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CAMPAIGN 2000

State Dept. Defends Gore's Russia Dealings

October 26, 2000|MELISSA LAMBERT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — State Department officials on Wednesday rejected accusations that Vice President Al Gore made "secret deals" in 1995 allowing Russia to sell submarines and other advanced weapons to Iran.

The comments came at a politically charged Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing held by Republican lawmakers who have raised questions about Gore's dealings with Russia and his relationship with former Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.

Later, at a closed session of the committee, State Department officials refused to release documents pertaining to the classified agreement between Gore and Chernomyrdin that Republicans claim allowed Russia to avoid sanctions for selling arms to Iran.

Committee members had formally requested the release of the documents prior to the hearing.

John P. Barker, deputy assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation, said Congress had been briefed on the agreement, although "certain sensitive documents were classified and were closely held in the executive branch. But the thrust of these documents was widely telegraphed to both Congress and the American people."

Under U.S. law, the administration must submit to Congress the details of any legally binding agreement. But Barker said the agreement was a "political understanding" with no legal ramifications.

The State Department also denied that the agreement violated a 1992 law requiring sanctions against any country that delivers advanced arms to Iran if the president determines that the weapons were "destabilizing." The law was written by Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) charged that administration officials were engaging in "legal hair-splitting."

At the closed session, the State Department cited national security and diplomatic reasons for not releasing the documents, according to senators who attended. As he left the session, Smith said, "We have their assurances that laws have not been broken, but no proof."

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said he had hoped the hearing "could be fairly straightforward: Just provide the available documentation to us and we would make determinations off that. They failed to do so. We will continue to press them with all means available to get the actual documentation."

Eight of the committee's 18 members are Democrats, but only one--Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware--attended Wednesday's hearing. Biden said the deal with Russia was "a good, sensible arrangement." And, alluding to the timing of the hearing, days before the Nov. 7 election, he cautioned, "This is a political season, and we should be careful here."

Lawmakers said the committee still has questions about what was conveyed between Russia and Iran.

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