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COLUMN LEFT/ JOHN TIRMAN

A Big Hoax to Match a Big Lie : 'Star Wars' was a fantasy all along; so was the Soviet threat.

August 20, 1993|JOHN TIRMAN | John Tirman is executive director of the Winston Foundation for World Peace in Washington. He was editor and co-author of two books arguing against "Star Wars."

The headline this week read: " 'Star Wars' Test Fooled Kremlin and Congress." As an early critic of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), I was not surprised by the story: The Pentagon rigged a 1984 test purporting to show that a U.S. missile had brought down a target missile over the Pacific. That and other falsified data were proffered as proof that President Reagan's dream to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" was achievable.

The hoaxes worked. Congress was persuaded to spend $30 billion on SDI. The hope was that the Kremlin would spend itself to death trying to catch up, even though scientists in both countries were highly skeptical of SDI's feasibility.

The deceit has been explained as necessary to waging the Cold War. In fact, it is part of a much larger pattern of dishonesty in which Congress and the American people were deceived as well--a pattern that persists to this day.

Two kinds of deception were practiced by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency during the 40-year U.S.-Soviet rivalry. The first was the "threat inflation" that depicted Soviet military power as far greater than it was actually known to be. This inflation was presented in tandem with a modest assessment of U.S. military capability. Thus the Soviet Bloc's numerical advantage in troops was routinely described as "overwhelming superiority," whereas NATO's technological edge was deemed to be so puny that the West required nuclear weapons to deter Moscow. Subsequent events show what a hollow army the Soviets fielded and how much technical power the Allies truly possessed.

The second form of deception was also inflationary: Controversial U.S. weapons in development were touted as major breakthroughs essential to national security, regardless of costs. The B-1 and B-2 bombers, the MX missile and countless other aircraft and ships were sold this way. This type of inflation was at the core of the "Star Wars" sales pitch.

Of course, the very idea of "Star Wars"--an "umbrella" that would shield America from Soviet nuclear warheads--was itself a massive deception. No knowledgeable scientist thought for a moment that such a shield was feasible. Yet the Pentagon proceeded with this fraud as if Reagan's fanciful notion had merit.

What's more, other faked tests followed in 1990 and 1991, after the Soviet "threat" had disappeared.

No, the deception was aimed at Capitol Hill and the American people, the same targets for the inflated estimates of Soviet power, the useless B-1 and B-2 bombers, the 600-ship Navy and so on. The intentional and sustained nature of these falsehoods is troubling not only for its financial costs, but for democratic governance. Closer scrutiny is warranted--certainly by historians, possibly by prosecutors.

A more gentle interpretation of this veil of deception might conclude that passions ran deep during the "twilight struggle" with communism. Inflation of threats and capabilities was simply another symptom of a war fever that many good people caught. That was then; the Cold War is over; let sleeping dogs lie.

Perhaps. But old habits die hard, and the Pentagon remains a bureaucracy prone to exaggeration. In our first post-Cold War venture, the war against Iraq, the claims for the Patriot anti-missile system, which was Israel's defense against Saddam Hussein's notorious Scuds, were consistently inflated. So, too, we've just learned, were the estimates of U.S. air power's destruction of Iraqi targets. For example, not a single Scud launcher was destroyed, despite regular claims otherwise.

More important today are defense estimates for the future. In May, the services told Congress that further cuts below the 10% trimming that President Clinton proposes would jeopardize national security. "We're on the ragged edge of readiness," said the chief of naval operations. The military insists that no major weapons system can be sacrificed, no mission can be scaled down. CIA Director R. James Woolsey, invoking threats like North Korea and Iran, similarly argues for keeping his budget nearly untouched at $28 billion.

Such claims are nonsense. The Pentagon and CIA enjoy both Cold War spending levels and the absence of a Cold War adversary. They again inflate the potential threats to national security to justify their oversized budgets. And Congress, fearful of the economic impact of further cuts, is again an accomplice in this charade.

The Pentagon's self-serving falsehoods must be put to an end. Investigating the "Star Wars" testing swindle could send a message across the Potomac that lying to the public and its elected representatives cannot be tolerated any longer.

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