Published on Saturday, March 9, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Critics Fault Rumsfeld for Cutting Oversight of Antimissile Plan
by Susan Milligan
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's little-publicized decision to reduce internal oversight and monitoring of the US missile defense program has raised fresh concern among scientists and lawmakers who think that the costly experimental program should have more, not less, scrutiny.
In the past five years, three of five antimissile tests have hit their targets, according to the Pentagon. Critics note, however, that the tests have been radically altered to increase the probability of success. Only a single decoy missile has been deployed, rather than the scores expected in an actual attack, and the target missile has been equipped with a homing beacon to guide the interceptor.
Despite the questions, Rumsfeld announced in January that the program would be subject to less internal oversight, and critics say it would get less independent monitoring of its tests.
Lieutenant Colonel Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said the new configuration does not shut out congressional oversight. Lehner said the change was simply an effort to streamline what was otherwise a cumbersome bureaucratic process.
''The guidance given to MDA is to develop the technology for missile defense as soon as possible,'' he said. ''In order to do that, there are some obvious changes to the normal development and acquisitions process.''
With a January directive, Rumsfeld elevated the program to agency status. His directive frees the Missile Defense Agency from normal Pentagon requirements that program managers show they have passed certain milestones before the program can be continued.
Usually, managers of weapons systems have to periodically demonstrate that the program is progressing and indicate how close it is to meeting its intended purpose. Removing that requirement means that the program could move along more swiftly, unimpeded by questions from elsewhere in the Defense Department or from lawmakers tracking its progress.
The agency would have more authority to move money around within its own budget, rankling critics who believe that the change could shield the process from congressional appropriators and dilute the role of Congress in deciding where and how federal dollars are spent.
''This new MDA program seems to be designed to spend money, not necessarily to reach results,'' said Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Lowell and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. ''We're investing [nearly] $8 billion in missile defense this year, and we're being asked not to attach any strings onto that money. I don't think that's the kind of accountability the taxpayers demand.''
Theodore Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a frequent critic of the missile defense program, charged that the new agency was intended to push through what he called a questionable program without holding it to historical Pentagon standards.
''I think it's designed to basically remove all requirements for performance, so there's no standard for judging the system,'' Postol said. ''They essentially remove all standards whatsoever from the process.''
It is unclear whether Rumsfeld can make the changes unilaterally, said staff members and lawmakers in both parties. But Congress could use its appropriations power to pressure the defense secretary to reverse himself if there is enough concern on Capitol Hill, the staff members said.
Some members of Congress are alrady grumbling that the Bush administration is not consulting with them, particularly on military matters.
But Lehner insisted that ''oversight from Congress hasn't changed at all,'' pointing out that Congress has control over overall budgeting.
But some lawmakers and defense specialists disagree. ''There's a question there as to whether there's going to be enough oversight,'' said William Lynn, vice president of DFI International and an undersecretary of defense during the Clinton administration ''The question is, are we going to get something that works?''
About $60 billion has been spent on the missile defense program since the mid-1980s. This year's budget is $7.8 billion, an increase of more than 50 percent over last year, and President Bush is asking Congress for $7.8 billion for next year.
Democrats in both houses are expected to try to use the missile defense issue as a way to discuss the role of the US military in the post-Sept. 11 world. Some Democrats have begun to question the scope and vision of the administration's mission against terrorism, but are skittish about criticizing the president while US troops are in combat.
But supporters of missile defense argue that the current crisis reinforces the need for such a weapon by showing how dangerous the world remains.
''The prospects are very good and obviously dramatically improved since 9-11,'' said Representative Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
As a reserve naval officer, Kirk was at the Pentagon in 1994, when a North Korean missile, later determined to be a test weapon, was spotted cruising toward the US West Coast. Commanders discussed two unpalatable options: waiting until the missile landed and thus risking the annihilation of 4 million Americans in Seattle or firing back at North Korea, potentially killing even more.
Fortunately, Kirk recalled, the missile landed short of US shores. ''We looked at each other and said, `There is no moral option here,''' he said. ''The two options we had involved the deaths of millions of people. If we had missile defense, we would have a moral option.''
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