In an oversight hearing on the US missile defense program last month, Philip Coyle III, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Department of Defense from 1994-2001, spoke to the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs about the almost impossible position it's in when it comes to oversight of this $150 billion - and counting - weapons program: "Congress does not have the information it needs to do oversight. If you don't have the information, and the Pentagon just says 'trust me', you can't really do oversight."
Yesterday on Capitol Hill, Lieutenant General Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, Director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), appeared before the subcommittee for the third in this series of hearings: "Oversight of Missile Defense (Part 3): Questions for the Missile Defense Agency." It seemed the General was there to illustrate Coyle's very point, as evident when Chairman John Tierney tried to gauge how realistic the testing has been for the system which purports to defend the US and Europe from ICBMs. Has the system been tested against even the most basic countermeasures and decoys that we would anticipate from a nation capable of developing such missiles?
"What I can say is we have flown against countermeasures in the past... we will continue to expand that in our future program," Gen. Obering said. "To have this conversation in a genuine fashion I need to go closed."
"I gotta tell you, General, how the American public is supposed to decide on something with this kind of enormity of expense and speculation [about] some of the capabilities is mind-boggling," Rep. Tierney said. "We over-classify so much in this country. Back when the President made the decision that he wanted to try to deploy this inoperable system in 2004, we asked for a General Accountability Office study on this - it was done. There were 50 questions addressed in the study. It came back, and the minute it came back it was classified all of a sudden. And... they don't classify stuff when it's good news around here these days.... I don't think it does a service to the American people at all or to this Congress to keep classifying everything on that basis."
".... I'm sure, Mr. Chairman, you would not want us to transmit in an open hearing to enemies around the world - Iran and North Korea - any kind of data that they could take advantage of in trying to overcome the system for the future," Gen. Obering replied. "I know you wouldn't want to do that."
"Of course not," Rep. Tierney fired back. "That's a tremendous red herring that we're not even talking about here. What we're talking about is the capacity of the people of this country [who are] spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this system - they ought to know against what it will work and against what it won't work. And I'm not sure that information is going to affect any other country's capacity... but it should affect our decision-making process of how we spend the taxpayers money."
Indeed, in his opening statement Chairman Tierney framed the hearing as necessary for three reasons: 1) because the MDA operates the largest research and development program in the Department of Defense at a current cost of $10 billion per year, and a total cost of approximately $150 billion since the 1980's; 2) as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service described the missile defense regime, "Numerous programs were begun, and only a very few saw completion to deployment. Technical obstacles have proven to be tenacious, and systems integration challenges have been more the norm, rather than the exception"; and 3) many preeminent experts such as Coyle "have raised very serious concerns about the effectiveness, efficiency, and even the need for our country's current missile defense efforts."
Rather than dispelling concerns over such matters as the scheduled purchase of 1200 new missile interceptors that have never demonstrated any capability against a realistic threat under realistic operational conditions, Gen. Obering intensified those concerns by simply repeating his refrain that everything is "on course." (It was as if Gen. Obering were channeling former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and offering his own version of "I don't recall.") Representative Betty McCollum was so irked that she suggested the program be housed in the Office of Faith-based Initiatives.
Coyle testified after Gen. Obering and was asked by Rep. Tierney if anything surprised him in the General's testimony. "... I was surprised at how many statements - including new statements that he made - that were certainly incomplete, misleading, or even untrue," Coyle said. "There were quite a few of them. I don't quite know where to begin. Perhaps it would be best if I provided that for the record. I was just surprised that he made a number of statements that I think are at best misleading." (Coyle is indeed furnishing the subcommittee with his account of Gen. Obering's testimony, and TheNation.com plans on obtaining that information for our readers.)
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Coyle pointed specifically to Obering's claims of successful "tests," noting that the General fails to mention that the tests didn't actually involve shooting down a target. "It's a little misleading to imply that we've got the matter in hand because of such tests when they don't actually involve shooting down a target," Coyle said.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, also testified before the subcommittee for the second time in the series of hearings.
"A lot of this boils down to what your definition of test is.... We have never done a realistic test against the kind of missile and the kind of countermeasures we could expect from even an Iran or a North Korea. And the reason we haven't done that is because we would miss," Cirincione said.
Nevertheless, The MDA continues to move forward with the funding and deployment of an unproven weapons system, and to Coyle that's a striking anomaly. "For all other US military systems we don't go into... large quantities of production until the system has been shown to be operationally effective.... It's a good policy. It helps the Congress know when it's time and when it's ready. I think the same policy ought to apply to missile defense procurement but so far it hasn't," he said.
Cirincione suggested that the MDA be disbanded and that the Joint Chiefs and commanders make a "first approximation" of the allocation of resources to missile defense as compared to other defense priorities. "If you do [this], Congress will then get recommendations... that are more complete and more balanced... than you will if you continue to have an agency that's only to promote anti-missile programs. An agency that now has a budget of some $10 billion a year - you create a very formidable advocate for these programs. If you're gonna try to get to the truth of what works and what's necessary, I think you have to take that advocate apart, and allow the influence of the rest of the services into these decisions. [The MDA] is a self-perpetuating money machine...."
Cirincione also recommended that Congress commission an independent organization such as the American Physical Society or the National Academy of Sciences to assess the anti-missile technologies.
After the hearing I spoke with Cirincione and he offered an even more pointed assessment of the anti-missile program and its advocates: "The way General Obering constantly tried to fool the Members with his test claims - unless you had been closely following the program you would have no idea that most of his claims of test successes relied on computer simulations, ground tests and flight experiments. There is something fundamentally dishonest in the way this program is spun to the Congress. It is sad that so many Members buy it."
With reporting from Capitol Hill by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2008 The Nation