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Sen. Warner:  US Prepared if N. Korea Launches Missile

U.S. Defense Department officials Tuesday briefed members of a Senate panel behind closed doors about the possibility that North Korea may launch a long-range missile. A key lawmaker says such a launch does not appear imminent.

Senator John Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the United States has preparations in place if North Korea decides to launch a long-range missile.

"I found it very reassuring that we have in place now a remarkable set of assets able to track this missile and hopefully interdict it if - and I put a big if down - if it manifests indications of being hostile," he said.

At the same time, Warner says, the Bush administration has for now put aside any consideration of a preemptive strike against North Korea.

"I think the administration has pretty well put it to rest - and I concur with the administration," he said. "A preemptive strike at this point in time would not be a wise course of action. Far better that our restraint would indicate to North Korea that they should go back to the table and negotiate with the various nations: Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States to try to resolve this isolation and encourage North Korea to give up its desire to become a nation with hostile weapons of a nuclear nature."

Emerging from a closed briefing by U.S. defense officials, including members of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Missile Defense Agency, Warner said the latest unclassified satellite photographs suggest a North Korean missile launch does not appear imminent.

"There are certain steps that would have to be taken if it were to be imminently launched," he said. "Those steps have yet not taken place. For instance you have got to remove certain infrastructure that is obviously in the pictures - which are public - before that missile can be launched. That takes time."

Warner said it is not clear whether the missile has been fully fueled.

The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman said it is not clear what North Korea's intentions are, adding that the country could be preparing to launch a weather satellite or a dummy warhead to test boosters. But he said until North Korea indicates otherwise, the United States has to prepare for the possibility of a hostile strike.

President Bush has called on Pyongyang to make clear its intentions.

White House spokesman Tony Snow Tuesday warned North Korea against using the threat of a missile launch to press the United States into agreeing to one-on-one talks.

"If it is a bluff toward direct negotiations, it is not an advisable way to do it," he said.

Snow urged North Korea to return to the six-party talks, stalled since November.