Mutually assured dysfunction

President Clinton's nuclear missile defense plan will spur a new arms race, a report by top intelligence agencies predicts.

Published August 11, 2000 6:02PM (EDT)

A highly classified new report by the nation's key intelligence agencies issued Thursday raises new questions about the efficacy of President Clinton's proposed missile defense system as a deterrent to nuclear conflict. According to officials who have seen the document quoted in news reports, the National Intelligence Estimate details the nuclear threat to the United States from countries such as Iran and North Korea, and lays out just how our nuke-equipped neighbors -- especially China and North Korea -- would stockpile missiles and warheads and share sensitive nuclear arms technology with their allies if the U.S. were to go ahead with the Clinton administration's National Missile Defense Plan.

Though the report, prepared by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, doesn't advocate or discourage Clinton's plan, it does ratchet up pressure as the president prepares to make a final decision on whether or not to press ahead with the controversial plan. The timely report addresses two of the most contentious issues Clinton says he must consider before reaching his decision: the scope of the current nuclear threat and what effect the plan, if deployed, would have on national security. (Two other areas Clinton must consider have also fueled the raging debate: the viability of the technology in the wake of high-profile test failures, and the missile defense system's multibillion-dollar price tag.)

Despite Americans' apathy toward foreign policy, missile defense has become an important part of the national dialogue. George W. Bush has even made it an issue in his presidential campaign, albeit with a grander space-based missile defense scheme even more extravagant and expensive than what Clinton is proposing. From the sound of the debate, you'd think the Cold War had never ended, and that America faces the imminent threat of a nuclear attack from China, Russia and the small hot spots around the globe that were, until recently, known as "rogue nations."

But the heated rhetoric isn't baseless. Even advocates of nonproliferation say the threat of a nuclear attack has increased since the Cold War. What's changed since then is the nature of the attack and the number of neighbors we have to fear -- which means our tactics of dealing with those threats has to change, too.

Salon spoke with Tyler Stevenson, project director of the Global Security Institute, which advocates international nuclear disarmament. GSI released its own report in May criticizing Clinton's missile defense plan, citing concerns similar to those addressed in Thursday's intelligence report.

What is your reaction to the report's assessment that Clinton's proposed missile defense program will spur a new arms race?

In the discussion that was generally against NMD for security reasons, this is what people have been already citing. It threatens arms buildup, it threatens proliferation -- horizontal and vertical, vertical meaning that China would increase its weapons from 20 to 200; horizontal meaning additional countries would get them on top of the eight that already do. It's going to result in a net decrease in our security. It's interesting to see [the findings of our report] confirmed in an official record that the intelligence community has come up with.

Because the report talks about the threat from North Korea being greater and coming sooner than expected, it seems that the proponents of a national missile defense are also likely to use the report in their arguments.

It does. This is really going to come down to the details of the report, which we're not privy to. One of the things that underscores the political reality, the political bolstering of the pro-NMD effort, is that if this threat [from North Korea] is coming sooner, if it's coming in 2002 or 2003 or sometime far sooner than their 2005 deadline, one wonders why they would push forward with a system that can't react until 2005. Does that mean we'll be vulnerable for two years?

It's not a hard and fast victory for people pushing for NMD ... because it's not a prize to be won -- it's about whether or not we are secure. But if we have a missile threat from North Korea in 2003, it seems like we would need to be flexible and do a reevaluation of what we can do to address that security threat. Because in that case, even the NMD that proponents say will work -- and there's a question about that of course, according to official statements -- still isn't going to meet the threat in time.

It says to those of us who work in nonproliferation and security that this national missile defense is really a Maginot line: They're building it, it can't move, it's not going to be able to meet different needs. And in the end, because we're divesting so much of our resources in creating it, we're going to have a defense that our opponents can just walk around.

There's also the wild card issue of whether a nuclear strike could come in under our radar -- not from a missile, but from a warhead that might get smuggled into the country by terrorists.

This is the monster in the closet that nobody wants to acknowledge. Robert Gallucci, the former ambassador who negotiated with North Korea and is now the dean of the school of foreign service at Georgetown University, offered the crucial new definition of security for the post-Cold War years. Here's his exact quote: "One of these days, one of these 'rogue' governments fabricates one or two nuclear weapons and gives them to a terrorist group created for this purpose. The group brings one of these bombs into Baltimore by boat, and drives another one up to Pittsburgh. Then the message comes to the White House: "Adjust your policy on the Middle East, or on Tuesday you lose Baltimore and on Wednesday you lose Pittsburgh." Tuesday comes, and we lose Baltimore. What does the U.S. do?

In the research and talks that we've conducted, we've never found an answer to this. It's a very difficult question to address, and it certainly can't be addressed by the Cold War thinking, which was missile-based. Quite frankly, there isn't an answer to it. The danger of [Clinton's missile defense] system is that by focusing on this unlikely method of delivery -- an ICBM missile, which has a launch signature that enables us to tell exactly where it came from -- we're ignoring this more difficult problem.

Now George W. Bush has made a missile defense program part of his political campaign platform. How do you think the presidential campaign will influence this controversy?

It's interesting. Bush mentioned it in his [nomination] acceptance speech. Al Gore has been sort of tacitly going along with the Clinton plan. But one of the difficulties we find in our organizing, as Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column last Friday, is that there probably aren't two American voters who care about foreign policy in an age of prosperity.

I don't know how much of an issue this is going to continue to be in the campaign. When people talk about foreign policy, this will probably be the one thing that comes up. Bush's plans really hearken more back to the Reagan ideas of an SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative], an integrated space-based system. That's a whole other barrel of monkeys because we don't know what that would cost; the technology hasn't been developed yet. It's an entirely different plan that basically means starting over. And again, we would ask, why are they working so hard on defending against ICBMs when development of this plan -- we don't even have a timetable for it?

Some people criticize groups like yours that deal with nonproliferation for not acknowledging that the threat of nuclear weapons is still real. But your organization has stated that the nuclear threat has increased, and that it's more likely now that a city will be attacked than it was during the Cold War, and that it's likely to be a U.S. city. How does nonproliferation address that threat?

In the Cold War, as odd as the ideologies were, they were matched funds for funds and superpower for superpower. There was a very coherent system of talks. They [the superpowers] could reach each other when it came to crisis. And it was basically the U.S. vs. Russia. What's happened now that bipolarity has been struck is that nuclear weapons aren't contained on either side, which threatens both vertical and horizontal proliferation. This is why we see it as a greater danger. Russia still has its nuclear weapons, but their command and control is seriously decreased. With their economic difficulties -- their soldiers aren't paid, their scientists aren't paid, morale is low -- the question arises: Will they sell their nuclear material? Is there is a chance that a terrorist group could get their hands on it?

So that's really what we're looking at. It's not so much about the capacity for 30-minute Armageddon that was such a question during the Cold War -- though that's still an issue based on the possibility of accidental launch. What we're looking at is the slow proliferation of even a few weapons into other states' hands. Once the nonproliferation regime crumbles, we've got a situation of many states with many nuclear weapons rather than the relatively contained situation we have right now. We're definitely at a crossroads.

If that old idea of Armageddon isn't the threat anymore, what is?

Because this security threat hasn't really been reassessed, because so much of the politics that created the Cold War are still in power in Washington, we wouldn't know how to address what happens if there was a nuclear terrorist attack anywhere in the world. Because of this, we look at the escalation.

The intelligence report is being sent to Congress next week. What impact do you think it will have on the proposed national missile defense plan?

It's really difficult to see how they could proceed with the current NMD plan given their threat assessment and the response that has been predicted. Our worry at GSI is that isolationist elements in the government, particularly in the House and Senate, are going to take this and say, "We can't let other countries bully us around." To proceed with plans on that logic would be a real hazard.

It's really staggering how we can legitimately say to the Russians and the Chinese that these interceptors aren't designed for [their] arsenals, and in fact use this as a reason to tell the Russians -- and, indeed, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists found talking points that we gave to the Russians saying, "You should hang on to your armaments because they could overcome our system." We've sacrificed disarmament on this altar of uninformed opinion.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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