Hide and seek on arms


EVEN AS the United Nations is pressing Iraq to open all its chemical weapons facilities to international inspectors, President Bush has backed away from requiring similar inspections to verify a treaty to ban chemical weapons.

Arms controllers deem it essential to verify compliance with a ban by allowing inspectors access to any facility suspected of manufacturing or storing chemical arms.

But other Pentagon and intelligence officials fear that such rTC unfettered inspections could come back to haunt the U.S. if inspectors sought access to secret sites that don't house chemical arms. These officials prefer to shield U.S. facilities that perform intelligence and other functions.

The British proposed a compromise that would allow drawing a perimeter around a facility to allow international inspectors close enough to assure themselves that it has nothing to do with chemical arms. But some American officials feel that would still be too close for comfort.

President Bush has sided with them and gotten the British to back off. He's prepared to allow states to refuse prompt and proximate access to facilities. That would enable them to stall inspectors and evade the ban.

The perverse decision alienates Western governments that saw the need for serious on-site inspections to deter cheating and makes it easier for Third World states to oppose such inspections. And it may lead an insecure state that suspects a neighbor of cheating to hold onto its own chemical weapons rather than rely on a weakly enforced treaty.

Bush has his priorities wrong. Halting the proliferation of chemical arms is more important than hiding secret U.S. sites from inspection.

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