WASHINGTON - North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, trying to get the missile shield installed in his state instead of Alaska, has an answer to critics who say it won't protect Alaska's lightly populated Aleutian Islands and Hawaii's uninhabited outer islands: Pay the unprotected people.
``Are we really going to say we aren't going to protect the whole rest of the country because of 1,500 people in the Aleutian chain, who could be offered a generous buyout package?'' asked Conrad, who says he hasn't decided what a fair payment might be. ``Especially in light of the fact that it would make no strategic sense for them to be a target in the first place?''
The Democratic senator's argument sat poorly with Alaska's congressional delegation.
``I can tell you that we aren't willing to sell our right to be defended,'' said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Lt. Col. Rick Lehner of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization did not comment on Conrad's idea but said any missile defense system, by law, must protect all 50 states.
The Pentagon has said the Alaska site provides the best defense for the ``most prevailing threat'' - North Korea.
President Clinton is expected to decide whether to move forward with a plan for 20 missile interceptors operating with a network of tracking radars and high-speed computers in Alaska.
Under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with then-Soviet Union, the United States designated its anti-missile site as near Nekoma, N.D. Any location change requires approval from the Russians.
If the Russians won't accept the change, keeping the site in North Dakota could save the United States from choosing between breaking the treaty or not deploying a system, Conrad says.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, accused Conrad of ``playing to the hometown audience'' in economically struggling North Dakota.
``I think it's very shortsighted and relatively small of himself to just excuse 1,500 people as not really worth that much,'' Young said.
Bob King, a spokesman for Alaska's Democratic governor, Tony Knowles, called the proposal ``somewhat callous,'' and added: ``I'm sure the senator would not so easily propose leaving out a certain part of his state from a national missile defense initiative and attempt to buy off his constituents.''
North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer said putting the shield in his state makes fiscal sense, since the Pentagon already has poured billions into the site near Nekoma.
``Taxpayer money, foreign relations, treaty negotiation - all of that points to North Dakota,'' Schafer said.