GENEVA -- The United States has reversed its earlier insistence that a United Nations treaty to ban chemical weapons require fully open and immediate inspections, instead submitting a plan for more restrictive access.
The proposals presented to the 39-nation conference drafting the agreement mark a retreat from the approach to inspection President Bush once characterized as "anywhere, any time and no right of refusal." The proposals were disclosed by participants in the conference who say that obtaining an agreement requires taking care of U.S. concerns on the issue.
The revisions effectively would bar sudden inspections at certain plants and limit access to others.
As explained by diplomats involved in the negotiations, the turnabout by Washington was based on its fears that other countries might use the blanket provision it originally had favored to pry into sensitive military intelligence under the guise of looking for clandestine stocks of chemical weapons.
The attempt to ease tough inspection rules comes at a time when the United States is insisting that Iraq comply with the terms of a U.N. cease-fire resolution that requires it to make full and open disclosure of all its biological, nuclear and chemical weapons.
Though the treaty is limited to the ban on chemical weapons, the U.S. concerns center on whether, under the original approach, countries could have insisted on visiting plants and laboratories developing stealth fighter technology or other highly secure sites under the pretext that they understood chemicals were being stored there.
The new U.S. plan, which was formally submitted to the U.N. conference on disarmament last month, applies only to so-called challenge inspections of installations that have not been declared potential production points for chemical weapons but where another country thinks chemical weapons are being made or stored clandestinely.
Instead of giving international inspectors an immediate right of access to such sites, as it originally advocated, the United States now proposes that the country being inspected should be allowed to exclude the inspectors from particularly sensitive installations.
But the country under suspicion still would be required to "make every reasonable effort to demonstrate to the inspection team that any object, building, structure, container or vehicle to which the inspection team has not had full access is not being used for purposes related to the compliance concern raised in the inspection request."
In addition, the U.S. plan would allow up to a week to pass between notification of an impending inspection and its actual start, permitting sensitive material to be removed.
U.S. diplomats in Geneva say the highly secret sites from which the Bush administration now wants to exclude chemical weapons inspectors could include plants developing stealth technologies, code-breaking installations and sites connected with spy satellites.
The conference has been deeply divided by the new U.S. proposals, which many Western countries say represent a dangerous weakening of the chemical weapons ban. China and some developing countries, however, argue that the proposals still do not go far enough toward protecting national sovereignty.
But Britain, Australia and Japan have agreed to co-sponsor the U.S. plan after first opposing it.