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Star Wars II: Here We Go Again | The Nation

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Star Wars II: Here We Go Again

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NMD Resurgent: Fast Track to Oblivion?

About the Author

Michelle Ciarrocca
Michelle Ciarrocca is the senior research associate of the arms-trade project at the New School University's World...
William D. Hartung
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of...

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Research assistance provided by the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund.

In a reprise of the political two-step that preceded the 1996 presidential elections (Republicans lead, Clintonites follow), the Clinton Administration moved closer to the Republican position on missile defense with a January 1999 announcement that the President would seek a six-year, $112 billion increase in Pentagon spending. The proposal included $6.6 billion in new funding for procurement of missile defense equipment before 2005, the new target date for NMD deployment established by Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Clinton's decision to accelerate NMD funding was propelled in part by the furor caused by North Korea's August 1998 test of a two-stage ballistic missile, but the trump card in the Republican-led effort to jack up both overall military spending and NMD "deployment readiness" funding was the backlash from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Long before the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton decided that throwing money at the Pentagon was the best way to shore up his credentials as Commander in Chief and divert attention from allegations that he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. By the fall of 1998, the combination of a growing federal budget surplus and the President's perceived political weakness resulting from the Lewinsky matter emboldened Congressional Republicans and Clinton's own Joint Chiefs of Staff to press him for billions of dollars in additional military funds.

In mid-September, the Joint Chiefs invited the President to a closed-door briefing where they read Clinton their wish lists on everything from boosting military pay and weapons procurement to applying fresh coats of paint to underutilized military bases. Within a week's time Clinton sent the Chiefs a letter pledging a Pentagon budget increase that would insure that "the men and women of our armed forces will have the resources they need to do their jobs." In October, Congressional Republicans did the Joint Chiefs one better, loading up Clinton's $1 billion Pentagon supplemental appropriations bill aimed at addressing the military's newfound "readiness crisis" with what analyst John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World has described as "a $9 billion grab bag of pet projects" that included an additional $1 billion for National Missile Defense.

Clinton's apparent embrace of NMD prompted Helle Bering of the conservative Washington Times to complain bitterly that "Clinton has appropriated yet another set of Republican issues." In mid-January Cohen took the Administration's NMD commitment one step further when he made the highly provocative statement that if the United States deemed it necessary to withdraw from the ABM treaty in order to field an effective defense against rogue-state missiles, it would do so regardless of Russia's reaction.

Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, NMD advocates were rallying around Senator Thad Cochran's National Missile Defense Act. In March 1999, aided by the votes of moderate and conservative Democrats who had been persuaded in part by the Rumsfeld Commission's official (albeit misleading) depiction of the North Korean missile threat, the House and Senate both passed bills calling for the deployment of a national missile defense system "as soon as it is technologically feasible."

Clinton signed the bill into law that July. Although his signing message made it clear that the Administration will consider economic, technical and arms-control factors before deciding whether to deploy an NMD system, Star Wars boosters in Congress have been portraying the legislation as a firm national commitment come hell or high water.


The NMD Deception

From its inception in the Reagan White House to its resurrection in the Clinton era, the marketing of missile defense has been accompanied at every step by exaggerated technical claims, misleading cost estimates and outright lies. If experience is any guide, the missile defense test scheduled for late June or early July will almost certainly be rigged. (In 1984, in an instance of fraud that only came to light nine years later, a test of Lockheed's Homing Overlay Experiment was rigged by placing a beacon in the target missile so that it could literally signal its location to the interceptor missile.)

But even if the next test misfires, the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) has already put forward a rationale that Clinton could use to give the green light for deployment, namely that two more "hit to kill" tests could be squeezed in between now and next spring, when construction will begin on the critical NMD radar site in Shemya, Alaska, if Clinton decides to go full speed ahead on deployment. Even one successful "hit" in any of these next three tests--which will occur before BMDO contractors actually break ground on the Alaska radar project but after the Administration has committed funds to long-lead-time materials and services that will be needed to meet the starting date for construction--will be offered as proof of the dubious proposition that the system will work under real-world conditions.

Unfortunately, fraudulent testing of missile defense components is far from ancient history. Nira Schwartz, a computer software expert who worked on tests of the NMD interceptor for TRW, filed a civil suit against the company in April 1996 charging that it forced her to misreport her findings on the critical question of whether the interceptor missile can tell the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. The documents in the case were unsealed earlier this year and featured in a March 7 front-page New York Times story. The company has denied Schwartz's allegations, but another engineer who worked on the tests has backed her up.

Since Schwartz's claims became public earlier this year, MIT missile defense expert Theodore Postol has conducted an independent analysis of the data generated by the test in question, and he has concluded that the results raise fundamental questions about the ability of any currently available technology to discriminate between warheads and decoys. Since this capability is essential for even a modest NMD system to have any chance of intercepting a handful of incoming warheads, TRW and the Pentagon have gone to great lengths to cover up this embarrassing fact. When Postol sent a letter to the White House outlining his findings, the Pentagon responded by ruling that the contents of Postol's letter should be classified on the grounds that they contained top-secret material. On May 25 the BMDO released a cursory letter charging that Postol's findings were "incomplete" and his conclusions "wrong" because "Dr. Postol is not considering all the capabilities of our system of systems." Postol fired back the same day at a DC press conference organized by the Global Research/Action Center on the Environment, presenting his technical critique of the NMD system in detail and slamming the Administration for "foot-dragging and playing politics with an important decision that directly affects the security of the nation" rather than appointing an impartial panel to investigate seriously his charges of fraud in the test program.

In addition to the evidence of outright fraud, the NMD program has recently been subjected to a flurry of questions from critics within the Pentagon and the US intelligence community. On May 19, a few days after Postol sent his letter to the White House, the Los Angeles Times published an interview with a high-level US intelligence official who flatly contradicted the Clinton Administration's contention that China has nothing to fear from a limited US NMD system. The official also noted that the North Korean and Iranian missile threats have not been moving along as rapidly as expected, and he asserted that the concept of the "rogue state" was in itself an impediment to objective analysis of the missile threat.

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