Paul Richter,WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times
The Bush administration has decided to begin keeping key information on its missile defense program secret, a blow to political opponents who have relied on such data to challenge the technology as error-prone and not ready for deployment. Administration officials say they will withhold the data, which concerns flight tests of the program’s most advanced long-range system, to prevent U.S. adversaries from gaining military secrets about hardware intended to shield America from nuclear attack. Critics of the program, including some influential lawmakers, say the move is an attempt to stifle criticism and allow the administration to control the debate on the system’s future. “They’re attempting to avoid the usual oversight by Congress, the media and the larger scientific community,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee that oversees the project. “There’s an attitude of ‘we know best, don’t bother us.”’ Highlighting its technical weaknesses has been opponents’ best hope for slowing the long-debated program. In recent years, critics have repeatedly used Pentagon data from missile defense flight tests to challenge whether the experiments were as successful as claimed. The new policy comes during a year when the administration has moved aggressively to try to ensure the progress of the program, which is a priority for President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Five months ago, Rumsfeld gave the Missile Defense Agency unusual managerial autonomy and removed procurement procedures that usually ensure that new weapons programs remain on track and within budget. Administration officials believe these unusual measures are needed to carry out a program that is urgently needed because of the growing missile threat from countries including North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Critics maintain that the new independence and secrecy increases the chances that the Pentagon will spend tens of billions of dollars on a national anti-missile system that doesn’t work, as it did in the early ‘70s. Under the new policy, the Pentagon will continue to give a week’s public notice before tests and announce whether the tests were successful, officials said. But they said they will be providing less information on test targets and on the decoy devices that are used to try to fool the missile interceptors. The Pentagon conducts tests of its land-based anti-missile system by shooting a long-range target missile into space from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. On its nose is a dummy warhead that serves as the target. A few minutes later, an interceptor missile is fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, Calif., carrying a 4-foot-long “kill vehicle.” At about 140 miles in space, the kill vehicle begins maneuvering; it tries to pick out the target from the decoys and collide with it. In earlier tests, officials have described the size, shape, composition and deployment time of decoys. But in the next test, due in early August, officials might describe them only as “balloons” or “plastic replicas,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman. “That’s probably about as specific as we’ll go.” He said the agency intends to disclose as much information as it can and to keep Congress abreast of developments. He said it is routine to step up secrecy as weapon programs become mature and knowledge of weaknesses become more valuable to potential enemies. Critics don’t dispute the need for secrecy, but they maintain that it is not necessary now because the system remains in an early stage of development, years from deployment. “We don’t think they need it,” said Stephen Young, a missile defense analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Data on targets and decoys have been a key part of critics’ challenges for almost two decades. After the most recent test of the ground-based system, in March, the Union of Concerned Scientists challenged a statement by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz that three decoys employed were similar to the warhead and thus were a good test of the seeker’s abilities to discriminate. The group said the decoys had a different shape and had different heat signatures than the target.