Where Did the Warriors Go Wrong?

It has not been a good season for the national security crowd.

Star Wars goes splat. Espionage cases fizzle out. George W. Bush's Chicken-Little charge that Bill Clinton and Al Gore have devastated the military does not catch on with the electorate. The CIA's rascally secretkeepers are under the gun. And, as The Washington Times dramatically noted in an above-the-fold front-page story, there's a move within the Navy to remove urinals from aircraft carriers and replace them with "gender neutral water closets" -- a proposal that has POed the military's traditionalists.

The spycatchers looked exceedingly dumb when the government cut a deal with Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who had engaged in the unauthorized copying of top-secret computer records pertaining to nuclear weapons. After threatening him with life in prison -- and after lying to a federal judge about the danger Lee's action posed -- the feds allowed him to cop an easy plea and leave prison, where he had been held under the most draconian conditions. It turns out there's no evidence Lee's illegal handling of classified information actually threatened national security or that he engaged in espionage.

As the Lee case ended with a whimper -- and no apology from Attorney General Janet Reno -- it is instructive to recall the hysteria the episode bred. When the case broke in March of 1999, Lamar Alexander, then a Republican contender for the White House, asserted, "It appears that this is one of the most serious national security breaches in fifty years. For his unwillingness to act on this serious matter, Mr. [Samuel] Berger [President Clinton's national security advisor] should resign."

Pat Buchanan, another GOP wannabe then, said, "This is an appalling breach of national security. It is the worst breach of national security since the Rosenbergs were executed for espionage in 1952."

In May of 1999, The New York Times reported that Lee's data transfers "jeapordized secrets to virtually the entire United States nuclear arsenal."

Senator Don Nickles, a Republican, declared Lee was responsible for the "most serious case of espionage " in American history.

Columnist William Safire huffed that because of Wen Ho Lee "our nuclear genie is out of the bottle."

Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, bleated, "this may be the most serious breach in an espionage case since the Aldrich Ames case."

The Cox report -- put out by Representative Chris Cox, a Republican -- maintained, "The stolen US secrets have helped the PRC [China] fabricate and successfully test modern strategic thermonuclear weapons."

Whoops. None of these howls were justified. Similar outpourings of outrage occurred in June when the news broke that hard drives containing highly classified information disappeared at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Several Republican legislators -- including Senator Richard Shelby, Senator Jon Kyl, and Representative Porter Goss -- called for Secretary of Energy Bill RIchardson to resign.

But, again, the protests outpaced the facts. The culprits in the case of the missing hard-drives have not yet been caught, but federal investigators now say the drives -- which magically reappeared behind a photocopier -- were never removed from the lab's premises nor fell into unauthorized hands. They were mishandled, but apparently not in a fashion that led to the disclosure of the material they contained. These episodes -- and the loose talk they generated -- demonstrate how easy it is for self-proclaimed patriots to cry crisis and point an accusing finger.

The national security establishment has been embarrassed on other fronts. In July, a much-anticipated test of the Pentagon's new missile defense system went bust when an interceptor "kill vehicle" that was supposed to hit a dummy warhead failed to detach from its booster rocket. This $100 million failure caused President Clinton to put off a decision to deploy the system. (By the way, for the cost of this tryout, you could send 10,000 or so young adults to college.)

What was ridiculous about the test was the response from the system's cheerleaders. They argued that since the problem involved a routine, not-so-high-tech issue -- the separation of the interceptor from the booster -- it did not reflect on the capabilitiy of the high-tech anti-missile system, which was designed to stop a single missile or two, not a full-scale nuclear attack. But the failure underscored the fact that a national missile defense -- at a cost of anywhere from $25 billion to $60 billion -- only makes sense if you can guarantee it will operate with complete accuracy the first time it is called into action. Since stuff happens -- remember the Challenger? -- it seems unlikely such a level of fool-proofness can be attained. The test demonstrated that sophisticated systems can be rendered useless by unsophisticated flaws. That's not a principle the national security class -- which often looks to costly technical fixes to address foreign policy dilemmas (real and imagined) -- wants to confirm.

Over at the CIA, the spooks recently mounted a mutiny -- but they may not pull it off. Four months after Augusto Pinochet, the former dicatator of Chile, was arrested in Britain in October 1998, President Clinton ordered the US government to declassify records about US covert operations in Chile in the 1960s and 1970s. (In the early 1970s, the CIA secretly worked to destabilize the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a murderous military coup led by Pinochet.)

The CIA initailly went along with Clinton's declassification order and last fall pledged to review and release records about the CIA's clandestine efforts to topple Allende and support Pinochet. But after the review was done, the head of the agency's operations division looked at the hundreds of documents slated for release, and said, no way are we going to make this public. The problem: they revealed CIA secrets about how it had conducted its dirty business in Chile. Well, that was the point.

Still, in August, George Tenet, the CIA chief, announced he supported the stonewall. So here was the CIA thwarting a direct order of the commander-in-chief. At first, it looked as if Clinton would roll over. (He has a poor record of defying the CIA.) But in mid-September, Sandy Berger said the administration would delay the latest release of Chile-related material. The postponement was designed to give the White House time to do battle with the CIA. The mutiny, as of this writing, has not yet been squashed, but the mandarins of the CIA are being challenged. Openness might actually triumph over secrecy -- which would be more potential bad news for the national security denizens.

This band must also be fretting about George W. Bush's downward movement in the polls. It's no secret that much of the national security establishment is rooting for him. The heads of the various military services have been compiling budgetary wish lists, preparing for a Bush Administration that will say yes to their most promiscuous procurement desires. (Both Bush and Gore have pledged to build a national missile defense system, but Bush yearns for a much more elaborate version that would cost several times as much.) So it must be disappointing for Militarists-for-Bush that the public has not rallied behind Bush when he accuses Clinton and Gore of mismanaging the finances of the armed services. Bush and Gore each back a spending increase for the poor Pentagon, but Bush has tried to frighten voters with claims the US military suffers from severe readiness problems due, in part, to inadequate funding.

The other militaries of the world should have such readiness problems.

Bush's argument appears silly if you ask the question: which military is more ready than the US military? Russia? Didn't it take the Russian navy days to deal with a submarine accident? Look at the numbers. The US military budget in 1999 was $305 billion. Russia's was about $55 billion, and China's about $37.5 billion. US military spending surpasses the combined spending of the next twelve nations. Libya, Iraq, and North Korea devote a total of about $4 billion to their militaries. The defense budgets of the United States and its allies totals over five times the amount Russia and China pay for their defenses. If the US military is not more ready than any other potential rival, the American taxpayers are owed a tremendous refund. And if readiness is a problem, there is a way to resolve it other than throwing more money at the biggest military in the world: cut back its size. A smaller military should be easier to keep ready.

Bush, of course, is not looking to be that sort of reformer. He and his posse -- who criticize Clinton and Gore for over-engaging the Pentagon -- want a larger military ... that will stay home. So far, Bush does not seem to have obtained much political traction by pushing this spend more/do less stand.

The military-industrial establishment can rest easy, though: it's getting a raise no matter who wins in November. But on key fronts -- national missile defense, espionage fear-mongering, and the control of history -- the national security class has taken serious hits lately. There's no need for its leaders to raise a white flag yet. But it is heartening to imagine a bead or two of sweat on their furrowed brows.

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