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Live Online Special Coverage: Frontline
Special Report: Missile Defense
Post Coverage: National Security
Talk: National news message boards
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Frontline: 'Missile Wars'
With Sherry Jones
Producer, "Frontline"

Friday, Oct. 11, 2002; 11 a.m. ET

As much of the nation follows the ongoing war on terror and events in the Middle East, ground is being broken at a remote U.S. Army post in Alaska for one of the most controversial military programs in history: an antimissile defense system that could eventually cost taxpayers $200 billion.

Supporters claim a national missile defense program is essential to protecting America from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack launched by so-called rogue states. Critics argue that Sept. 11 was the grim confirmation that America's greatest national security threat is terrorism -- not a missile attack.

FRONTLINE's "Missile Wars," airing Thursday, Oct. 10, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), examines both sides of the missile defense debate. Through interviews with staunch proponents, skeptical scientists, and military and intelligence experts, the one-hour documentary investigates this multibillion-dollar -- yet still unproven -- weapons system, explores the current rationale for missile defense, and probes whether it will protect America from the greatest threats it now faces. Producer Sherry Jones was online on >Friday, Oct. 11.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Sherry, and welcome. Can you explain the role and function of the Defense Policy Board -- not only in terms of missile defense, but its role in U.S. military and foreign policy overall?

Sherry Jones: The Defense Policy Board is essentially a private advisory board for the secretary of defense. Its members are appointed by the secretary of defense, and they have no official role in policy. It's a private advisory body for the secretary of defense. I assume that the power of the board waxes and wanes depending on the person who is its head and his or her relationship to the secretary of defense.

St. Petersburg, Fla.: WOW! Not surprising your leftist news organization is teamed up with PBS on this politically motivated report which you just happen to air shortly before the national election.

Organizations like yours, PBS and NPR and your biased reporting supporting and regurgitating the party (Democratic) line makes me think what life behind the Iron Curtain was like with politically controlled and sponsored journalism. Comrade is Saddam one of your bosses, too? He controls media in his country like Communists did and still do in theirs. Oh! That's right you left wingers want socialism anyway. Tell you what I'll send you a yellow hat with a big red star on the front so you can wear it at all your party rallies. You'll fit right in with the rest of the herd mentality.

Sherry Jones: First of all, we worked on this report for more than a year; in fact, the research began before Sept. 11, 2001. It was originally scheduled to air in June, so the fact that it aired in October indicates that we wanted to wait to make sure we had the cooperation of Sec. Wolfowitz and Gen. Kadish, and we wanted to make sure they were included in the program. I believe that we let all sides speak exactly what they thought and further, their full interviews are on the Frontline Web site.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think President Clinton copped out by punting the decision on whether to go forward with a missile defense program to President Bush?

Sherry Jones: I wouldn't use the words "copped out." I do think as we reported, as with many domestic issues, President Clinton "triangulated" on missile defense. I do think that as that third test in the summer of 2000 approached (that you see in the broadcast) it was pretty much shared wisdom that the president wasn't going to decide to go forward one way or the other. He certainly wasn't going to decide not to move forward for political reasons related to Gore's candidacy, and was going to leave it for the winner of the 2000 election.

Jasper, Ark.: Do the leading political proponents of missile defense have financial interest in the companies doing the work and providing the technology?

Sherry Jones: I don't know the answer to that question. At the beginning of our research into this devilishly complicated topic, as with all reporters, you have a list of questions you want to try to answer. We did have the role of the defense contractors and the potential role of campaign contributions in the list of the things we wanted to report. But pretty quickly, the reporting team, including two reporters from the New York Times, Michael Gordon and William Broad, decided that the politics of the resurrection of missile defense on the one side and the questions of technology on the other side were the two really important, mostly underreported aspects this topic. So that's where we decided to concentrate our efforts.

There are organizations, the Center for Responsive Politics is one, the World Policy Institute is another, have done a great deal of work looking at contractors' budgets and campaign contributions.

Moorpark, Calif.: Ms. Jones,

Having worked on one portion of the Missile Defense program I have some firsthand knowledge. This documentary was devoted entirely to the interceptor defense program known as National Missile Defense (NMD). Did your research staff investigate enough to understand that in addition to the interceptor program there also exist programs to develop space based laser, airborne laser and ground based laser defenses?

Sherry Jones: Yes, we did research the potential laser programs, as Philip Coyle, the former head of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon, writes on 'Missile Wars' Web site, the airborne laser is experiencing lots of different technical difficulties, and the space-based laser is still on the drawing board. Until an airborne laser can be made to operate, as I understand it, space-based laser is still a long time away. In fact, Philip Coyle, who worked on lasers for SDI, says he does not think that we will see a space-based laser in his lifetime.

washingtonpost.com: In an online discussion in 2000, former CIA director James Woolsey discussed a "space based, boost-phase intercept of limited type" missile defense. He argued that it would be both easier and cheaper than the mid-course system on which the U.S. is focused. Did you encounter any support for such a system in your research for this show?

Sherry Jones: I've just answered the question about space-based lasers, and space-based lasers are mostly thought of to shoot down a missile in its boost phase -- in other words, when the rocket is boosting the warhead into orbit. There are other proposals for boost-phase defenses, including ship-based boost phase. I think that there are many within the missile defense establishment who believe that ship-based boost phase is a promising technology. The problems are, first, that we would have to develop a rocket that is twice as fast as any in our arsenal at the moment. Second, that we would have to, in all likelihood, build larger ships that could launch these new rockets. Third, this kind of ship-based boost phase system could be effective against a country like North Korea, where we could be close, and once the rocket launch was detected we would be close enough and with these new faster missiles, fast enough to intercept.

The problem with ship-based boost phase, which many in the political debate I fear do not understand, is that it would not be effective against a launch from deep inside China, or deep inside Russia. For countries like Iran and Iraq, geopolitical problems are raised, because we would have to work with our allies in order to base ships close enough to countries like that.

So with all of these systems, everything is devilishly complicated, not only with the technology but with the geopolitics.

Wheaton, Md.: Missile defense is important but it seems the real threat would be terrorist groups, such as PLO, Hamas or al Qaeda smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the country. Are there any current programs underway to prevent this?

Sherry Jones: This report did not deal with the current programs that are underway to combat terrorism. What we did discover was that consistently, over the last decade or more, was that the intelligence community the Joint Chiefs of Staff have ranked the threat of a missile attack against the United States and its homeland very low in its strategic worries. At the top of the list consistently was a terrorist attack, or as they say officially, weapons of mass destruction delivered by terrorist-style means. And it seems to me that Gen. Eugene Habiger raised one of the fundamental questions in the program, and that is: With the war on terrorism, can we afford the billions of dollars that the missile defense program is going to cost?

Richmond, Va.: It's mentioned near the end of the program that further missile intercept tests will be classified. I was wondering if there is any kind of review board or process in place that can verify the status of the program and relay it to Congress to keep them appraised.

I am not against missile defense per se and I understand the desire for secrecy, a la the Manhattan Project, but as your presentation illustrates, there are very real questions regarding such a massive undertaking.

Sherry Jones: The Missile Defense Agency assures us that the relevant committees in Congress will receive information about the tests. What concerns skeptics is that the discovery of problems in the previous tests has not come from the Congress, but from outside scientists and others. And as best I understand it, those outside independent investigators will not be receiving the information.

washingtonpost.com: One of the more interesting parts of your story was the argument over whether politics influenced the intelligence analysts who made recommendations about NMD. Newt Gingrich insisted that it did, Joseph Cirincione testified that it did not. What does that say about the veracity of the intelligence and the interference of politics?

Sherry Jones: I think that we reported what two sides both believe. Former Speaker Gingrich and other proponents of missile defense, claim that intelligence, particularly the 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, was politicized. Dr. Richard Cooper, who was the head of the National Intelligence Board at the time, flatly denies it. Frankly, others off the record during our research, also denied that the estimate was politicized. And as we reported, the first commission that the Congress established to critique the intelligence community, that was headed by former CIA director Robert Gates, concluded that not only had the estimate not been politicized, but it was members of Congress who were trying to influence the intelligence estimate. And the Gates Commission further reported that the evidence that there would not be an ICBM threat to the United States for at least 15 years was stronger than what was included in the National Intelligence Estimate.

I actually think it's been interesting the last few days, watching the reporting about what the CIA thinks about the threat posed by Iraq. And having reported this story on the politics of the threat in missile defense, I think this is a cautionary tale. Because it's impossible for most of us to figure out what kind of political pressure is in fact going on behind the scenes within the intelligence community.

Durham, N.C.: In all the discussion of whether these systems will work, has there been much discussion of how they'll work, that is the command and control aspects of NMD systems? During the Cold War, the president notoriously had just a few minutes to make a decision on retaliation. With an interceptor site in Alaska, the decision on whether to fire or not to fire an interceptor must be made in even less time. We've all heard of "false alarms" of missile launches; what would happen if an interceptor were fired in error? Also, NMD is billed as moving us away form the need for retaliation; does this mean we would NOT retaliate for a missile attack that was successfully intercepted? If so, does that lower the threshold for a potential aggressor? If not, how are we moving "away" from retaliation?

Sherry Jones: The general question of command and control -- I'm sure that the Missile Defense Agency and the Pentagon are considering that, but we're not there yet. One thing that I would like to emphasize, which was briefly mentioned in our report, is that all of the testing that has happened so far is what's called "developmental testing." And that means the tests are basically being run by the Pentagon and the defense contractors. There are many many more developmental tests that have to succeed before we move to operational testing. And operational testing means that instead of defense contractors, it will be members of the armed services who will be conducting the tests, and they will be conducting them in real world conditions: bad weather, at night, in simulated combat conditions. So the one program that is being tested is a long way away from the real world.

A second point about command and control is that particularly for any boost phase defenses, the boost phase lasts, at most, about 300 seconds. So the president probably would not have time to make that decision. A decision would be automatic.

In terms of the question of retaliation, many of the people who are involved in this and knowledgeable about the entire subject, and certainly the skeptics raise this very point. And that is, a country launching an ICBM attack on the United States would be committing suicide, because of course the United States would retaliate. And as is pointed out in the program, we know within half a minute when a missile has been launched -- not only that it's been launched, but where it's been launched from.

Fairfax, Va.: First of all, who are you and what are your credentials for presenting this topic?

Sherry Jones: I am a documentary film producer, based in Washington, D.C. this was my 25th program for Frontline. Not to pat myself on the back, but because you asked about my credentials, our films have won seven Emmys, three DuPont Columbia awards, three Peabody awards and three Edward R. Murrow awards from the Overseas Press Club.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: In last night's program, I didn't see any clear reference to central Alaska's Ft. Greely -- up to now abandoned but soon to be resurrected as a testing/command facility for the latest Star Wars initiative. As a displaced Alaskan and graduate of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, some 115 odd miles up the road North of the fort, I am curious as to why it was chosen for this dubious honor of becoming the first chink in the armor of a new space-based missile defense system. Can you offer any insights into why Ft. Greely got the nod, other than the hefty influence of Sen. Ted Stevens (of course)? Surely there were plenty of likely candidates for this site throughout the western U.S.? Thanks much.

Sherry Jones: I don't know the background story of why Ft. Greely was chosen, other than that during the Clinton administration, the land-based mid-course system was clearly being thought of as a defense against a threat from North Korea. The program did not specifically mention Ft. Greely last night, but when we mentioned and when Gen. Kadish mentioned the "test bed" that's being constructed, it is in fact at Ft. Greely. There have been some questions about whether the kill vehicles should ever be launched from Ft. Greely, which, as you know, is not far from a populated area. But other than noting those questions, we did not report that any further.

Arlington, Va.: You ask the questions "is the threat real?" and "can the technology work?" Knowing that missile defense technology is still on the cutting edge and that the threat of an attack is currently small, isn't it sound policy to work on development and improvement of the technology while the threat is still very low?

Sherry Jones: I think that people who have been intimately involved with missile defense and defense systems over the years believe that it's prudent to continue research and development on what seem to be technologically possible systems. Most people -- I think there's very little argument about the importance of building defenses against short-range ballistic missiles, and in fact, we have been pursuing this since the 1991 Gulf War, when the missile system that was pulled into use to try to defend against the SCUDs that Iraq launched were deemed to have been a failure.

But as evidence of just how technologically difficult this is, even though the development of the PAC-3 has been fully funded and tested, the Pentagon a few months ago postponed the decision about deploying for at least a year because of failures once the system moved to operational testing -- in other words, testing by members of the armed services.

So I think what concerns people about what appears to be a crash program that's now being pursued, is mostly about the amount of money that's being spent and will be spent, and second, the question of basing a foreign policy and a military policy around an unproven system

Washington, D.C.: Some people that I've talked to that disagree with the report say that the low success rate for these tests are just misinformation. That the success rates and probability for making this work are much higher. What would you say to people that believe this?

Sherry Jones: From all that I understand, in fact it's the opposite -- that the tests thus far have mostly been repeats of previous tests. The last test, which was a little more than six months ago, was the first test where additional decoys had been added. But there's very little information on that test. I think one of the most revealing statements in the program was from Gen. Kadish, when he was being asked about solving the decoy problem. And he said I would not be so arrogant as to say that it was insoluble, or soluble for that matter.

There's a much broader discussion of all the tests thus far on the Web site: Missile Technology: Can it work?

Piscataway, N.J.: How good is Russia's missile defense system? I believe they have a missile defense system around Moscow.

Sherry Jones: They do have a missile defense system around Moscow. Back in the '70s, when President Nixon negotiated and signed the anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with then-Gen. Secretary Brezhnev, each country was allowed to deploy one system. The United States chose Safeguard to protect its offensive missiles, and the Soviets chose to protect Moscow. I have honestly done no reporting on the status of that Russian system today, but given the general deterioration in Russian missile forces and the Russian armed services, I have no idea how operational it might be.

Swarthmore, Pa.: What conclusions do you draw about the most salient reasons we are building a missile defense? Are we actually doing it to protect us against missiles? If so, which ones? Is the program rather a first step in a broader strategic program with more nebulous goals?

Sherry Jones: First of all, we just talked a few minutes ago about defense against against short-range ballistic missiles that would protect our troops on the battlefield. I think that is something that is supported by virtually everyone from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to members of Congress, and I believe I have been told by scientists and those involved in the technology that eventually we will deploy that system.

In terms of long-range missiles, I think you raise an important point, because while much of the public debate focuses on fears of a surprise attack by rogue states on the United States, policy makers have a more complex scenario in mind. We dealt with this some in the program last night when we referred to the idea that in geopolitical strategy, missile defense has much more to do with offense. As we said in the program, the United States would be much more likely to wield the sword if it has a shield in place. Several people that I interviewed off the record said to me that if you understand that as the primary rationale for missile defense, you can better understand why the technological problems are not as troubling. Because we say we have a defense, and we act as if we have a defense. However, as Prof. Weinberg said in the program last night, one of his major concerns is the danger of contemplating a foreign and military policy as if we have a defense that works if it doesn't.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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