Nov 1 2000

Holes in the Coverage

What's left out of reporting on missile defense

Even as skepticism over the proposed $60 billion national missile defense (NMD) system emerges in the headlines, the general assumption continues to be that sooner or later missile defenses will work. Just days after President Clinton’s decision to defer a decision on deployment to the next administration, the New York Times (9/4/00) was quick to promote theater missile defenses, or what they called “lesser-known antimissile weapons.”

The article claims that the theater systems have been “extensively tested,” but fails to mention the results of those tests, which have been neither extensive nor successful. The PAC-3 system has achieved three intercepts out of five tests, the THAAD system has scored two hits out of eight attempts, and the Airborne Laser was successful in its only intercept attempt.

As a whole, the missile defense issue has enjoyed extensive coverage in the nation’s press. But important aspects, such as test records and technical critiques, the fraud and mismanagement charges involving the main missile defense contractors, and the special interests that have helped shape the debate have barely been addressed in the media.

Will it work?

Weeks before the Pentagon’s July 8 intercept test failure, the Baltimore Sun (6/21/00) noted that the Pentagon might back the NMD system even if the test failed. The week of the third and final intercept test before Clinton made his decision, Time (7/10/00) got to the heart of the matter with this headline: “Missile Impossible? This week’s $100 million test of the space shield is all but fixed. Does the outcome matter?” The answer: No.

From the start, deployment of the NMD system has been treated like a foregone conclusion with little thought (or doubt) given to its technological merits. As Larry Korb from the Council on Foreign Relations aptly summed it up, the prevalent belief is “If you build it, it will work.”

The Clinton administration’s proposed NMD system has been rightly touted as the Pentagon’s most demanding weapon system ever, “involving technologies so sophisticated that some haven’t even been invented” (Boston Globe, 8/9/00). But what is generally lacking in the media’s coverage is the fact that the Pentagon expects to test the NMD system less than typical military systems with less demanding missions. To date, the NMD system has completed only three of the scheduled 19 intercept tests. The record: 1 hit, 2 misses. By contrast, the Patriot missile system (which has a far less difficult task than NMD) succeeded in 17 out of 17 tests before being deployed. The Patriot performed far worse under actual combat conditions during the Gulf War, hitting only about 10 percent of its targets.

Furthermore, all the variations of missile defense involve “Hit-to-Kill” technologies, which have failed in the vast majority of tests conducted over the past decade. The New York Times (6/30/00) was one of the few places where this critical fact was pointed out: “Since research on so-called hit-to-kill weapons began in 1976, attempts to destroy mock warheads have failed more than 70 percent of the time.”

Test results notwithstanding, advocates of the system have been able to spin failures into “successes.” The Los Angeles Times (1/20/00) reported that after the January 2000 intercept test failure, Pentagon officials were quick to point out all the “bright spots in the test results.” According to the New York Times (7/15/00), there was agreement “among technically knowledgeable observers on all sides of the debate” that “the generally low-tech breakdowns that have caused the test failures…say little about whether the program will eventually succeed.” Yet if the developers can’t even master the low-tech components of the system, how can the United States entrust them to develop the Pentagon’s most challenging weapons system ever?

Unnoted critiques

A blind faith in science and technology appears to have seeped into the media, obscuring the many technical critiques that have emerged over the past year. Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation, issued his annual report on NMD in February 2000. He highlighted the “undue pressure” being placed on the program, saying: “The NMD program will have to compress the work of 10 to 12 years into eight or less years…. This pattern has historically resulted in a negative effect on virtually every troubled DOD development program.”

General Accounting Office (GAO) report released on May 31, 2000 was also critical of the NMD program. Among its concerns were the risks in developing the system because of restrictions in the test flights, the potential for rising costs and the uncertainty of the missile threat facing the United States.

Most recently, the independent Welch panel, headed by former Air Force chief of staff Larry Welch, released the latest of three critical reports on the missile defense program. The panel’s June 2000 report questioned the system’s ability to address realistic decoys and countermeasures. The earlier reports pointed to systematic flaws in design, planning and management, and warned that the program was on a “rush to failure” schedule.

While these critiques created one-day news flashes upon their release, media have failed to convey their importance in coverage of the NMD intercept tests. In the aftermath of the most recent test, which took place on July 8, no major newspapers mentioned any of the above critiques.

Special interests drive program

Beyond the technical hurdles NMD still has to clear, the special interests pushing the missile defense issue have rarely made it to the surface in media coverage. Through campaign contributions and extensive lobbying efforts, the military industry has played a pivotal role in putting NMD back on the agenda.

“Over the last decade,” the New York Times reported in an exceptional piece (6/13/00), “the arms industry has spent $49 million in campaign contributions to Washington politicians and an additional $2 million in a more subtle and indirect campaign that they say has helped create an atmosphere in which the pressure to build an antimissile system weighs heavily on both parties.”

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that the “Big 4” missile defense contractors–Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW–have given out almost $7 million in PAC and soft-money contributions since 1997. And in 1997 and 1998, the most recent years for which figures are available, the four spent a whopping $34 million on lobbying.

The top missile defense contractors have also been generous supporters of the often-quoted Frank Gaffney Jr., a leading proponent of NMD who heads the Center for Security Policy in Washington. In a New York Times article (9/6/00), Gaffney is quoted calling ads from the disarmament group Peace Action “misleading.” But it seems far more misleading that the article failed to mention that Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy receives more than 15 percent of its annual revenue from corporate sponsors, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Rumsfeld commission, which found that the missile threat facing the U.S. is “evolving more rapidly” than had been reported, was described as a “bipartisan commission that has been determining the threat posed to the United States by ballistic missiles” (Washington Post, 7/29/98). But the makeup of the commission, chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, calls into question the group’s impartiality. Center for Security Policy board members William Graham and William Schneider served on the panel, and CSP has publicly bragged that a number of its former staffers and interns went on to serve as staff members of the Rumsfeld commission. Donald Rumsfeld is a financial supporter of the Center for Security Policy, as well as a board member of Empower America, a group that ran a series of pro-“Star Wars” radio ads during the 1998 elections. While Long Island Newsday (7/16/98) rightly noted that the commission was “created by the Republican Congressional leadership,” none of these personnel details were revealed in media coverage of the Rumsfeld report.

Conflicts and corruption

Given that the results of the missile defense tests Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW are helping to carry out will determine whether they begin reaping lucrative, multi-billion-dollar production contracts, these major corporate players have a serious and direct conflict of interest. All of these companies have questionable records, with histories of corruption, cost overruns and mismanagement. The shameful record of these corporations has not been incorporated in the coverage of the NMD program, but instead hidden in the business section of the newspapers.

For example, Raytheon settled a lawsuit in 1999 charging that it “had engaged in at least three days of industrial spying that included video and audio surveillance and thefts of documents” (Boston Globe, 5/13/99). The L.A. Times reported that “the FBI is looking into allegations that defense giant TRW was guilty of fraud and cover-up in developing a key component of the controversial national missile defense” (L.A. Times, 9/12/00), allegedly faking test data to conceal that the prototype “kill vehicle”–the critical part of the NMD system–could not pick out warheads from decoys.

Lockheed Martin, contractor for the NMD payload launch vehicle, experienced a series of embarrassing and expensive launch failures of its rockets and satellites recently, with “more than $2 billion worth of military and private satellites being either destroyed or deployed into useless orbits” (Washington Post, 9/1/99). Moreover, Lockheed colluded with the Pentagon in June 1984 in rigging the allegedly successful intercept test of Reagan’s Star Wars system. Nine years later the truth came out, that “the target was artificially heated to make it a bigger target” and “an explosive charge had also been placed on the target missile” (New York Times, 8/27/93). But officials denied that they rigged the test, maintaining that it was a “normal test event.”

The histories of corporate fraud and corruption on the part of the contractors, the millions of dollars of special interests money influencing the missile defense debate, and the understatement of the technical impediments facing the NMD system have been given too little attention in the media. Before the next president decides on deployment, media should ensure that all aspects of the missile defense issue are out in the open.

Michelle Ciarrocca is a research associate at the World Policy Institute in New York.