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Missile Defense and the Press: Key Issues for the Media and Public
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Prepared Remarks of ACA Research Director to 4th Annual U.S. Missile Defense Conference

Wade Boese
March 20, 2006

I intend to use the short time allotted to me to discuss how Arms Control Today, the monthly publication of the non-profit Arms Control Association, has approached covering missile defense over the past several years. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on what I believe will be some key issues for the media and public as anti-missile programs proceed. Obviously, Arms Control Today is a very specialized journal so I also would like to compare our journal's coverage with some of the larger media outlets and try to draw some conclusions based on that comparison.

Historically, Arms Control Today covered missile defense within the broad context of how such programs affected the U.S.-Soviet, and later the U.S.-Russian, strategic relationship. The narrower question was whether such programs would comply with or violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which barred Washington and Moscow from developing, testing, and deploying nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses.

When President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the ABM Treaty in 2002, it prompted a discussion among the magazine staff on whether we should continue to devote attention to the issue of missile defense. Ultimately, the answer was yes. Three main considerations led to this conclusion:

1) Missile defense represents one approach to addressing missile proliferation;
2) The potential adverse impact of missile defense, particularly international cooperation, on missile nonproliferation in general; and
3) The question of how U.S. missile defenses might affect strategic relations with Russia and China.

With regard to the first consideration, Arms Control Today reports on diplomatic efforts and international agreements, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Hague Code of Conduct, aimed at curbing the spread of missile technologies. In addition, the magazine devotes considerable attention to reporting on the Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to enhance countries' capabilities to interdict dangerous weapons shipments in transit. (Although when it comes to missile shipments, PSI is handicapped by the fact that there is no agreement proscribing missile transfers, a fact underscored by the pre-PSI 2002 decision to let a North Korean delivery of ballistic missiles continue on its way to Yemen.) Hence, given the magazine's general coverage on efforts to stem missile proliferation, it made sense to continue covering missile defense. However, it should be noted that missile defense is geared toward protecting against a missile attack and has little, if any, demonstrated affect on deterring the worldwide spread of missile capabilities.

On the other hand, concern exists that missile know-how and capabilities will spread as additional countries become involved in cooperative missile defense projects. Indeed, there was discussion a few years ago within the Bush administration of carving out exemptions in the Missile Technology Control Regime to ensure that it did not constrain international missile defense cooperation or transfers. From a journalistic-not to mention a security-perspective, this raised the interesting question of whether a proposed solution (missile defense) might somehow contribute to the problem (missile proliferation). So that was the second consideration in continuing coverage of missile defense.

The final and most significant consideration was how U.S. missile defense programs might impact relations with Russia and China, not to mention the future size and shape of their strategic arsenals. It is true that the Missile Defense Agency and the Bush administration have said that U.S. missile defense systems are not directed at either country. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that both countries harbor mistrust about U.S. intentions. What they care about is capabilities, not intentions. To be sure, neither country has launched a major missile buildup (to our knowledge), but they are not standing idly by either. Russia pronounced the START II Treaty dead a day after the U.S. ABM Treaty withdrawal and is touting development of a new system capable of penetrating defenses. For its part, China is continuing a slow and steady strategic modernization program. Ultimately, the actions or course these countries take with respect to U.S. missile defense programs falls into Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's category of "unknown unknowns."

Although it is tough to predict the future, it is evident that two impending moves could further aggravate Chinese and Russian reactions to U.S. missile defenses: the deployment of strategic missile interceptors to Europe and the creation of a space-based test bed. This latter move is certain to upset China and Russia, not to mention many other countries, which have been pressing for the negotiation of an agreement on the prevention of an arms race in outer space at the 65-country Conference on Disarmament.

In sum, even though the ABM Treaty was scrapped and the Cold War ended approximately 15 years ago, U.S. missile defense programs still present potential adverse implications for arms control and international security so Arms Control Today decided to continue its missile defense coverage.

Despite this decision to continue coverage, the number of articles in Arms Control Today devoted to missile defense has dwindled by 50 percent in recent years.

For instance, from the period of October 1999 to October 2000, which covers the first National Missile Defense intercept test to President Clinton's decision to defer a deployment decision to his successor, Arms Control Today published 36 total pieces on missile defenses.

From the period June 2001 to June 2002, which covers the immediate aftermath of President Bush's announcement to pursue a layered missile defense to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Arms Control Today published 44 total articles on missile defenses.

In comparison, the more recent period of September 2004 to September 2005, saw only 17 articles on missile defenses.

Coverage in some of the major newspapers has dropped even more drastically. For the same periods mentioned above:

The New York Times' coverage amounted to 210, 168, and 16 articles.
Coverage by The Washington Post amounted to 167, 196, and 36 pieces.
Finally, USA Today article totals equaled 31, 45, and 3.

I should note that the figures above result from a very cursory Nexis search that involved simply counting articles where missile defense appeared in the title or first few paragraphs of a story. In other words, I did not read every single article or ferret out repeats or corrections, etc. Nonetheless, I think the figures still reflect a general trend that would survive a more exacting analysis.

So the question is why, at a time when the U.S. government is spending increasing amounts of money on missile defense and starting to initially deploy some systems, is media coverage declining?

I think there are three general reasons.

First, the alignment of a president and a Congress favoring missile defense coupled with the ABM Treaty withdrawal has significantly decreased the political controversy surrounding missile defenses. Clearly, there are still some lawmakers who question the priority and funding that missile defenses receive, but for the most part Congress has been giving missile defense a free pass since 2001. Without political fights, the media, particularly non-specialized newspapers and magazines, lack the "hooks" to write about such a technically complex subject as missile defense.

Second, there has been a reduction in high profile missile defense testing activities that provide journalists with a hard peg for their stories. A two-year testing hiatus in 2003 and 2004 significantly minimized reporting opportunities.

Third, the perception and urgency of the missile threat has diminished in the eyes of Congress and the public. Before September 11, the looming threat as extolled by the Rumsfeld Commission in 1998 was that a so-called rogue state could develop a long-range ballistic missile within five years of a decision to do so. It was implied that such decisions had already been made. After September 11, the most immediate danger became terrorists, not missiles. The Rumsfeld Commission's dire warnings have yet to be realized and have become overshadowed by the threat of global terrorism. Thus, stories are about terrorists and ways to stop them rather than missiles and missile defenses.

Perhaps some of you would contend that this reduced coverage is for the better in light of the longstanding contention that "no news is good news."

However, I would caution that this is a troublesome development because reduced media coverage lessens public accountability and invites suspicion in the long run; both domestically and internationally. In this context, I would argue that the MDA decision in December to stop announcing interceptor deployments is counterproductive because secrecy has long been a source of miscalculation, worst-case analysis, and misreporting that has helped propel arms races in the past.