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12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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Terrorism has been quietly emerging as an issue in the race between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. Dole portrays the president as insufficiently wary of the world's rogue states. Soon, though, Clinton will have handy ammunition -- when the Senate approves a chemical weapons treaty endorsed by the administration and opposed by many Republicans.

On or before September 14, the Senate will consider the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans production, possession, and use of chemical weapons. Superficially uncontroversial, the treaty has drawn little attention from the media and senators. But the White House isn't taking any chances. In recent weeks, a team of 15 mid-level administration officials has been briefing Senate Republican staffers on the virtues of the treaty. And in a speech on August 5, President Clinton said the convention would make it "much more difficult for terrorists to acquire chemical weapons." To underline the point, he noted that the Japanese parliament ratified the treaty soon after last year's deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

That argument, while emotionally appealing, is bogus. Secretary of State Warren Christopher testified in April that the treaty was not designed to deal with the terrorist threat. Indeed, the Chemical Weapons Convention could not have prevented the Tokyo subway attack, since the nerve gas used there was easily manufactured from commercial chemicals. This points to another problem: verification. In June 1994, CIA director James Woolsey testified that he did not have "high confidence in our ability to detect noncompliance, especially on a small scale."

Once potential violations are spotted, moreover, the convention gives a country five days to prepare for inspection by an international team. In recent years Iraq, with much less than five days' notice, has still managed to hide its chemical agents. Opponents also point out that many of the countries suspected of possessing chemical weapons -- Syria, Libya, Iraq, North Korea -- show no intention of signing the measure. Besides, signing doesn't guarantee compliance -- witness Iraq's and North Korea's violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

And there are other drawbacks to setting up an infrastructure to prevent the spread of chemical weapons. First, a strict interpretation of the treaty would bar even such uses of chemical weapons as tear gas in evacuations of personnel. And the pact would have a sweeping effect on U.S. businesses. Clinton's own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency says 3,000 American companies would probably have to file detailed reports with the Commerce Department on their chemical- producing agents (see chart). Companies both small and large, including such unlikely suspects as Quaker Oats and the Safeway grocery chain, would be financially burdened by the reporting requirements. And it might not end there. The treaty gives international inspectors expansive powers to investigate government and private facilities without acquiring search warrants from U.S. courts. This raises constitutional concerns, insists Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. And the treaty lacks protections for businesses' proprietary information.

All that said, it is unlikely more than 25 senators will oppose the treaty (34 are needed to defeat it). No Democrat is expected to vote no, and the pro-treaty group is led by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, armed with a letter endorsing the measure from George Bush. The problem for the opponents is bumper-sticker politics: Should they defeat the treaty, they will be branded extremists, unwilling to protect the world from chemical weapons. (It doesn't help that the Pentagon recently admitted that troops in the Gulf war may have been exposed to chemical weapons.) Not surprisingly, Dole has been quiet on the issue.

So why must the treaty be considered at all just seven weeks before the election? Because the parties in the Senate reached an agreement to consider it. In the waning days of his administration, George Bush signed the treaty. Neither Clinton nor the Democrats in charge of the Senate opted to push for approval in 1993 or 1994.

Once the Senate was controlled by the GOP, however, they began to press their Republican colleagues to consider the measure. Dole never scheduled a vote, but in late June, in Trent Lott's first month as majority leader, Senate Democrats offered him a deal: We won't filibuster defense legislation if you schedule a vote on the chemical weapons treaty before November. Lott's Republican troops were divided. A group of conservatives, including Jesse Helms, Jon Kyl, and Bob Smith, opposed the deal. Others, like John McCain, John Warner, and Strom Thurmond, didn't want the defense bill to go down in flames.

Lott placated both sides by agreeing to consider the treaty by September 14, with the understanding that he and other Senate GOP leaders would work to defeat it. They would also press the White House to provide documentation on Russia's compliance with a 1990 chemical-weapons- destruction agreement. Helms believed the documents would show Russia's failure to honor the agreement, thus bolstering the case against trusting Russia -- the country with the largest chemical weapons arsenal -- to comply with the pending treaty.

The problem is, the White House hasn't provided the documents Senate Republicans are seeking. Kyl, who says he's "totally fed up with the administration's stonewalling," wants to delay the vote, though it's unlikely Lott will agree to this. And even if the documents were provided, there wouldn't be time to rally opposition to the treaty.

This hasn't stopped Helms from mounting a public relations blitz, highlighting the states and businesses most adversely affected by the burdensome compliance provisions. One Senate Republican aide says they're "within striking distance" of rounding up 34 votes against the treaty, but that's probably wishful thinking.

The political reality is that it's infinitely easier to vote for multilateral arms control than against it, particularly when the president is making shameless demagogic use of tragedies like the Olympic bombing and the Tokyo subway attack. Even Kyl concedes that members will be "inclined to take the easy way out." A vote against this treaty opens any senator to the charge of being soft on terrorism. And that's a charge you don't want to be responding to on election eve.

By Matthew Rees