A live microphone has captured U.S. President Barack Obama telling Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev he will have more room to negotiate on missile defense after the November election.
The unusually frank exchange between the two leaders took place on Monday on the eve of a global nuclear safety summit in Seoul. Neither president appeared to be aware the conversation was being picked up.
According to a transcript of the recorded conversation carried by ABC News, Obama told Medvedev: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it's important for him to give me space."
"Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you," Medvedev responded.
The U.S. president then said: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."
Medvedev replied: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir [Putin]."
The slip-up was quickly jumped upon by Obama's Republican rivals, who accused him of secretive deal-making on U.S. national security.
White House hopeful Mitt Romney said the unscripted moment shows Obama has a hidden agenda. “President Obama signaled that he’s going to cave to Russia on missile defense, but the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be ‘flexible’ in a second term,” he said in a statement.
Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich called the exchange an "extraordinary moment caught on tape where the president basically said to a Russian leader, 'Please wait until after the election so I can sell out.'"
The White House later released a statement playing down the importance of the remarks. "Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough," said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
On Tuesday, Obama said he was not “hiding the ball” and is “on record” in a past speech as saying he wants to make a deal with Russia.
Russia and NATO agreed to cooperate on a European missile defense system at the NATO-Russia Council Summit in Lisbon in November 2010.
Russia believes that the development of the concept and architecture of European missile defense should be implemented on an equal basis and provide adequate confidence-building measures and transparency in terms of defense.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said the missile defense system would not be directed against Russia and that the U.S., NATO and Russia would benefit from its strategic capacity and cooperation.