A Decent Spy Network Still the Best Defense

A bane of the intelligence business is ideological interference with the interpretation of facts. It was hoped this would end with the cold war, but no such luck. Now the problem is revived with the debate over how to respond to terrorism. In both cases, the task for the intelligence community is, and was, to assess the nature of the threat - its size, timing, and where it comes from. Military and civilian policymakers can then decide how best to meet it.

During the cold war there was a constant struggle over assessments of Soviet military and economic strength. When intelligence estimates said the threat was less, conservatives smelled a cover-up. If the estimates said the threat was more, liberals suspected a plot to increase military spending. We learned later that the estimates exaggerated the Soviet's economic as well as military strength.

Now we have a comparable situation about terrorism. Dissatisfied with intelligence estimates about development of ballistic missiles by terrorist states, Congress created the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. Chaired by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it generally estimated Iran and North Korea could develop a missile by 2003 and Iraq could have one by 2008. The intelligence estimate, first made in 1995 and reaffirmed in 1998, predicts this will not happen before 2010.

Both the commission and the intelligence community are to be taken seriously, but in full recognition of the hazards of guessing about technological progress.

In 1954 the Army began a research program to extend antiaircraft defenses to antimissile defenses. President Eisenhower, later joined by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, argued that this diverted resources from more urgent needs. The program found Congressional support, but became more controversial as it grew. The Senate kept it alive in 1969 by a single vote.

In 1983, President Reagan proposed what he called the Strategic Defense Initiative and what its opponents called "star wars." This called for a network of antiballistic missiles that would provide a huge umbrella over the US through the capability to intercept and destroy incoming missiles before they could do any damage. It was estimated that the first five years of research would cost $22 billion and deployment as much as $500 billion, or perhaps more. The program has stayed alive in one form or another.

Since the Reagan administration, the US has spent nearly $50 billion on the project, producing one failure after another. The 1996 budget provided for the design and testing of a national antimissile defense by 2000 with a decision then to be made on whether the system should be deployed by 2003. This goal looks steadily more elusive.

There are in all more than a half-dozen antimissile programs under way. The most advanced of these is the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense. It has failed all five of its attempts to intercept a missile and is $4 billion over budget. Air Force Lt. Gen. Lester L. Lyles, who is in charge of the overall antimissile program, has expressed doubt about the country's ability to afford it. When this comes from an Air Force general, you know it's expensive.

Still it behooves us to prepare to meet the threat when - not if - it comes about. Neither the Soviet Union nor the US had reliable antiballistic missiles during the cold war. Each dealt with the other's threat through the counterthreat of mutually assured destruction in case of attack. The US has lost so much credibility through idle threats (especially against Iraq) that this strategy may no longer work.

The best defense clearly would be to prevent countries such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea from obtaining the weapons in the first place. That's a tall order. Next best might be a preemptive strike, such as Israel made against Iraq's nuclear weapon development in 1981. That requires pin- point intelligence of locations - another tall order.

Even so, tall though these orders may be, they look more practical than building an antimissile defense.

* Pat M. Holt is a Washington foreign affairs writer. He is author of 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995) .

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