) defenses, don't understand them," Tucker said. "We are confident that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would welcome Gov. Bush's proposal, because it allows military planners to be involved in determining the appropriate levels of security based on new guidance in a new security era.

"We would hope that Al Gore would call on his administration not to play politics with these briefings or the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Tucker said.

Cohen's remarks follow Bush's proposal last week to consider making unilateral reductions in nuclear weapons, possibly deeper than those being negotiated between the United States and Russia. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also pledged to construct a far more expansive antiballistic missile defense than the one currently contemplated by the Clinton administration.

Cohen said Bush's proposals contained "internal inconsistencies." Building a larger missile defense than the administration's limited one, Cohen added, would force the Russians and other nations, like China, to respond with increases in their offensive nuclear arsenals, making negotiated reductions far less likely.

"Any military commander will tell you, it's far better to have more numbers against a defense than to have a higher defense," Cohen said. "And so what you do by going up higher on defense, you will force the Russians and others to raise their limits much higher."

Clinton heads to Moscow this week where he will discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin a framework agreement already in place to reduce the missile levels to 2,000 to 2,500, from current levels of 3,000 to 3,500 missiles, Cohen said. Cuts much larger than that could hamstring U.S. policy in "a tyranny of numbers," the secretary said.

Pentagon officials said that the invitation to Bush was Cohen's idea. While it is common for a president-elect to receive high-level national security briefings as part of the transition to the White House, it is unusual to extend such an early invitation to a presidential candidate from the party out of power, especially one who has not yet received his party's formal nomination.

For his part, Cohen said he "was appointed in this position to take the politics out of national security debates." The invitation, nonetheless, offered tantalizing political implications.

In light of Cohen's criticism, the invitation could be seen as a suggestion that Bush's ideas are ill-formed. At the same time, having Bush discuss nuclear strategy with senior commanders could lend weight to the governor's handling of defense issues in the coming campaign.

Pentagon officials said they had not yet made arrangements for a briefing. One potentially knotty problem could be the level of secrecy surrounding the nation's nuclear weapons. Since Bush does not have a security clearance, he might be able to receive only an unclassified briefing.

In other matters, Cohen said his spokesmen, Kenneth Bacon, "made a big mistake" when he released information from Linda Tripp's personnel file to a reporter in 1998.

Tripp, who secretly recorded conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, worked for Bacon in the Pentagon's public affairs office.

"I could have fired him, but I took into account his total service to the public," said Cohen, who sent his aide a letter "to express my disappointment" in his judgment.

Cohen also dismissed talk of a conspiracy coordinated with the White House or executive branch. "This was done spontaneous on his part."

- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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