Secretary of State Colin Powell was the first witness Tuesday as the U.S. Senate opened ratification hearings on the strategic arms reduction treaty signed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow May 24. The agreement would slash the deployed nuclear arsenals of both countries by two-thirds over the next decade.
The arms accord is widely supported by Senators of both parties and the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, said he expects Senate ratification by the end of the year.
However, several committee members said the terse one-page arms agreement fails to adequately address a number of key issues of compliance and verification.
Republican Richard Lugar, a long-time Senate expert on disarmament, called the Moscow treaty a "tremendous step in the right direction" but said he was concerned that it does not obligate the parties to destroy nuclear warheads taken out of service.
His comments were echoed by Democrat John Kerry, who emphasized he fears retired Russian warheads or their components might find their way into the hands of terrorists or hostile countries like Iraq.
"The verification issue is really hanging out there," he said. "And the greater issue remains this question of the capacity of Russia that Senator Lugar has described to adequately contain the very materials that might in fact take us into military action against Iraq. That is the greatest danger in the world today, and it is the most singular gaping hole in this treaty."
Secretary Powell said the treaty had nothing to do with the issue of surplus Russian nuclear materials, which he said the United States would continue to deal with through, among other things, the Nunn-Lugar program which underwrites the dismantling of Soviet-era weapons.
He also said non-proliferation comes up at every level of U.S. diplomatic contact with Moscow and that the Bush administration believes it has made progress since the Moscow summit on the issue of Russian nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran.
"I think we have made some progress," said Mr. Powell. "At their last meeting in Moscow, President Putin made the specific point at one of the press conferences that we have agreement from both sides both the United States and Russia that they recognize the danger in proliferation, and they want to do everything to keep Iran from developing these kinds of weapons."
Mr. Powell added there are still some issues of disagreement over Russian cooperation with Iran but he said he thinks the two sides are "on the right path" toward making sure that Moscow doesn't, in his words, "continue to engage in this kind of activity."