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Obama Signs START Treaty in Relative Privacy

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President Barack Obama signs the New START Treaty in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama moved one step closer in his efforts to "reset" relations with Russia today. Late this morning the president signed the new START treaty - which has been the centerpiece of Mr. Obama's disarmament agenda and a major foreign policy priority for the administration - but President Obama did so with little fanfare.

The administration aggressively campaigned the Senate to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty back in December, during what became a very successful lame duck session, arguing failure to pass the treaty would "undo decades of American leadership and bipartisanship on nuclear security." The Senate went on to ratify the agreement 71-26.

But today's Oval Office signing was covered by still photographers only - there were no TV cameras or reporters present. It's an interesting choice for what was heralded as "the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades" and was criticized by the White House Correspondents' Association.

In a letter drafted to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the WHCA protested today's coverage writing, "The START treaty was held up as one of the President's most important foreign policy priorities for almost a year dating back to the trip to Prague last spring. We are concerned that now his signing of it is open to still photographers but closed to editorial, including print and wire reporters and television cameras."

By omitting any editorial presence today, Mr. Obama presumably avoided questions about the evolving situation in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak's response to his citizens' protests and Mr. Obama's own calls for an "orderly transition." The president avoided such questions on Tuesday as well, when the coverage of his meeting with his Cabinet was also open to still photographers only.

The two consecutive freeze outs were noted by WHCA today. "Prior to the President's statement Tuesday night, the press corps had not received a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt," the letter to Gibbs read. "In addition, the press corps did not have an on-camera briefing, or an off-camera gaggle, with you yesterday to ask the White House about its decision-making process during this major foreign policy crisis." The letter went on, "Now for two straight days the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities try to ask the President a question."

And while the association asked for today's coverage of the START treaty signing to be reconsidered, no changes were made.

In addition to the still photographers documenting today's signing, also in attendance were Vice President Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Ranking Member Dick Lugar (R-IN), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) as well as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) Chairman for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The new START treaty re-establishes a monitoring system the expired in December of 2009 and limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 strategic warheads, a decrease of 650.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the deal last week in Moscow. The treaty's ratification is finalized once both sides exchange the signed papers. Secretary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will make it official when they meet this weekend in Munich, Germany.