Washington Clinton administration officials said Sunday they expect the president will decide whether to go ahead with the next phase of a national missile defense system and not leave it up to his successor.
Senators raised concerns about spending billions on the proposed system, which failed an important test early Saturday, and some suggested the United States faced more potential threats from terrorists on the ground than missiles in the air.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it would be "irresponsible" for the administration to put off the decision, as suggested by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Such a delay, she said on ABC's "This Week," would give countries such as North Korea and Iran more time to develop missiles that could threaten the United States.
"I think the president will be making his decision later this summer," she said, based on recommendations from her, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Sandy Berger, the national security adviser.
"There are four criteria that the president is going to be looking at: the threat, the technology, the cost and what it does to overall American security," Albright said.
The missile defense project on Saturday had its second failed intercept in three tries. The warhead-busting "kill vehicle" failed to separate from its booster rocket and passed harmlessly by the target missile.
Berger said Saturday's failure does not necessarily mean the president will scrap the plan.
"Obviously, this does go to the question of technical feasibility or how far along the system is, but we need an assessment," he said.
Hagel contended the next president should decide whether to continue. He supports a missile defense plan by Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush that is more extensive than that proposed by Clinton.
"We can't hold America's national security interests hostage to any threats from some other nation," Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Bush has said he would be willing to violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids such systems. The Clinton administration, including Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, has not ruled that out but would prefer to see the treaty amended to allow a national defense system.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., questioned the administration's premise that North Korea, Iran and other countries threaten U.S. national security when the United States has such an edge in the number of missiles.
"The threat is not at all clear to me -- No. 1. And the response to the threat seems to me to be adequate where we are now," Biden, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS.
Biden also questioned whether investing in a missile defense system was prudent, given the cost -- by some estimates $36 billion to $60 billion -- when the country might be more vulnerable to a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon delivered on a pickup truck.
"We are clearly more vulnerable to a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction than we are from an (intercontinental ballistic missile) coming out of the blue with a return address on it," Biden said.
But Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., insisted that an anti-missile defense system is vital and that the United States is aware of the potential for other treats.
"People overlook the fact that we're spending several times what we're talking about for a missile defense program on anti-terrorism programs in this country. ... We've got to do both," Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., noted that Congress has authorized some 16 more tests. "Too much has been made of this one test over the weekend," Lieberman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Fox.
"And I think President Clinton, notwithstanding this disappointment on Saturday morning, ought to decide to at least keep the process moving forward," he said.