Allegations that Al Gore cut a secret - and possibly illegal - deal with the Russians over arms sales to Iran have put the vice president where no candidate likes to be on the eve of an election: playing defense.
Republican congressmen are charging that Mr. Gore may have violated US law - or at least used bad judgment - by signing a memorandum in 1995 that allowed Russia to continue selling arms to Iran without the threat of economic sanctions. It's an allegation that strikes at what has been viewed as a key Gore asset - foreign-policy expertise.
This week's congressional hearings on the subject were prompted by documents leaked to the press. The allegations against Gore are that he and then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed to allow Russia to honor Soviet-era contracts and complete deliveries of non-nuclear arms to Iran, a country that the US considers a sponsor of international terrorism. In exchange, Moscow agreed not to sell any new weapons to the Mideast nation.
Russian sales to Iran since this agreement was signed include a Kilo-class attack sub (featured in the film "The Hunt for Red October"), long-range torpedoes, and fighter planes.
Republican senators say these are dangerous weapons in a dangerous part of the world, and that Congress should have been informed. After closed Senate hearings this week, the Clinton administration has refused to provide a text of the agreements, senators say.
"What we do know now about the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and its implications for our interests abroad is disturbing," says Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas. "It is difficult for me to understand how this agreement is consistent with the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992, a bill that the vice president himself introduced during his years in the Senate."
The Gore campaign and the administration counter that these weapons do not imperil the US or its interests, and that the agreement helped prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which advances American interests. They add that the agreement was reported by many media outlets at the time, and key House members were briefed on the meeting.
"The arrangements discussed here today are manifestly in the interests of the United States and of the effort to halt nuclear proliferation," said Joseph DeThomas, deputy assistant secretary of State for regional nonproliferation in testimony Wednesday. "A partisan brawl that drags legitimately classified material into the newspapers ... can only benefit Iran."
Moreover, other Democrats say, the timing of the hearings is suspect.
Indeed, presidential contenders have historically faced charges and allegations in the final weeks before an election.
George W. Bush faces a challenge of his own this week after a controversial new report cast aspersions on his success in turning around Texas schools. The Gore campaign jumped on this issue, and within 24 hours turned around a TV ad based on this report. It started airing in battleground states yesterday.
Experts say it's not clear whether Russian arms sales to Iran have the same resonance with voters as education does. Foreign policy barely figures in opinion polls this election, and Iran no longer fires public emotions as it did in the 1980s.
But the issue could influence some voters in a close race, especially after the recent terrorist attack on the USS Cole. It also raises important foreign-policy issues on the relationship between the executive branch and Congress.
"What's at stake is a law that Al Gore and John McCain both supported," says Daniel Fisk of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "While the Congress has been willing to give the administration some flexibility, it's not willing to give a blank check."
On Tuesday, former Secretary of State George Schultz and 10 other top foreign-policy officials said they were "deeply disturbed" by the agreement.
"We also find 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 premier," the statement concludes.
In response, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana issued a statement that members of his staff had been briefed on the agreement in July 1995.
"The judgment call many of us made in that meeting was that it made sense to get this kind of agreement," says a senior congressional aide who attended the meeting.
But GOP senators and others are questioning whether this level of consultation was adequate.
"I don't view a discussion of this issue as being a matter of supporting or repudiating either candidate," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Carter administration. "The issue is: Was there a secret agreement of which the Senate was not informed?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society