The problem of punditocracy ignorance does not usually constitute a national security threat. If most Americans walk around misinformed about Gary Condit’s sexual escapades or Elián González’s emotional state, the Republic will probably survive. But on an issue like missile defense–where so many generals and admirals consider it part of their patriotic duty to mislead the public–its ramifications become considerably more worrisome.
When a Pentagon spokesperson recently announced that it had carried out a “successful test in all respects” over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, some pundits swallowed this line faster than you can say “student deferment.”
In a column titled “The ‘Smart People’ Were Wrong,” the Washington Post‘s Michael Kelly beat his chest and snarled: “In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as ‘weapons that don’t work.’ It does work. No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable.” Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal crowed about the “resounding success–putting the lie to the it-can’t-be-done crowd.”
I don’t know Kirkpatrick, but the gullible Mr. Kelly covered the Gulf War and should know better. It was back then that the Pentagon sold the pundits on a remarkably successful “kill ratio” for US Patriot missiles attempting to destroy Iraqi Scuds over Israel. This too was said to be proof that Star Wars worked. Kelly’s conservative comrades like Fred Barnes insisted that the Patriot’s alleged success proved that “we need SDI.” Patrick Buchanan declared: “The debate is over.” Then-President Bush “ought to insist on the restoration of full funding for SDI and entertain no counterargument.” Wall Street Journal editors concurred, adding, “The epic debates over ABM and SDI, after all, were over whether to give American civilians the kind of protection Israeli civilians have just received.”
In fact, according to a GAO study released in 1992, Patriots had a success rate of only 9 percent during the war. Israelis were actually safer without them, suffering more damage in fewer attacks when “protected.” In the event of a genuine attack on the United States, a missile defense system like the Patriot would have left Barnes, Buchanan and the Journal editors a heap of radioactive ash.
Pundits seem to lose not only their skepticism when writing about Star Wars but much of their intelligence. William Safire is no dummy, but swearing fealty to Star Wars last year, he committed perhaps the single silliest sentence his newspaper published since A.M. Rosenthal accused a man of killing Abe’s sister with his penis. Admitting that the technology for missile defense was nowhere to be found on earth, the former PR man countered, “But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon.” Aside from the obvious illogic involved here, are there actually any mortals on the planet who fit Safire’s description? Repeated entreaties to Safire and his editors have failed to turn up any such evidence.
Any journalist with even a hint of historical memory would know better than to accept at face value what Pentagon officials claim for Star Wars technology. A year ago William Broad of the Times quoted a top Star Wars official admitting that “none of the tests address the reasonable range of countermeasures.” It found a retired scientist who had worked on the program at Lockheed who explained, “The only way to make it work is to dumb it down. There’s no other way to do it…. It’s always been a wicked game.”
In 1984, in an instance of fraud that remained a secret for a full nine years, a test of Lockheed’s Homing Overlay Experiment turned out to have been rigged by the placement of a beacon in the target missile so that it could easily signal its location to the interceptor missile. In 1996, Nira Schwartz, a computer software expert who worked for TRW, sued her employer because, she said, she was being forced to misreport her data on the crucial matter of whether the interceptor missile could discern the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. Denials ensued, of course, but she was backed up by other witnesses. After reviewing the classified data on these and other tests, MIT missile expert Theodore Postol concluded that Pentagon officials “are systematically lying about the performance of a weapon system that is supposed to defend the people of the United States from nuclear attack.”
Even the July 14 “successful” test that sent Kirkpatrick, Kelly and others into such rapture hardly stood up to a single day’s scrutiny. In a story reported by the Los Angeles Times, but followed up by few others, the program’s spokespeople were forced to admit in the test’s aftermath that its radar system proved unable to tell ground controllers whether a kill vehicle had destroyed its target, falsely reporting that the interceptor had missed the dummy warhead. In the event of a genuine attack, this failure would cause a system to waste missiles on targets already destroyed, making it even easier to overwhelm. No surprise there, I’m afraid. In May, after fighting ferociously to keep it secret, the Pentagon reluctantly released its own internal study reporting that despite an investment of more than $70 billion, Star Wars technology remains so elementary that “a rigorous assessment of potential system performance cannot be made.”
The public is not clamoring for this silly science fiction project and, should they ever notice, will not appreciate throwing another $300 billion down this sinkhole. Yet the Bush Administration continues to push it in the apparent hopes of abrogating the ABM treaty, undercutting NATO, sparking a new cold war with Russia and China and inspiring a rash of nuclear proliferation on the Asian subcontinent. Meanwhile, “smart” pundits like Michael Kelly and William Safire cheer this insanity like drunken frat boys at a college football game. It’s almost enough to make one despair of the value of the First Amendment, to say nothing of the alleged benefits of higher education.