The issue of defending the Pacific Coastand Seattle along with itfrom a North Korean missile attack has taken a creepy turn in recent weeks, something that suggests that when you "unleash the dogs of war," at least one of those dogs creates chaos and spreads incompetence.
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Since I last wrote about the North Korean threat (see Mossback, "No Shelter, Jan. 8), there have been some amazing developments on that front. Earlier this month, CIA director George Tenent confirmed that the North Koreans have the capability to hit the U.S. mainland with their still untested Taepodong II missile. At least that's the unclassified answer. The classified answer may be that they cannot, but, for the time being, it suits U.S. purposes to acknowledge a worst-case North Korean capability, and it also may well be true. The Taepodong II, if constructed properly, could have the range; if light enough, it could carry a nuclear payload (not just a chemical or biological one). No one is vouching for the missile's accuracy, but somehow I am not relieved to know that a possibly highly non-accurate missile might be pointed our way. I don't think targeting is the point anyway. It's the leverage the possibilities give you.
As Colin Powell ventured into the region this week, he was greeted by a North Korean missile test that launched a smaller missile into the Japan Sea just to make sure everyone noticed. North Korea seems to wear its "Axis of Evil" label as a badge of honor. Certainly, by conducting such missile tests, they are reminding both the U.S. and the rest of the world that if you fail to develop nuclear missile capabilities, you are likely to be attacked (see Iraq); and that if you successfully develop them, you are taken seriously and given the courtesy of diplomatic treatment. It also helps if you are adjacent to other nuclear powers and important U.S. allies. But one can't help but wonder at the lesson being taught to every nation: Power no longer grows out of the barrel of a gun, but on the tip of a warhead. Who wouldn't want to go nuclear if that was the path to getting respect?
This week also brought some other important developments. Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Bush administration has requested in its 2004 budget that the missile defense system it is seeking to deploy to meet the North Korean threat be exempted from operational testing. According to the Times, such an exemption "would be the first time a major weapons system was formally exempted from the testing requirement." The Missile Defense Agency already has unprecedented latitude to get a system up and running, including not having to adhere to standard management and procurement procedures. In other words, the missile defense overlords can spend any amount and do whatever it takes virtually without any oversight. And, if this provision is approved, they won't even have to deploy a system that actually works. It's a recipe for billions of dollars in waste and has the potential to completely corrupt the system of Pentagon procurement, which, as we know, is so free of corruption.
And don't look to the courts for help in holding the Pentagon or its contractors to account. At the same time the L.A. Times was revealing the Bush request, the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles was dismissing a lawsuit brought by Nira Schwartz, a whistle-blowing former employee of defense contractor TRW Inc., who had alleged that the company falsified test results of the missile defense software that is about to be deployed with the new system. Her allegations have been supported by a General Accounting Office report, and while the FBI found no evidence of fraudcalling the dispute a scientific issuenevertheless, there are serious questions about the viability of the system.
Government attorneys argued that documents requested in the Schwartz case would jeopardize national security. Apparently, going ahead with a faulty multibillion-dollar missile defense system free from scientific verification is no threat to national security whatsoever. What's troubling about this decision, which will be appealed, is that the veil of national security can be used to cover up anything a rogue Pentagon department wants to hide. The suit was supported by members of Congress from both parties who insisted that no military secrets would be revealed, according to an account in the Times. No matter.
Certainly Donald Rumsfeld can make a case that in light of current threats, we have little choice but to deploy first and work out the kinks later. But given the missile defense system's history of failure and probable cover-up; given the system's massive cost, which includes not only tax dollars but trashed treaties, like ABM; given its potential for altering, and perhaps escalating, the international arms race, Americans have a right to be secure in the knowledge that their dollars are being well spent and that actual science is prevailing over political and corporate agendas. We do not need a new Maginot Line made of faulty missiles and a false sense of security.
Special note: Wednesday, Feb. 26, Town Hall is launching a new series on war and peace, called "The World on the Edge." It will feature expert panels exploring topics on the international situation and will also include a community "Soapbox" forum (from 6 to 7:30 p.m.) where people can sign up for quick turns to sound off about their concerns. Seattle Weekly is sponsoring the Soapbox segment. Forums are also scheduled for March 6 and 12; admission for the entire evening is $5. Please join us.