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THE NATION

Missile Data to Be Kept Secret

Military: The Pentagon will restrict information on its antimissile tests. Critics say the Bush administration is trying to quash debate.

June 09, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will now keep secret key information on its missile defense program, a blow to opponents who have relied on such data to challenge the technology as error-prone and not ready for deployment.

Administration officials said they will withhold the data, which concerns flight tests of the program's most advanced long-range system, to prevent U.S. adversaries from gaining secrets about hardware intended to shield the nation from nuclear attack. Critics of the program, including some influential lawmakers, say the move is an attempt to stifle criticism and allow the administration to control the debate on the system's future.

"They're attempting to avoid the usual oversight by Congress, the media ... and the larger scientific community,'' said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee that oversees the project. "There's an attitude of 'we know best, don't bother us.' "

Highlighting its technical weaknesses has been opponents' best hope for slowing the long-debated program. In recent years, critics have repeatedly used Pentagon data from missile defense flight tests to challenge whether the experiments were as successful as claimed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 211 words Type of Material: Correction
Missile defense--A story in Section A on Sunday incorrectly described the launch sites of recent U.S. missile defense tests. The target missile in the tests is fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base and the interceptor missile from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, not the other way around.

The new policy comes during a year when the administration already has moved aggressively to try to ensure the progress of the program, which is a priority for President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Five months ago, Rumsfeld gave the Missile Defense Agency unusual managerial autonomy and removed procurement procedures that usually ensure new weapon programs remain on track and within budget. Administration officials believe these unusual measures are needed to swiftly carry out a program that is urgently needed because of the growing missile threat from countries such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Critics maintain that the new independence and secrecy increases the chances that the Pentagon will spend tens of billions of dollars on a national antimissile system that doesn't work, as it did in the early 1970s.

Under the new policy, the Pentagon will continue to give a week's public notice before tests and announce whether the tests were successful, officials said. But they said they will be providing less information on test targets and on the decoy devices that are used to try to fool the missile interceptors. Some details of the secrecy policy are still being considered, they added.

The Pentagon conducts tests of its land-based antimissile system by shooting a long-range target missile into space from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. On its nose is a dummy warhead that serves as the target.

A few minutes later, an interceptor missile is fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County carrying a 4-foot-long "kill vehicle." At about 140 miles in space, the kill vehicle begins maneuvering; it tries to pick out the target from the decoys and collide with it.

In earlier tests, officials have described the size, shape, composition and deployment time of decoys. But in the next test, due in early August, officials may describe them only as "balloons" or "plastic replicas," said Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman. "That's probably about as specific as we'll go."

He said the agency intends to disclose as much information as it can and to keep Congress abreast of developments. He said it is routine to step up secrecy as weapon programs become mature and knowledge of weaknesses becomes more valuable to potential enemies.

Critics don't dispute the need for secrecy, but they maintain that it is not necessary now since the system remains in an early stage of development, years from deployment.

"We don't think they need it," said Stephen Young, a missile defense analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Data on targets and decoys have been a key part of critics' challenges for almost two decades.

In 1984, during the Reagan administration, critics said the Pentagon heated a target so that it would be easier for an infrared missile seeker to spot against the cold background of space.

After the most recent test of the ground-based system, in March, the Union of Concerned Scientists challenged a statement by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz that three decoys employed were similar to the warhead and thus were a good test of the seeker's abilities to discriminate.

The group said the decoys had a different shape and had different heat signatures than the target.

James M. Lindsay, a former National Security Council aide now at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan public policy center in Washington, said the Pentagon "has a legitimate security interest" and noted that it remains to be seen just how far the Pentagon will push the new security rules.

Yet Lindsay, who is an advocate of missile defense, added that he believes the administration's conduct of the "war on terrorism" and this issue "reflect the Bush administration's preference not to give out information."

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