Clinton in a Quandary Over Proposed Missile Defense System

President Clinton finds himself in a tight spot Monday over the National Missile Defense system because of its second failure and the calls of some lawmakers for the president to let his successor decide the fate of the multi-billion-dollar project.

Clinton is under pressure to continue the program at a cost of up to $60 billion to shield the United States from attacks from so-called "rogue" states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

But European allies, Russia and China have all weighed in against such a system, with Moscow arguing it will undermine the deterrent force of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Beijing saying it will trigger a new arms race.

Some Republican and Democratic leaders urged the president on Sunday to press ahead with the project despite the fact that two out of three Pentagon tests, including Saturday's botched effort, failed to prove that the system will definitely work.

This would allow the president who succeeds Clinton to make the final decision with the benefit of more test data.

The attempt to intercept and destroy a dummy warhead in space failed on Saturday because the "hit-to-kill" weapon fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific did not separate from the second stage of its liftoff rocket.

The booster's malfunction meant the sophisticated radar, sensors and communications systems that the Pentagon had hoped to test never got a chance to demonstrate their capabilities, shedding little light on the state of the advanced technologies.

Officials believe that to have a system in place by 2005 — when U.S. intelligence estimates that some "rogue" states may have long-range missile capability — the United States must make a decision this year so that construction can begin on a required radar system in Alaska next spring.

One U.S. official said Saturday's failed test left the Clinton administration little wiser about how to proceed.

"You still have questions, and perhaps no additional information than before this test," said the official, who asked not to be named. "It was a lost opportunity to demonstrate the ... NMD-related technologies."

Political Pressure

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said the president should at the very least give the green light for the construction to start on Alaska's Shemya Island, leaving the next president to make the final call.

"President Clinton, notwithstanding this disappointment on Saturday morning, ought to decide to at least keep the process moving forward," Lieberman told Fox News Sunday.

"That may mean nothing more than putting out the contract to turn the earth in Alaska for bids from contractors and then to let the incoming president next year decide whether we should actually begin to turn the earth," he added.

"The technological piece of this is not yet in place," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., an NMD proponent, on CBS's Face the Nation. "The cost obviously is not in place. I don't think we've brought our allies on, I don't think we've handled that very well, and how we're dealing with the Russians and Chinese on this are important."

"So therefore it's only responsible in my opinion to allow the next administration working with the new Congress to start making these decisions," he added.

Berger Sees Decision This Summer

Clinton has said he will weigh four factors in making up his mind: Threat assessment, the feasibility of any NMD system, its cost and the effect that its deployment may have on overall U.S. security, including arms control.

National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said on Sunday Clinton would make his up his mind this summer, a shift from the previous White House stance which sought to leave open the possibility of a decision after the Nov. 7 election.

"The failure of the test on Saturday is important in assessing how far along this system is technologically," Berger told CBS's Face the Nation. "Obviously, this does go to the question of technical feasibility or how far along the system is, but we need an assessment from the Pentagon."

"Sometime this summer the president will make a decision as to whether to deploy this system or whether to defer that for a later point," he added, saying Clinton would wait for a formal recommendation from Defense Secretary William Cohen.

It may be tempting for Clinton to kick the decision down the road, allowing the Pentagon to start work on the system and to carry out 16 more planned tests while leaving the final call to the president who moves into the White House in January.

—The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report