Telling It Like It Isn't

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

As the debate on whether the president should decide this year to initiate deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system has intensified, the extent and significance of the missile threat has taken on an increasingly central role. The proposed system has clearly not been adequately demonstrated for a deployment decision to be made and a decision without Russian agreement to amend the ABM Treaty would clearly have serious adverse consequences for U.S. arms control policies, as well as for relations with Russia, China, and U.S. allies. Consequently, the question arises whether there is really a credible missile threat from North Korea and other "rogue" states that justifies deployment, despite the high technical risk and negative consequences.

In its 1999 estimate, the U.S. Intelligence Community, under strong congressional pressure, modified its methodology in assessing the missile threat from rogue states to focus on worst-case scenarios based on conceivable technological developments. This led to estimates that North Korea could now have a minimal capability to inaccurately deliver a non-nuclear warhead to Alaska or Hawaii and could develop a similar limited capability against the continental United States between 2000 and 2005. These estimates have been restated and significantly modified by senior administration officials who proclaim that a North Korean missile threat to the United States exists today. If these misleading statements are allowed to stand, the Intelligence Community will be credited, however unfairly, at home and abroad, as becoming the instrument for rationalizing a politically driven decision to deploy a NMD, despite overwhelming arguments to the contrary.

Few, if any, observers abroad agree with the U.S. assessment of the immediacy or significance of the alleged North Korean missile threat. In fact, the world looks in disbelief at the spectacle of the only remaining superpower cringing in terror at the prospect that a weak, impoverished North Korea might develop a missile capable of reaching the United States, and wonders what the true U.S. motives are in seeking a NMD.

Russian officials look at the North Korean threat as a clumsy excuse for a small deployment that would become a very slippery slope, eventually leading to a base for a robust defense directed at Russia. China dismisses the North Korean threat as a transparent ruse to deploy a system directed at China. Our NATO allies are confused and troubled by a U.S. program that appears unnecessary and provocative. At the upcoming five-year nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York, the rest of the world will undoubtedly make clear its collective belief that the North Korean threat does not justify an NMD deployment that would impede or reverse the commitment of the nuclear-weapon states to reduce nuclear arms.

The manner in which intelligence estimates have been modified and exploited by senior administration officials is particularly disturbing. In defining the earliest date of the threat, the secretary of defense and others changed the intelligence estimates' wording from "could" to "will." When this proved inadequate to inspire sufficient urgency, "will" became "is," which, in turn, has become "already achieved." This hyperbole in high places may make for effective rhetoric, but to those who do not have access to the heavily caveated estimate, it further demeans the credibility of U.S. intelligence.

To be fair, the authors of the estimate were clearly uncomfortable with their directed worst-case task and took pains to underscore that they did not consider political changes or diplomatic efforts that might influence the outcome, such as North Korea's declared moratorium on its missile tests and negotiations on its missile program's future. Of particular significance to a deployment decision, they also noted that there are much easier and cheaper means for a rogue state to deliver a few weapons than by ICBMs and that any nation capable of delivering ICBMs would respond to U.S. missile defenses by developing penetration aids, which others judge would easily overcome the proposed system. (See p. 33.)

An even more significant consideration is the extreme unlikelihood that a rogue state, having developed missiles capable of reaching the United States, would in fact ever actually launch an attack when faced with the certainty of devastating U.S. retaliation. Given the implausibility of such an attack, NMD advocates now raise the specter of nuclear blackmail, but this too is highly unlikely since it would invite a pre-emptive strike, unless the United States simply chose to ignore the threat.

Given these circumstances, the president's decision is not helped by bombastic rhetoric, telling it like it isn't, designed to inflame flagging public concern about the alleged North Korean missile menace. The president does deserve a considered, net assessment of the likelihood of such a capability developing and being used to threaten or attack the United States.