(CNSNews.com) - Deputy Secretary of State John Barker Wednesday denied any laws were broken when Vice President Al Gore made a deal with former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The deal allowed Russia to sell weapons to Iran despite a US law intended to prevent the spread of dangerous technology.
"The accusation that we reached a deal with Moscow to evade our own law is not true. We agreed to provide assurances that we would take 'appropriate steps' to avoid penalties on transfers, but only after careful review to ensure that they did not in fact trigger mandatory sanctions under the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act or other potentially applicable laws," Barker said during testimony before a Senate subcommittee on Capitol Hill.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) was not present for the hearing because of illness. But Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) read a statement from Helms in which the committee chairman said he was never briefed about the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement.
Barker denied Helms' charge, insisting that "both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee were informed about the understanding in 1995," Barker said.
"The understandings the vice president reached in 1995 on both nuclear and conventional matters were briefed to Congress. Of course, certain sensitive documents were classified and were closely held in the Executive Branch," Barker said. "This is the common practice for all administrations on very sensitive diplomatic negotiations, but the thrust of those documents has been conveyed to both Congress and the American people."
Barker also told the subcommittee the administration was annoyed about details of the agreement being leaked to the press.
"While the substance of these understandings has been public since 1995, some details were kept confidential. Confidentiality is crucial to many diplomatic negotiations. The diplomatic process on conventional arms transfers has fortunately not come to a halt because of recent leaks. But playing this out in the press can only have a chilling effect on our ability to continue the process, and could seriously undermine the US national security interests that are at stake in these discussions," Barker said.
Brownback was livid about the agreement and the fact that he had to read about it in The New York Times.
"The decision to allow Russia to escape the consequences of providing Iran with conventional weapons is one that affects not only the security of American military personnel in the Persian Gulf but also the security of our allies in the region," Brownback said. "This is not the type of agreement that should have been kept from the American people. And it is certainly not something that members of Congress should have learned about first from the press."
According to Brownback, withholding information from Congress may itself be a violation of law.
"The Case-Zablocki Act states that any international agreement must be transmitted to Congress within 60 days of its negotiation. This law was specifically enacted in order to protect American democracy by holding the President and his people accountable for their international agreements. But that law appears to have been broken," Brownback charged.
Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), who chaired the hearing said, "Since the signing of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, Russia delivered to Iran one advanced Kilo submarine, for a total of three, long-range torpedoes and anti-ship mines, among other weapons. Simply put, these are dangerous weapons in a dangerous part of the world."
Smith concluded, "It is a sad state of affairs when Congressmen and Senators have to turn to newspapers, as opposed to the White House, to be fully informed on US foreign policy."
Details of the agreement were first reported in The New York Times on October 12th.
The only Democratic Senator at the hearing, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) thought the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement was beneficial.
"We should let the American people know that it was a good, sensible agreement that did not give Russia any relief from US law. It kept the lid on Russian arms flows to Iran. In fact, Russia's annual arms deals with Iran during the Clinton Administration were only a tenth of what they were during the Bush Administration," Biden said.
The hearing comes after a bi-partisan group of former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, national security advisors and CIA directors issued a statement declaring they were "deeply disturbed by the agreement between Vice-President Gore and [then-Russian Prime Minister] Chernomyrdin in which America acquiesced in the sale by Russia to Iran of highly threatening equipment."
The statement was signed by former Secretaries of State George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Henry Kissinger. Former Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Frank Carlucci and Donald Rumsfeld also signed as did former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Bush National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Clinton Administration CIA Director James Woolsey.
"We find it incomprehensible that this agreement was not fully disclosed even to those committees of Congress charged with receiving highly classified briefings, apparently at the request of the Russian [prime minister]," the statement said.
After opening statements from Senators and committee witnesses, the rest of Wednesday's hearing was closed off to the public.