Q&A With Congess: Democrats Don't Regret Filibustering Missile Defense

You might think the recent missile tests by North Korea, which claims to have nuclear warheads, and the effort by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, would cause congressional Democrats who have long worked to stall deployment of U.S. missile defense system to regret their past position.

But they don’t.

From President Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 to President Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 to the present day, leading Democrats have opposed building a system that would defend this nation against missile attack.

Thanks to President Bush and a Republican Congress, we now have a limited system of 11 interceptor missiles (of questionable reliability) deployed in Alaska and California. But these interceptors can only shoot down reentry vehicles bearing warheads once they have entered space. We haven’t built a system to shoot down rockets in the boost phase.

In 1998, the Democrats demonstrated the intensity of their opposition to strategic defense when they successfully filibustered the American Missile Protection Act which called for deploying a national missile defense system “as soon as technologically possible.” At that time, some Democrats hid behind the argument that deploying a missile defense required abrogating the ABM Treaty—which had been negotiated in the early 1970s with a Soviet Union that no longer existed.

In May 2001, Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.) epitomized the anti-missile defense point of view when he said: “The premise that one day King Jong Il or someone will wake up one morning and say, ‘Aha, San Francisco’ is specious.”

This spring, many House Democrats supported an amendment to the 2007 Defense authorization bill that would have cut $4.7 billion from missile defense programs. It failed 301-124.

I asked some Democratic senators this week if they regretted their 1998 vote to filibuster a missile defense.

Given the developments in Iran and North Korea, I wanted to see if you regretted at all voting for the 1998 filibuster against early deployment of a missile defense?

Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.): No, no, no, no, no.

You still feel the same way?

Biden: Yeah. Listen, the national missile defense is not the answer. That’s not. If you are going to do that, you could have a tactical missile defense that would be much more accurate. There’s ways to take these things out, you can take them out if you think they’re really a threat, if you thought that Taepodong was [indiscernible] you could take it out on the pad. I mean, the idea that the national missile defense is needed, I mean, my one and only regret is that this administration had been so misfocused. It has spent billions of dollars, energy and time on attempting to deploy a national missile defense that’s not efficacious at all rather than spending the millions and billions of dollars you could spend on Aegis class cruisers, on substantive doable things that are able to deal with that potential threat that’s posed. I made a speech the day before 9/11, on Monday to the National Press Club, saying that this administration’s priorities are dead wrong. Their focus on national missile defense was totally out of character. What the problem is, it’s terrorism, it’s worrying about a massive attack on the United States. I mean, they just had their priorities backwards. My regret is that they haven’t figured it out.

In 1998, there was a filibuster over the American Missile Defense Act and you voted in favor of it, and I wanted to know, in light of recent events in North Korea, do you still stand by that vote? Or do you regret it?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D.-N.M.): I don’t regret however I voted, but I’d have to go back and study it a little.

In 1998, Senate Democrats filibustered a bill called the American Missile Defense Act that would have constructed a missile defense program as soon as technologically possible. I just asked Sen. Biden, in light of recent developments, “Do you regret voting to filibuster that” and he said “no” and essentially stood by his vote. What do you say to Senate Democrats who see what’s going on in North Korea and still stand by their actions that would have impeded programs here?

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.): I think the better question to ask him, I think today, is: Do you still think that it’s nonsense to think that Kim Jong Il would launch a missile? Do you still think that that’s unthinkable and that it is specious to even bring up that possibility? You might want to trot back and ask him that. He’s absolutely wrong.

Now the American people are looking to their nation to defend them, and thankfully, we have a President who is willing to take some hard political shots from people like Sen. Biden and do the right thing for our country. And I think every now and then it’s appropriate to say “You did the right thing.”

Thankfully, the President moved ahead on moving out of the ABM Treaty. But if we should have, in the future, a launch at the United States with a missile that isn’t a test and isn’t defective, and we’re able to stop it because the President disregarded Sen. Biden’s warning not to leave the treaty, then I think the President should be credited with that. And I think any analysis of the people that told him to stop should, likewise, go forth. Sometimes you make bad decisions and sometimes you make good ones. The Democrat decision to not build a missile defense and to try to stop it at every turn in the road, I think, will go down in history as profoundly the wrong decision. And I think the decision by this President to take political heat and to leave the ABM Treaty and start to build a missile defense is profoundly the right decision. The launch by North Korea, I think, has validated that important decision that he made.

There was a filibuster in 1998 against the Missile Defense Act and you voted in favor of the filibuster, and now, in light of recent events in North Korea, would you still have cast that vote? Or do you regret it?

Sen. Herb Kohl (D.-Wis.): That’s a long time ago. Who are you writing for?

Human Events.

Kohl: I mean, I really can’t answer that. I appreciate your question, but what was that 1997?


Kohl: Were you born at that time?

Yeah. I was born in ’82. It wasn’t that long ago in the context of things. Do you think you would be more open to it now?

Kohl: Open to what?

A missile defense program.

Kohl: Oh, for us you mean?

Yes. Not them!

Kohl: Well, I’ve got to think about that.

In 1998, there was a filibuster against the American Missile Defense Act which you supported. Knowing what we know now, do you still think that was the correct course of action?

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.): Was this Star Wars? Star Wars?

If you want to call it that.

Star Wars wouldn’t make us any safer today, because we spent a hundred billion dollars and it still wouldn’t work.

Given the latest developments in Iran and North Korea, in 1998 there was a filibuster over early missile-defense deployment. You voted for it. Have any of your feelings about that changed? Do you regret voting to filibuster that? Would you vote the same way today?

Sen. Jack Reed (D.-R.I.): You are referring to the—?

The American Missile Defense Act? In 1998?

Reed: Which was basically to get out of the missile defense treaty?


Reed: At that point I thought we could and should have negotiated or at least tried harder to negotiate changes to the treaty that would allow deployment of a missile defense. And I think the administration’s position was that they were not going to invest a lot in negotiations and I think it caused not permanent, but at least a temporary sort of ill-will between the Russians and ourselves and cast the administration in a unilateral position where they would have chosen not to have treaties, but to go it alone. I think in that perspective, that was my rationale then for voting. I think the system is such that we’ve been committed to deploying it now. I would hope that we could have made more progress. I think that the headlong rush to get anything going might have ironically harmed our ability to proceed.