HERTSGAARD: The Star Wars Mirage

They said it couldn't be done, but the big news out of Washington these days is that Star Wars works after all. Back in 1983, when President Reagan announced his plan to build a "peace shield" to protect the United States from nuclear attack, the idea was criticized as a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and a dangerous step toward a nuclear first strike. A more mundane objection was that an effective nuclear defense simply could not be built. To track and shoot down missiles hurtling through space at 15,000 miles an hour is like deflecting an assailant's bullet in mid-flight by firing one of your own. The American Physical Society, in an influential 1987 study, concluded that building a missile defense was not only impossible at prevailing levels of technology but that another ten years of research would be required to learn whether it might ever be feasible. So here we are, ten years later. Star Wars has been renamed missile defense and its ambitions scaled back dramatically. It will now neutralize not a massive Soviet strike but a limited attack by lesser nuclear powers like China and Iraq. Most surprising of all, missile defense now boasts a technology that works. At least that is the message conveyed by recent press coverage.In a May 22 speech at the Coast Guard Academy, President Clinton said he did not want to build a missile defense system as soon as Republicans did. Deploying the system by the year 2003, as called for by the Defend America Act co-sponsored by Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, would "weaken our defenses by taking money away from things we know we need right now." Instead, Clinton wants to spend $13.5 billion on research and development and decide in 1999 whether to deploy a missile defense.The stories on the speech in The New York Times and The Washington Post cited a new Congressional Budget Office report, which said the Defend America Act would cost an additional $60 billion, twelve times what Republicans had claimed. What was most striking about the coverage, though, was how everyone -- from the politicians to the reporters to the analysts they cited -- took it for granted that a missile defense system could indeed be built, either right away or very soon. (Only the Times noted, in a single sentence, that no such system has yet been built.) In fact, missile defense remains a mirage, say independent experts. The systems under development have consistently failed even the so-called "strapped-down chicken" test: hitting a missile whose speed and trajectory are known in advance. Robert Park, a physicist and spokesman for the American Physical Society, thinks the systems could hit such cooperative targets eventually, though he cautions that in the real world, targets take evasive action and are masked by decoys, and "then it becomes hopeless again."Some reporters know that missile defense is a fantasy whose chief accomplishment, as one puts it, has been "to transfer $40 billion from the United States Treasury to military contractors." (The actual figure, according to the Congressional Research Service, is at least $70 billion.) But even informed reporters -- a minority on this issue -- are constrained by what I described in my last column as the conventions of palace court journalism.Palace court journalism restricts itself to relaying the official Democratic and Republican versions of reality; it will not report the sky is blue unless a government official says so, and then it will balance the quote with a comment from the opposition party. In this case, since both the President and his challenger assume missile defense is workable, press coverage ends up implicitly endorsing this baseless contention. Dole and Clinton's differences on tactical questions of timing and budget get ventilated at length, but the underlying falsehood goes unchallenged. "The only daylight between [Dole and Clinton] on this issue is how much of what kind of an effective defense we need when," says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, not "whether we need a missile defense and whether it's going to work."Small wonder, then, that many Americans apparently believe we already have a functioning missile defense system. Why not? For years, they've seen graphics on television and in newspapers showing the system working perfectly, intercepting all incoming missiles. The Washington Post illustrated its story on Clinton's speech with just such a graphic, helpfully supplied by the Defense Department. And the media were only too happy to pass along Pentagon claims during the Gulf War about the stunning success of Patriot missiles against Saddam's Scuds. "Because of the military's propaganda success during the Gulf War, there's a general impression that you can do what Star Wars promises," says one national security reporter.The few news organizations that have suggested otherwise have learned the wages of such truth-telling. According to Theodore Postol, a professor at M.I.T. who analyzed official videos of the war, "The Patriots were almost certainly 0 for 44 against Scuds." When PBS's Frontline mentioned Patriot's failures in a broadcast reviewing the war, Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Patriot and a donor to WGBH, the parent station of Frontline, mounted a "very aggressive" complaint campaign, says senior producer Michael Sullivan. Boston Globe reporter Dan Golden says Raytheon threatened his paper with a lawsuit for reporting Postol's findings.Call it Star Wars or call it missile defense, it has been fabulously lucrative for the companies on the receiving end of the Pentagon's corporate welfare program. It is also politically expedient for candidates like Dole (who has to pass the far right's litmus test on the issue) and Clinton (who needs the electoral votes of California, where much Star Wars money is spent). Of course, a free press should expose such scandal, not contribute to it. But that is hard to do when one's habits of mind lie with those inside, not outside, the palace walls.

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