Bush’s Star Wars Credibility Problem

Without fanfare, the Department of Defense has revised and substantially changed the most important missile defense announcement to come out of a US administration in the last decade. In a variety of ways, these revisions effectively lower the bar for what will be expected of the upcoming deployment, while simultaneously allowing the Pentagon to enjoy the more expansive and robust view of capabilities widely publicized in the press.

On December 17th, President Bush announced to the nation that the United States would begin fielding initial missile defense capabilites in 2004-2005. His announcement was accompanied that same day by much-reported press conferences involving most of the major missile defense players in the administration: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, Director of the Missile Defense Agency General Ronald Kadish, and Assistant Secretary of Defense J.D. Crouch. With much publicity, the speakers touted the missile defense deployment announcement and praised the “layered” missile defense approach. A press release from the Defense Department laid out the plan in detail. The deployment plans were rolled out in print and television media, using the press conferences and the press release as resources.

Indeed, a scan of the US press following December 17th reveals wide coverage of the announcement activities, including in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters, the Associated Press, and others. However, the facts and details for much of their stories–their coverage of the biggest missile defense story in recent history–were taken from a press release that really no longer exists, because it’s been replaced by the Defense Department with a different version on their website. The Defense Department has never issued a retraction or a correction notice to the media or the public regarding these changes, and instead has chosen only to modify the December 17 document. The original version of the press release is no longer available.

A careful reading of the current news release on the Pentagon’s website shows substantial changes to the stated goals of one of the three systems to be deployed and eliminates all references to an overall “layered” system, which has been a hallmark of this administration’s missile defense efforts. The new version also strikes references to the use of “prototype and test assets.”

The layered system envisioned for missile defense and outlined in the original press release envisions a series of overlapping, redundant programs, each of which would be able to take a shot in an effort to destroy an enemy missile from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. In this way, a missile defense interceptor that misses the enemy missile in the boost phase (soon after it’s launched) would be backed up by a mid-course interceptor, and subsequently perhaps a terminal phase interceptor as well. This approach system would enhance the effectiveness of the overall system just by virtue of the number of attempts.

But while the original press release portrays the 2004-2005 deployment within the framework of a layered system, the revised version envisions a much less ambitious plan. The only system potentially capable of knocking out a missile launched at the United States from North Korea or Iran is the ground-based midcourse system. The other two systems – Patriot and Aegis sea-based – are only theater systems, i.e., only useful against short-range missiles. While the original press release touts the sea-based Aegis system as a “boost and ascent phase” system (ostensibly part of the layered approach), the altered release changes this being a mid-course system for “short and medium range ballistic missiles,” reducing it’s capabilities in a layered system.

All of the changes suggest a lowering of abilities, a simplicity, and a thinness that is strikingly different from the original release. The effect of this exercise is that the press, and therefore the public, are initially given the impression of a missile defense program that sounds remarkably robust and capable. A month later, a corrected version revealing a much different reality is dropped in the bowels of the Defense Department website, where it will qualify as “updated,” but essentially unexamined.

A spokesperson from the Missile Defense Agency said that he was not aware of the changes and that the press release had been put together by the Defense Department. He also stated that it was unusual for the Defense Department to modify a press release so substantially without issuing a separate retraction. He went on to say that although the original press release could have been a mistake, it would be highly unlikely given the amount of attention and personal involvement by multiple people at the very top of the U.S. government. A call to the Defense Department has not yet been returned.

Critics of the administration’s missile defense deployment have argued that the current approach is long on talk and short on proof. With the discovery of the changes scaling back the deployment announcement, it would seem as though the Pentagon agrees. They just don’t want to hold a press conference to say so.

MATT MARTIN is Assistant Director of the Missile Defense Project
at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: mmartin@armscontrolcenter.org

For a comparison of the two different press releases, go to the Center’s website: www.armscontrolcenter.org/

 

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