A North Korean mock Scud-B missile, center, and other South Korean mock missiles are displayed at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, July 4, 2009. North Korea fired five ballistic missiles off its eastern coast Saturday, South Korea said, a violation of U.N. resolutions and an apparent message of defiance to the United States on its Independence Day. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The White House will scrap the controversial missile defense shield program in Eastern Europe, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN Thursday.
The comment followed similar statements from officials in Poland and the Czech Republic — where key elements of the system were to be located — but was the first confirmation from an American official. .
The White House is planning a briefing Thursday morning, at which an official announcement is expected.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who signed off on the plan in the past — will then hold a briefing at the Pentagon to explain “why this new idea is better,” the official said. The official was not authorized to speak on the record
Vice President Joe Biden earlier refused to confirm to CNN that the George W. Bush-era plan was being shelved.
But he did explain the logic of doing so, saying Iran — a key concern for the United States — was not a threat.
“I think we are fully capable and secure dealing with any present or future potential Iranian threat,” he told CNN’s Chris Lawrence in Baghdad, where he is on a brief trip.
The Iranians “have no potential at this moment. They have no capacity to launch a missile at the United States of America,” he said.
Biden said he is “deeply” involved in the review of the missile defense program.
The program called for the U.S. to set up a radar site in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland to counter the threat of Iran launching long range missiles at America’s allies in Europe.
The Bush administration had cited the perceived nuclear threat from Iran as one of the key reasons it wanted to install the missile shield in eastern Europe.
But a 60-day review ordered by President Barack Obama recommended a different approach, the administration official said.
“The technology has evolved in a way that allows you to deploy a system that is more effective in countering both short, medium, and long-range missiles,” said the official, contrasting the types of missiles Iran, for example, is believed to have with intercontinental ballistic missiles of the kind feared during the Cold War.
“It’s a more advanced system, more cost effective and efficient,” the official said.
Officials are not yet describing the new system in detail, saying only that it will be more dispersed and “regionally focused.”
Gates will be joined at his briefing Thursday by Gen. James E. Cartwright, who is vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the point man for the missile defense shield program.
The U.S. reversal is likely to please Russia, which had fiercely opposed the plans.
There was no comment Thursday morning from Russian officials. But the issue has been a sore point in relations between Washington and Moscow, with Russia believing the shield would ultimately erode its own strategic nuclear deterrent.
Obama has been seeking a stronger relationship with Russia and better cooperation from the Kremlin to support tough U.N. economic sanctions against Iran if it continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed the missile shield, among other issues, in Moscow in July.
Obama maintained that Russia had nothing to fear from such a system, which would be designed to intercept a solitary missile from Iran or North Korea, as opposed to “a mighty Russian arsenal.”
But the senior administration official flatly denied a diplomatic motive to scrapping the missile defense program.
“This has nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “The notion that were abandoning missile defense is completely false. It’s evolving into a different system.”
A U.S. delegation held high-level meetings Thursday in both Poland and the Czech Republic to discuss the missile defense system. While the outcome of the meetings wasn’t clear, officials in both countries confirmed the system would be scrapped.
Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said in a statement that Obama told him in a Wednesday phone call that the United States was shelving its plans. Fischer did not say what reason Obama gave him for reconsidering.
A spokeswoman at the Polish Ministry of Defense also said the program had been suspended.
“This is catastrophic for Poland,” said the spokeswoman, who declined to be named in line with ministry policy.
Poland and the Czech Republic had based much of their future security policy on getting the missile defenses from the United States. The countries share deep concerns of a future military threat from the east — namely, Russia — and may now look for other defense assurances from their NATO allies.
“At the NATO summit in April, we adopted a resolution focusing on building a defense system against real, existing threats, i.e. short-range and medium-range missiles,” Fischer said. “We expect that the United States will continue cooperating with the Czech Republic on concluding the relevant agreements on our mutual (research and development) and military collaboration, including the financing of specific projects.”
– CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux in Washington, Per Nyberg in London, England, and Matthew Chance in Moscow, Russia, contributed to this report.