In Congress yesterday, Representative John Tierney, Chair of the House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, convened the first in a series of hearings to examine a US missile defense program that is out of control, straining relations with allies, and renewing an arms race with Russia.

This is the first comprehensive review of the program since 1993 – the year before Republicans took control of Congress – and it’s long overdue. The focus yesterday was on the extent of the missile threat – as compared to other security vulnerabilities – and whether spending more than $10 billion annually on ballistic missile defense (BMD) is justifiable from that perspective.

In his opening statement, Rep. Tierney pointed out that we have spent over $120 billion on missile defense in the past 25 years; that the annual budget is expected to double by 2013 to $19 billion; and that the current $10 billion per year is equal to one-third of the Homeland Security budget, roughly equal to the State Department budget, greater than the FEMA budget, 20 times greater than public diplomacy expenditures, and 30 times greater than Peace Corps.

Dr. Stephen Flynn, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired Coast Guard Commander, testified that the “non-missile risk” – smuggling a weapon of mass destruction into the US by ship, train, truck, or private jet – is “far greater than the ballistic missile threat….” He noted that smuggling is the only realistic option for a terrorist group like al Qaeda; it offers anonymity to any attacking nation and therefore protection from retaliation; seaports, borders, and overseas flights “provide a rich menu of non-missile options”; and it has greater potential to “generate cascading economic consequences by disrupting global supply chains.”

Despite these risks, Flynn said, “The combined budgets for funding all the domestic and international port of entry interdiction efforts… is equal to roughly one-half of the annual budget for developing missile defense. Nowhere in the US government has there been or is there now an evaluation of whether that represents an appropriate balance….The amount of resources we dedicate to the [more serious threat of cargo delivery] is miniscule compared to the kinds of resources we invest in dealing with the ballistic missile threat. That’s the kind of disconnect we’re operating in.”

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, provided the Committee with an even more pointed assessment. He recalled his past work for the House Armed Services Committee and the National Security Subcommittee during the Cold War. “At that time, we were not worried about a prototype Iranian missile that might or might not be deployed. We were worried about 5,000 Soviet warheads… destroying not just our country but most likely this planet. I have known ballistic missile threats, I have researched ballistic missile threats. Mr. Chairman, this is not a serious ballistic missile threat that we face today…. [It] is limited and changing relatively slowly. There is every reason to believe that it can be addressed through measured military preparedness and aggressive diplomacy.”

Cirincione, who organized the last serious hearings on the program as a staff member of the Government Operations Committee, pointed out that there are fewer ballistic missiles today than 10-20 years ago; fewer hostile missiles potentially threatening the US; there are five more countries that have started medium-range missile programs but they are poorer and less technologically advanced than the countries that had long-range ballistic missile programs some 20 years ago, and the total number of medium-range missiles has decreased by 80 percent.

“The vast majority of nations with ballistic missiles have only short-range missiles with ranges under 1000 kilometers, basically Scuds,” Cirincione said. “This is often ignored when officials or experts cite the ‘30 countries with ballistic missile capability.’ That’s true, there are approximately 28. But of these, 17 have only Scud-B missiles or similar. Most of these are friends or allies.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch asked whether the allocation of resources is proportional to the threat.

“Absolutely not. I believe that the Ballistic Missile Defense program is the longest running scam in the history of the Department of Defense,” Cirincione said. “This is an enormous waste of money, and if you leave this decision to the Joint Chiefs they won’t spend anything near what this Administration is requesting. In fact, the last time the Joint Chiefs were asked about this in 1993, [they] recommended to then-Pres. Clinton that we spend only $3 billion a year on these kinds of programs, and of that $2.3 billion should be spent on efforts to intercept short-range missiles – the ones that are a real threat to our troops and allies…. We’re no further along in our ability to actually hit a real ballistic missile now than we were 20 years ago.”

Both Cirincione and Flynn pointed to the disturbing fact that there is no comprehensive threat assessment comparing missile and non-missile threats to our security. “We haven’t done a good threat assessment – an intelligence estimate that looks at the non-missile threat and the missile threat,” Flynn said.

Cirincione agreed. “I believe that in order for Congress to judge whether these sums are necessary they need a comprehensive assessment of the ballistic missile threat. Congress has never – never – gotten this kind of assessment…. We need a comprehensive threat assessment of what the most serious security threats are facing the United States, and then budget allocations based on that.”

Steven Hildreth, specialist in missile defense and nonproliferation for the Congressional Research Service, also warned that threats about a nuclear-armed Korea or Iran might be exaggerated. He testified to “the importance of examining assertions concerning weapon system development and performance.” Hildreth noted that in 50 years, only five countries have been able “to develop, test and field ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads” because “the technical, organizational, and management challenges… [are] daunting…. Each and every [aspect] presents a multitude of technological challenges and hurdles to overcome that is not easily done.” Hildreth also said that these weapons cannot be hidden, and that they have to be tested in an “observable” way. Despite these facts, Hildreth said, “There have been any number of intelligence assessments and studies that predicted there would be more than five nations that could have accomplished this capability at various times in the past 40 to 50 years….This perspective is lacking in so many of the discussions about ICBM threats today.”

With the Administration requesting a record $12.3 billion for missile defense this year, pushing its European-based missile defense system on Czech and Polish citizens who want nothing to do with it, and fueling a new arms race with Russia, the need to put an end to this madness is clear. The jig is up, and hopefully Tierney’s hearings will reveal the absolute folly at the root of the Missile Defense Program, and return us to a sane and proven path of diplomacy and nuclear nonproliferation negotiations.

With reporting from Capitol Hill by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.