STAR WARS - THE SEQUEL
JUNE 4, 1996
The hot defense project of the Reagan era, the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system, has been reborn by Congressional Republicans as the Defend America Act. It's being debated before the Senate and is rapidly becoming a presidential campaign issue for Senator Dole. Following a Kwame Holman background piece, Elizabeth Farnsworth moderates a debate on the issue between Senators Jon Kyl (R) and Carl Levin (D).
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In a straight party vote, the U.S. Senate refused today to cut off debate on a question that has evoked strong passions in the past: Should the United States spend billions of dollars defending itself against possible missile attacks? Kwame Holman reports on how the issue has outlasted the Cold War.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (1985) We're talking about a defensive shield that won't hurt people but will knock down nuclear weapons before they can hurt people. (applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: President Reagan called it the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based defense system to protect the United States from an all-out nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. It would include satellites that could detect a massive nuclear launch within seconds, orbiting lasers to destroy the first wave of missiles, laser-equipped submarines that could defend against the next round of attacks, and a ground-based missile system providing the last line of defense.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (1985) Some say it will bring war to the heavens. But its purpose is to deter war in the heavens and on earth. Now some say the research would be expensive. Perhaps, but it could save millions of lives, indeed, humanity itself.
KWAME HOLMAN: Critics, however, questioned whether such a system would even work.
SEN. JOHN GLENN, (D) Ohio: (1985) General Abramson was here one day, and he likened the whole Star Wars thing to the Apollo Project. You just have to decide to go and go ahead, and I told him then that I thought that was nonsense because when we decided to do the Apollo Project, we knew all the engineering. Yet we talk about Star Wars as though all we have to do is decide to go and we go, and that's just pure nonsense because the physics hasn't been invented yet to do Star Wars.
JAMES SCHLESINGER, Former Secretary of Defense: It is different from the Apollo program in another way. The moon is basically an inanimate object. In this case we are dealing with a calculating foe on the other side, sometimes a foe that we regard as malevolent, a foe that will be prepared to take counter measures, very intelligent counter measures against whatever it is that we deploy. So the solution of the physics problems on our side even if we get there does not solve the problem.
SEN. JOHN GLENN: And the moon wasn't likely to change course, nor was it likely to shoot back.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even though opponents coined the name "Star Wars," supporters used it to promote the idea.
LITTLE GIRL IN AD: I asked my daddy what this Star Wars stuff is all about. He said that right now we can't protect ourself from nuclear weapons and that's why the President wants to build the peace shield. It would stop missiles in outer space so they couldn't hit our house.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congress gave President Reagan money to research a space-based missile defense system, but its deployment ultimately was blocked due, in large part, to the efforts of Georgia Senator Sam Nunn. Nunn, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made an exhaustive study of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and concluded such a defense system violated that U.S.-Soviet agreement.
SEN. SAM NUNN, Chairman, Armed Services Committee: (1987) I noted that successive administrations, including this administration, the Reagan administration, had prior to 1985 consistently indicated that the treaty banned the development and testing of mobile space-based ABM's using exotics.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nunn's influence over defense issues convinced President Bush to introduce a less ambitious plan to protect the country against a limited nuclear attack, a ground-based defense similar to the Patriot missiles launched against Iraqi Scuds during the Persian Gulf War. But the plan also would rely on thousands of guided heat-seeking defense missiles in earth's orbit. President Bush called them "brilliant pebbles." But that too was considered by many to be a violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty.
LES ASPIN, Secretary of Defense: (1993) It's almost impossible to overstate the degree to which the defenses of the United States were focused on the Soviet Union even to the way we designed weapon systems.
KWAME HOLMAN: The end of the Cold War put plans for a space-based missile defense system on the shelf but not for long. Republicans took it down, dusted it off, and made it part of their Contract With America in 1994. It's back now with the title "The Defend America Act," and it's become part of Senator Bob Dole's Presidential campaign.
SEN. BOB DOLE, Republican Presidential Candidate: If I ask most people what would you have the President do if there was an income missile, ballistic missile, you would say shoot it down. We can't because President Clinton opposes it. And we support it.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Defend America Act would require that the Pentagon deploy by the year 2003 a national defense system against a limited nuclear attack. The cost, according to the Congressional Budget Office, $14 billion. But the system would expand over time to create a layered defense against "larger and more sophisticated ballistic missile threats as they emerge." CBO says that would bring the cost to between 31 and 60 billion dollars. Those recent estimates gave some Republican deficit hawks sticker shock, forcing their defense-minded colleagues to re-work the plan and giving President Clinton an opportunity to push his more scaled down and less costly approach.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The possibility of a long-range missile attack on American soil by a rogue state is more than a decade away. To prevent it, we are committed to developing by the year 2000 a defensive system that could be deployed by 2003 well before the threat becomes real. I know that there are those who disagree with this policy. They have a plan that Congress will take up this week that would force us to choose now a costly missile defense system that could be obsolete tomorrow.
KWAME HOLMAN: The President is expected to veto The Defend America Act if it's sent to him, but Republicans in the Senate are having trouble scheduling a vote. This afternoon, Democrats refused to end debate on the missile defense plan and might continue to refuse indefinitely.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now we get more from two Senators in the middle of this debate. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, is a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Arms Control Observer Group. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, is a member of the Armed Services Committee and also serves on the Arms Control Observer Group. Thank you both for being with us. Sen. Kyl, why, in your view, should the United States deploy a missile defense system by the year 2000 as outlined in the, in the Act?
SEN. JON L. KYL, (R) Arizona: (Capitol Hill) As the CIA and the former CIA directors have all noted, there is a significant threat of proliferation. The former CIA director, Jim Woolsey, called it the most significant threat that faces us. And he has been critical of the Clinton administration for downplaying the threat. But the President, himself, has acknowledged the threat. As a matter of fact, he issued in December of last year an executive order which said because the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, the national emergency declared November 14th of last year must continue in effect beyond November of 1995. The President has acknowledged the threat. The disagreement is simply how soon to try to meet that threat and specifically how to do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Sen. Kyl, a threat from whom?
SEN. KYL: The threat primarily that we are concerned with right now is either an accidental launch from a country like Russia or China, an unauthorized launch from one of those countries, or in the future a launch by a country we call them a rogue state, a country like North Korea, Libya, uh, Iraq, Iran, one of those countries, either in an effort to blackmail the United States into taking action or not taking some kind of foreign policy action or in specific relationship to some military conflict. Frankly, I think the larger immediate concern is that a country like China, which threatens Los Angeles if we defend Taiwan, or Libya, which says if they had a missile, they would fire it at us, I think the more immediate concern is that it's difficult for us to conduct our foreign policy if other nations have these missiles, threaten to use them against us, or our allies, and we have no means of defending against them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Levin, why do you oppose a missile defense system against that kind of threat?
SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D) Michigan: (Capitol Hill) The Pentagon, the top military leadership of this country, oppose it. They oppose it very strongly. They do not want to make a commitment now to deploy a system which has not been developed and not been tested. They feel very--and Gen. Shalikashvili has written to Sen. Nunn opposing the Dole Act because to commit ourselves now to deploy a system which could cost up to $60 billion would do two things which are bad in Gen. Shalikashvili's view, one, it would spend resources, up to $60 billion for unproven technology, but two and probably even more important, it would undermine our agreement with Russia, which is that we will not deploy these systems, and to go ahead now and commit, as this bill would do, to the deployment of these systems will cause Russia, we've been told directly this by the Russian leadership, will cause Russia to not proceed with the, the dismantlement of weapons under START I and will cause them not to ratify START II and both of those agreements result in a great reduction of nuclear weapons. So if we pursued--proceed now to deploy this system, we will, in fact, be increasing the number of nuclear weapons in this world because Russia will no longer comply with START I, as she's entitled not to if we go ahead with this illegal system, and she will not ratify START II.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'll come back to that issue in one second but first, on Sen. Kyl's point that we have threats from North Korea and other rogue states and other kinds of threats too, how do you respond to that?
SEN. LEVIN: There are potential threats, and what the Pentagon wants to do, our top military leadership wants to do here is to get ready to deploy in three years but not make a commitment now because we're not ready to make this commitment and because it would undermine our agreement with the Russians. So yes, there's a potential threat that, no, do not commit to deployment now when it will precipitate an increase in the number of nuclear weapons kept by the Russians and potentially threatening us through proliferation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Kyl, first on that, the Pentagon's view that we could wait, and second, the ABM issue, the anti-ballistic missile treaty.
SEN. KYL: First of all, the Pentagon is taking orders from the President who opposes this I would argue primarily on political grounds. I got the letter from the general right here, and there isn't a word in here about opposing the Dole bill. As a matter of fact, Carl is right about one thing here. He says that this could cause a reaction by the Russians if it's deemed a violation of the ABM Treaty, but Sam Nunn, the Senator from Georgia, who also opposes this, has a plan of his own which would also violate the ABM Treaty. In either case, the fact of the matter is there's no violation of the ABM Treaty because the treaty, itself, allows for amendment. And The Defend America Act specifically says that we should negotiate with the Russians in an effort to resolve any issues that might result in a violation if we proceeded. And if we cannot reach an agreement with the Russians, the ABM Treaty, itself, provides that with six months notice we can withdraw from the treaty. So it's not a violation of the Treaty. It's simply the United States doing what is in our best interest to defend the people of the United States. The bottom line is this: There is no defense against an incoming missile for the people of the United States. We're supporting Israel. We're supporting other countries to defend themselves, but we're not supporting the United States. And sooner or later, we've got to deploy a system that can do that. I would rather be too early than be too late.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Sen. Kyl, what about the costs, the cost issue? Do you take the, the Congressional Budget Office figures as possible, that this is what it would cost?
SEN. KYL: No. There are a lot of problems with the CBO study. It's a very difficult and confusing study to understand. But I think your, your preliminary story had it about right. They say that it would cost between ten and fourteen billion dollars on the initial phase, and then they say that if you later wanted to provide the kind of space system that was described in the story but our bill leaves that totally up to the President. So we're not proposing that at this point, that the cost could be much higher. The cost in that event would run probably about thirty to thirty-five billion dollars. But this now would be paid for over a period of maybe fifteen or twenty years, so we're not talking about a significant amount in any given year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Levin, what about that point about amending the missile treaty, that the United States could move forward slowly, try to amend, and then pull out, if necessary?
SEN. LEVIN: Well, the bill does not say just let's negotiate a possible amendment. The bill very clearly in Section 4 says that we shall develop a national missile defense which shall achieve the initial operating capability by the end of 2003. It's there in black and white, as is Gen. Shalikashvili's letter which makes it clear that not only does he oppose the Dole bill but that all of the joint chiefs oppose it and the commanders in the field oppose the Dole bill because it will reduce the security of the United States by undermining agreements with Russia which have permitted us to reduce the number of nuclear weapons which exist in this world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Kyl, do you think that that opposition, as you said, you think it's political, you think that all of those people in the military are opposed just for--just because they're being pressured by, by the White House?
SEN. KYL: First of all, Carl held up the letter. Here's the letter. It doesn't say a word about defeating the Dole bill. Those words are not in the letter. The fact is that Gen. Shalikashvili wrote a very carefully worded letter because this President says we're going to oppose the Dole bill. And so he wrote a very carefully worded letter, never mentions the Dole bill, says, well, now there could be some problems if the United States begins to take some action that would offend the Russians, but I want to make two quick points here again. No. 1, the ABM Treaty, itself, has a provision for renegotiation and even withdrawal if it's in our national interest. That's not a breach of the treaty. That's recognizing our legal ability to withdraw from the treaty if we so choose. And secondly, I find it a remarkable argument that if we offend the Russians by defending ourselves, they will violate the START I Treaty, they'll stop withdrawing--or drawing down their nuclear warheads, and because they'll violate a treaty in response to our actions to defend ourselves, that therefore we shouldn't take those actions. That's a remarkable argument. It's like the old appeasement arguments of the Cold War. We know now that peace through strength is what wins for the United States, and I think that's the appropriate action when we're talking about the lives of American citizens.
SEN. LEVIN: Can I quote from this letter?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
SEN. LEVIN: Sen. Kyl says it never mentions the Dole bill. It starts off to Sen. Nunn by saying, "In response to your recent letter on The Defend America Act of 1996," so when Sen. Kyl says it never mentions the Dole bill, it starts by responding to Sen. Nunn's inquiry about the Dole bill and secondly, it says, "I am concerned that failure of either START initiative will result--I am concerned"--this is Gen. Shalikashvili, who is the top military man in this country, "I am concerned that failure of either START initiative will result in Russian retention of hundreds or even thousands more nuclear weapons, thereby increasing both the costs and risks that we may face." Now Gen. Shalikashvili may take orders from the President, but when it comes to expressing personal opinions--and we've asked them for personal opinions--he is committed to give us what, in his view, is the way in which America can be more secure. We have asked the top military leadership of this country how can we be more secure with their approach, which is supported by the administration or by this unilateral rejection of the ABM Treaty which has allowed the reduction of thousands of nuclear warheads. He opts very strongly for the so-called three plus three approach and is opposed to the Dole bill.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about that, Sen. Kyl, just briefly?
SEN. KYL: What I should have said is not that the letter didn't mention the Dole bill but it never urges a rejection or a vote or expresses opposition to the Dole bill. That would be the correct characterization. Again, all of the Joint Chiefs and the military people serving under Ronald Reagan and George Bush took the position that I take. They follow the orders of the commander in chief. That's what they're supposed to do. I have no problem with that. The day that we let the Russians' attitude dictate our national defenses is the day that we fail to provide adequately to protect our people.
SEN. LEVIN: We should run our own.
SEN. KYL: To have Russians say that they'll violate a treaty if we take action to protect ourselves, then I say that that shows the treaty isn't working.
SEN. LEVIN: We agree on one--we agree on one thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to ask both of you, what is the status of the bill now?
SEN. LEVIN: Well, it may or may not come up for another cloture vote, but we agree on one thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Meaning that--
SEN. LEVIN: We should ask is what's in our security interest, that is clear. We agree on that. The question, though, is what is in our security interest and undermining a treaty, a treaty which has contributed to it does not contribute to our security interest, and--but the status of the bill, it's still pending or could pend again. Whether or not there will be another cloture vote will depend upon whether Sen. Dole thinks that it contributes to his political campaign or not.
SEN. KYL: Just briefly to explain, a cloture vote would enable us to begin taking up the bill so we could debate it and eventually have a vote on it. The vote that was taken today even though we got 53 votes in support of our position, we didn't get 60 votes, and as a result, we're not able to take the bill up, debate it, and have a vote on it. And I would note that this is not a political position of Bob Dole, even though he is the primary supporter of it. The reason that we had to take this bill up separately is that when this matter was put in the defense authorization bill last year, the President vetoed the defense authorization bill just because it had in it the provision that would protect American people from ballistic missile attack. We had to take that provision out in order to get him to sign the bill and bring it up separately. And as we found out today, the Democrats in the Senate won't even let us take it up--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gentlemen, that's all the time we have. Thank you very much.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|