A ballistic missile armed with a nuclear or biological warhead could devastate a U.S. city. Should you worry? Experts assess the threat. Plus, a map and key documents.
+ "Keeping Enemy Missiles at Bay" by Richard L. Garwin
In this op-ed published shortly after the release of the Rumsfeld commission report, physicist Richard Garwin, the only technical expert on the Rumsfeld panel, detailed his "alarm" at the congressional interpretation of the report's findings. "It would be foolhardy," he warned, "to base our security on a 21st-century Maginot Line." (The New York Times, July 28, 1998)
+ "What We Did," by Richard L. Garwin
"Insofar as the Rumsfeld report is concerned, it should -- and must -- be regarded as neutral regarding missile defenses. The commissioners simply did not consider whether deploying the national ballistic missile system as currently conceived represented wisdom or folly." (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientsts, Nov./Dec. 1998)
+ "How Politics Helped Redefine Threat," by Michael Dobbs
"Until 1998, it was an article of faith for the U.S. intelligence community that no potentially hostile country -- apart from Russia or China -- would pose a long-range missile threat to the United States before 2010, at the earliest. Scarcely a year later, CIA analysts were saying something entirely different." (The Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2002)
+ "A Much Less Explosive Trend," by Joseph Cirincione
"The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that missile threats are mushrooming," writes Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But are they?" (The Washington Post, March 10, 2002)
In 1998, a bipartisan commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, concluded that the ballistic missile threat to the U.S. was far greater than intelligence estimates had previously indicated. Those findings, which remain controversial, set in motion an accelerated push for national missile defense that continues today. The question in some minds, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is whether the ballistic missile threat has been exaggerated, diverting attention from the threat of terrorism, which remains all too real. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with several players in this debate, including Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Richard Garwin, Joseph Cirincione, and Gen. Eugene Habiger.
China and Russia are the only countries known to possess ICBMs capable of threatening the United States. Yet U.S. intelligence sees a spectrum of emerging missile threats in the coming decade. This interactive map offers an overview of the major missile powers and the countries suspected of developing long-range ballistic missiles, along with information about each each country's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
||National Intelligence Estimate 1995|
The National Intelligence Council, which is made up of 13 intelligence agencies, released its 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in November 1995. It concluded that "no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada." Republicans charged that the NIE report had been leaked to help defeat missile defense and GOP leaders ordered that an outside panel examine the evidence. (See Gates Panel findings, below.)
||Gates Panel Findings|
The outside panel ordered to examine the NIE 95 intelligence findings, chaired by Robert Gates, deputy national security adviser and director of the CIA during the first Bush administration, issued its report in December 1996. Gates said that the report found that "the intelligence community has a strong case that for sound technical reasons, the United States is unlikely to face an indigenously developed and tested intercontinental ballistic missile threat from the Third World before 2010." Further, Gates said that there was "no breach of the integrity of the intelligence process."
||Rumsfeld Commission Report|
The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States issued its report on July 15, 1998, challenging the NIE 1995 findings. Donald Rumsfeld, who chaired the commission, said in congressional testimony, "This report says, unanimously, we need to assume that there may be no strategic warning about the development of a capability to hit the United States." Rumsfeld's commission concluded that a country like North Korea could deploy an ICBM "within about five years of a decision to develop" one.
||National Intelligence Estimate 2001|
In a National Intelligence Estimate from December 2001, titled "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threats Through 2015," the intelligence community projected that "before 2015 the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from North Korea and Iran, and possibly from Iraq -- barring significant changes in their political orientations -- in addition to the longstanding missile forces of Russia and China."<
home · the threat · the technology · the strategy · introduction · map
timeline · producer's chat · interviews · quiz: missile test · discussion
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi
photograph © 1996 CORBIS; original image courtesy of NASA/CORBIS
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation