July 10, 2000
Gwen Ifill leads a discussion on the Pentagon's second consecutive failed attempt to detonate a warhead in outer space.
OPERATION CONTROLLER: ...Three, two, one, zero.
GWEN IFILL: It was test number three for the 60 billion national missile defense system, and for the second time, the plan to destroy an incoming missile in outer space failed.
OPERATION CONTROLLER: Mark.
OPERATION CONTROLLER: Mark.
OPERATION CONTROLLER: Missile away, missile away.
GWEN IFILL: The problem was the system's so-called kill vehicle, which somehow failed to separate from the rocket carrying it. Launched over the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands late Friday night, it was designed to destroy a dummy warhead launched from a separate location over the Pacific. The Pentagon calls it hitting a bullet with a bullet, but the apparent malfunction occurred two minutes and 37 seconds into the $100 million test flight. At an early morning news conference, Pentagon officials said this was not a snafu they had planned for.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL RONALD KADISH, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization: I was more disappointed than shocked. I'm never surprised by the things that can happen. This was not... again, this is rocket science, and things do happen on this stuff that are unexpected, and... but of all the things we worried about and had risks associated with it, this was not something we thought would happen.
GWEN IFILL: The test failure had immediate repercussions back on Earth, where political as well as technical considerations may determine whether the U.S. launches a full-scale missile defense building program next spring. President Clinton had been expected to decide whether to move forward on an American-only missile shield in the next few months. That deadline is now in doubt.
SAMUEL BERGER: Obviously this does go to the question of technical feasibility, or how far along the system is, but we need an assessment from the Pentagon. We need recommendation of the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State and other of the President's national security advisers, and he will look at all of those factors that I mentioned, and make a judgment as to whether we should proceed or not.
GWEN IFILL: The proposed missile shield has attracted critics from many quarters. Some Democrats oppose building such a system at all, and Republicans say any decision on missile defense should be left to the next President.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I think the technological piece of this is not yet in place. I think we have some evidence of that over the last 48 hours. The cost obviously is not in place. I don't think we brought our allies on, and I don't think we've handled that very well, and how we're dealing with the Russians and the Chinese on this are important. We don't live in a vacuum.
GWEN IFILL: The missile defense system would essentially create a protective bubble over the United States. Clinton administration officials say it would guard against potential attack from countries like North Korea and Iran. Those nations, the officials say, are developing weapons which could be aimed at the United States within five years. Unless this weekend's malfunction causes new delays, a fourth test is scheduled for October.
|A second failed attempt|
GWEN IFILL: For more on the future of the missile defense program, what went wrong, and what happens next, we turn to Republican Congressman curt Weldon. He's chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Military Research and Development Subcommittee; John Hamre deputy secretary of defense from 1997 until this past April --he's now president of the center for strategic and international studies; and Theodore Postol is a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Congressman Weldon, what happened this weekend?
REP. CURT WELDON, (R) Pennsylvania: Well, it's one of those things that happens when you're in the midst of a testing program. It was not a failure of our hit-to-kill technology. It was a problem that rocket scientists solved 40 years ago, Warner Von Braun solved the problem of separation. And there's no more reason to stop this program than there would be to stop satellite launches if we failed to have a separation of a satellite launch. It was a technology associated with separation, not technology associated with hit-to-kill or actual missile defense. We've got to learn from that mistake and move on.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Postol, do you agree that this is something... what went wrong with this particular launch had nothing to do with the overall technology, just this one with the booster rocket basically?
THEODORE POSTOL, MIT: Yes. I agree with Congressman Weldon that this really has nothing to do with the technology that's at issue here. The real problem is... this is really an issue of serious mismanagement at the Pentagon. To really represent this failure as simply a stage not separating properly doesn't capture the scale of this failure. In fact, the booster in California had battery problems, which should not have occurred if management were done properly there. And then there was a failure to deploy a balloon, which also, incidentally, had been deployed for 40 years by the United States. We have the Echo Balloon program, the Echo satellites. That was deployed properly. And then the prior tests, we had a simple failure showing with the cooling system. So this -- I think Congressman Weldon is correct that this has nothing to do with the demonstration of the hit-to-kill technology, but it has everything to do with mismanagement at every level in the ballistic missile defense organization.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hamre, while you were at the Pentagon, you were at least in part the architect of this program. Mr. Postol makes a very strong case in some ways that this is a bigger problem than what we saw this weekend. Do you agree in any way with that?
JOHN HAMRE, Former Deputy Secretary of Defense: No, I don't. Every program manager has to make a balanced assessment of what are its highest risk, what are its most important priorities and what should he do with his limited resources. General Kadish is one of our talented program managers. He made a choice on how to apportion his dollars and time and talent. Unfortunately, as he said, that he was disappointed to find out this was failure in something that was assumed not to be prone to error. These systems have worked well for years and years. It was a prudent decision on his part. There was lots of oversight. Unfortunately it was wrong in this case.
GWEN IFILL: So what should happen with this program? Should it be put on hold until they figure out what went wrong or what should happen next?
JOHN HAMRE: No, I think you said it right in your lead. This is a setback, but not to the overall program. What we learned in this test was that this is hard. This is complex. It's difficult. But nobody would conclude from this that we shouldn't try to protect the country. I think we still need to go ahead. But this is tough science. This is tough engineering.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman Weldon, some people say that the Pentagon's problem in all of this is that they're trying to run before they can walk. They're overreaching on this program. The president wants to start 100 missiles at sites in Alaska -- all that sort of thing. Do you think that the president is overreaching, or do you think he's under reaching?
REP. CURT WELDON: No. Absolutely not at all. We've been doing years and years of research. Those who criticize us for rushing too quickly are the same who criticized the Congress for putting more money into the Pentagon's budget to do more testing. You can't have it both ways. If your going to criticize the Congress for putting more money into testing these systems, then don't criticize us if there's not enough money for the tests that you feel are necessary. We're not rushing anything. There is no date certain to complete this technology. We simply want this technology moved forward. Let's remember, in 1991, we brought 26 young Americans home in body bags because we couldn't defend against a low complexity Scud missile. I can tell you if the president had used the bully pulpit as John Kennedy did on challenging us to go to the Moon, we would have solved the problem of hit-to-kill years ago. But it's been the Congress fighting with the administration. It's been the Congress fighting with the leadership in moving forward. This is a strongly supported bipartisan program. And it will continue. We will work out the bugs, and we will solve the technology problems. And we will force these companies that have quality control issues to get their acts straight.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Postol, if there is indeed bipartisan support if this, is your question about the science of this?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I have questions about both the science and the engineering and management. I think this system is a bipartisan... has bipartisan support. And in fact, that's the problem in some respects. What we see is really a quite irresponsible congressional Republican leadership that would build this national missile defense whether or not it worked. This is their language, whether or not it worked.
REP. CURT WELDON: That's hogwash. That's hogwash.
THEODORE POSTOL: I'd appreciate if you'd let me speak.
REP. CURT WELDON: Well, I'd appreciate it if you'd state the facts.
GWEN IFILL: I'll get back to you. Excuse me, Congressman. I'll get back to you in just a moment.
THEODORE POSTOL: I think we should look at the Congressional record, and we will see the language they tried to get through was to build a national missile defense whether or not it worked. And it's not hogwash. It's quite serious, Congressman Weldon, because when you... You would not send our soldiers to the field with rifles built to a standard, whether or not they worked. And when you talk about defending the United States against nuclear attack, you should not apply that standard there, as well.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman Weldon your response?
THEODORE POSTOL: There are scientific issues here.
REP. CURT WELDON: Mr. Postol, first of all, is adamantly against missile defense. So he has somewhat of a bias.
THEODORE POSTOL: I think we should speak about the facts, Congressman.
REP. CURT WELDON: I can finish? I worked with Mr. Postol.
THEODORE POSTOL: I wasn't allowed the finish either.
REP. CURT WELDON: I had him in my office several months ago to support initiative he brought forward with Russia. When he had questions about our current technology, instead of coming back to me to have a hearing, with members of Congress in a classified session, he chose to go to the New York Times. He lost his credibility. As far as I'm concerned and members are concerned, he has no credibility. He has a bias, and his bias shows through consistently.
|A true need for missile defense?|
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hamre, let me bring you back into this. How real is the threat we're talking about? How necessary is this kind of project?
JOHN HAMRE: There are several countries in the world that are developing very long-range ICBM's, 5,000 mile missiles. There's absolutely no reason in the world that Iran would need a 5,000-mile missile or North Korea would need a 5,000-mile missile unless it's to do one thing, and that's to intimidate the United States. That's clearly what these programs are designed to do, and we can't let that happen. This president, no president can accept a situation where a small country could put at risk any city in the United States. And that's why we have to go ahead.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Weldon?
REP. CURT WELDON: That's absolutely credible. Dr. Hamre has the integrity that's impeccable. When he led the defense department, both Democrats and Republicans supported him because he's a credible leader, and he's exactly right. We don't want to rush anything, but we do want to move forward. And we are going to hold these contractors accountable as we did with the THAD program. When Lockheed Martin has had a quality control issue, we put in penalty, $10 million a failed shot to punish them - by their corporate profits. We'll do the same thing again to get this program on track. But we don't want to question General Kadish; we don't want to question Jack Gansler; and we don't want to question Secretary Cohen. They are good and decent people who are putting this country on the track of developing a defense against a threat that we cannot defend against.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman, you talk about penalties. What about the cost? This is a $60 billion project as President Clinton has proposed it.
REP. CURT WELDON: Well, it's not $60 billion.
GWEN IFILL: It was a $100 million test that blew up in the skies.
REP. CURT WELDON: If you're going to use figures, use correct figures. The $60 billion figure is not President Clinton's numbers. President Clinton has given us what he expects this program to cost over the life cycle. The $60 billion figure that you have cited is from a study that was done that has not been fully verified or vetted in front of the Congress. Let me say this to you. It is one half of 1 percent of our entire defense budget. I would ask you, how much is New York City worth? It is $60 billion or is it $100 billion? What's the price tag on two million people? Tell me what that's worth, then I'll tell you if one half of 1 percent of our defense budget is worth the investment to defend against an attack from a rogue state or an accidental launch from a country like Russia.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Postol, is it worth it?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, it would be worth it if the system had any chance at all of working. Right now you have a situation where these people cannot even launch a rocket. Think about this. 40 years of experience staging rockets, and these people screw it up. They screw up the payloads. They screw up the analysis; we caught them concealing data from first experiment.
REP. CURT WELDON: That's an absolute lie; that's an absolute lie.
THEODORE POSTOL: I would appreciate if the Congressman would allow me to finish please.
GWEN IFILL: Please finish.
THEODORE POSTOL: The first experiment in the missile defense program had data in it that showed they could not tell the difference between warheads and deploys. What they did is concealed the data. Now that's scientific fraud.
GWEN IFILL: When you take these allegations to the administration, what kind of response have you been getting?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, it's very interesting. I wrote a letter to the administration on 11 May detailing all these allegations with the information to support them, and I received no response, although a week later, one week later, I received information that my letter to the white House was canceled... was classified, sorry, classified secret. When I informed the White House about the letter being classified secret, I still received no response. Six weeks later...
REP. CURT WELDON: Can I answer that?
GWEN IFILL: Well, in a moment.
THEODORE POSTOL: Let me finish, Mr. Weldon. Six weeks later, three agents from the defense security service show up claiming that they're concerned about information in this letter. Six weeks. Now, how is anybody supposed to take this administration and, in fact, Mr. Weldon seriously the claim their concerns about security, when people show up six weeks later after supposedly something sensitive has been released.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Weldon, briefly, then I need to get back to Mr. Hamre.
REP. CURT WELDON: Mr. Postol was in my office last November when I supported an initiative he had with Russia called "Boost Phase Intercept." He knows he can come and see me in time. When he supposedly had evidence of lying, of covering up, he didn't come to me - where I would have given him a classified opportunity before Republicans and Democrats could go at the Defense Department. Instead he went to the New York Times. He didn't want the opportunity to have a factual response to his questions, because Mr. Postol has an agenda that is against missile defense. It's not to help solve problems. It's a grandstanding opportunity to try and portray himself as some kind of a savior for Americans. It just doesn't work. He no longer had any credibility with people on the Hill.
|It's rocket science|
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hamre, no matter whether you agree with what Mr. Weldon and Mr. Postol say on this, you're running out of time. There's a timetable, at least the administration thought it had a timetable by which it would decide whether to proceed - is there any way... is there anything we've learned this weekend which will inform this administration on whether or not to deploy?
JOHN HAMRE: This obviously was not a good development. We would have rather had a successful test. That would have made it easier for the president to decide. The president had complex balancing no matter what -- not just because of the performance of the missing. The fact that it didn't work properly, as Mr. Weldon pointed out, was not really on the most sensitive and complex technology. That's both good news and bad news. That part didn't fail. But we also didn't get a chance to test that part.
GWEN IFILL: But if that part had failed, would that have really changed your mind act whether this should go forward?
JOHN HAMRE: I have to defer. The president's going to make this decision. This is one of the few decisions only the president can make. But it's a case of having to balance the technical performance and the complexity of it. This is very hard. And to do it at the Same time you're trying to protect the country in the long run. The president said he will fairly and honestly evaluate it, even in light of this failure, and I think that's the right response. We have to wait for the department to do the analysis, to come forward, to answer the charges, and then try to provide a reasonable basis for the president.
GWEN IFILL: It's literally rocket science.
JOHN HAMRE: It is.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you all very much.