THE sole surprise in the recent revelation that a critical ``star wars'' missile test had been rigged to assure its success was how little it surprised a public by now inured to being deceived by its government.
``We've developed a national security system that will never tell the truth when a lie will do,'' says John Pike, director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, citing ``a systematic cold-war pattern of exaggerating the Soviet threat and either understanding or overstating US capabilities,'' depending on the needs of the moment.
Just how widespread this policy of deliberate deception has been was hinted at in June, when the General Accounting Office completed eight classified reports concluding that the Pentagon had deliberately misled Congress about the cost, performance, and necessity of the most expensive strategic weapons systems built during the Reagan era.
According to a nuclear physicist who participated in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the program was characterized by ``secrecy, greed, self-deception, deception of the Congress and actually even of the president.''
From its inception a decade ago, SDI was less a serious scientific enterprise than a brilliantly orchestrated disinformation campaign designed to regain the moral high ground from the citizen-inspired nuclear freeze campaign that was sweeping the country.
Where freeze activists sought to replace the offense-only strategy of nuclear deterrence with a common security of mutually protective defenses, SDI's proponents appropriated the language but shed the substance of the shift.
President Reagan's call for a missile-proof astrodome elicited skepticism and ridicule from much of the mainstream scientific community when it was first presented. But to the dismay of many, it found ample political support in a Congress lured by the ever-attractive promise of high-wage jobs and lucrative technological spinoffs.
Ten years and $30 billion later, virtually none of SDI's stellar promises have been realized. The program generated no significant technical breakthroughs and few civilian spinoff technologies. It has yielded few jobs in proportion to its lavish funding but has handsomely rewarded a coterie of high-priced consultants with questionable scientific integrity. Coincidentally or not, fully half the program's largesse landed in Mr. Reagan's home state of California.
All of this is sufficiently suspect to merit a comprehensive investigation by a special prosecutor. But SDI is not a past-tense project.
Conscious that the shaky rationale for a space-based shield has altogether evaporated with the demise of the Soviet Union, Defense Secretary Les Aspin recently announced the end of the star-wars era and redirected the program's vast resources into ground-based missile systems designed to defend against potential third world threats.
At nearly $4 billion a year for the next eight years, the Clinton plan remains the nation's most expensive single weapons system, supporting a strategic premise only marginally more plausible than the one it replaces. Like its predecessor, the Clinton plan fails to recognize that the most potent threats to American citizens will continue to arise not from foreign missiles but, as the World Trade Center bombing demonstrated, from internally-based terrorists against whom high-tech missile defenses are utterly helpless.
Momentous as are these issues in budgetary terms, they lead to still more troubling non-monetary questions.
Explaining their frequently fallacious information to Congress and the American public, former Reagan administration officials assert that deception programs are routinely used by the military and intelligence agencies of most nations to force adversaries to divert scarce resources from more essential priorities.
``We won the cold war and that's what counts,'' crowed SDI advocates after their ruse was exposed. This argument ignores the many other forces, most of them internal, that undermined the Soviet empire - including, most tellingly, its citizens' loss of faith in a government that routinely lied to them about matters large and small.
The hidden costs this policy of ``strategic deception'' inflicts on our own society are incalculable. The lifeblood of the democratic process is trust between citizens and their leaders and the free exchange of accurate information. But if data are routinely doctored to support policies that lack validity on their own merits, there is no basis for informed public debate. At what point does our vaunted information society become an Orwellian culture of disinformation?
Scientists have historically enjoyed high levels of credibility in American society. But the complicity of some and acquiescence of others in the perpetration of systematic lies and half-truths could leave many Americans wondering how much other scientific research is being falsified for political or pecuniary ends.
Those most cruelly deceived by strategic deception campaigns are the perpetrators themselves, for they undermine the very society they purport to protect.
When winning the war means adopting your enemy's most despicable tactics, it begins to look a lot more like defeat than triumph.