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Two-Way Deception Traffic on the Road to Theater High Altitude Area Defense

by Gordon Mitchell
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication
University of Pittsburgh

December 1997

During the Cold War, U.S. missile defense officials routinely rigged scientific experiments and deliberately misled Congress in order to create the impression that invention of a Star Wars-style nuclear shield was a realistic and imminent possibility.

These brash strategies of deception were carried out under the umbrella of official misinformation policies adopted by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), a highly secretive branch of the Department of Defense charged with administering the U.S. missile defense program.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration changed the name of SDIO to BMDO (Ballistic Missile Defense Organization). This acronym juggling was supposed to signal a fresh start for U.S. missile defense, and announce a clean break from the unsavory pattern of deception that littered SDIO's past.

Old habits die hard; a penchant for deception endures in the missile defense bureaucracy today. However, where previous Cold War trickery campaigns sought to inflate the capabilities of missile defense systems, the post-Cold War environment has given rise to a novel form of deception: strategic understatement.

This new rhetorical strategy has recently been employed to buoy President Clinton's favored missile defense system, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). On paper, THAAD is a "theater" system, designed to neutralize short range enemy rocket (like the Scuds launched by Iraq during the Gulf War). But in a provocative article published in the April, 1994 issue of Arms Control Today, a team of MIT physicists used computer modeling to demonstrate that if successfully engineered according to specifications, THAAD would be able to intercept long range ICBMs (fired from Russia or China), too.

This finding was significant since it suggested that THAAD would exceed the legal limits for missile defense systems established in the 1972 ABM Treaty. While the treaty implicitly allows theater defenses designed to protect against short-range rockets, it explicitly outlaws widespread "strategic" defenses deployed to knock out long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

In a remarkable attempt to discredit the findings of this article, the Director of BMDO ordered a government-funded think tank called Sparta, Inc. to produce a secret counter-study in 1994 (Sparta was the same firm that triggered a GAO audit by spending $560,000 of DOD money on conferences in Jamaica, Hawaii, Mexico, and the Grand Cayman Islands in 1994).

Completed in September, 1994, Sparta's secret report challenged the MIT group's methodology on a number of far-fetched technical grounds, including the fantastic and unfounded charge that the MIT physicists had ignored the effect of gravity in their calculations!

Although the Sparta counter-study seriously misrepresented the MIT group's computer model, evidence recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act confirms that BMDO nevertheless amplified Sparta's findings at several official arms control briefings in 1994 and 1995. Presumably, the purpose of these briefings was to shore up THAAD's ABM Treaty legality by taking the wind out of the MIT group's forceful public argument that THAAD was not treaty-compliant.

These secret briefings carried Sparta's pro-THAAD message directly to senior arms control officials, including high-ranking members of the Russian State Duma and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, even though Sparta's work had never been validated in scientific peer review. But today, BMDO denies ever having endorsed the Sparta study and refuses to defend the findings of the study in the face of bracing criticism by respected scientists such as IBM Research Fellow Richard Garwin.

The flip-flops in advocacy performed by U.S. missile defense officials in this case have left Russian arms control officials perplexed about the policy status of the Sparta study and more confused and suspicious than ever of U.S. intentions regarding the ABM Treaty. In 1994, senior members of the Russian State Duma were told in secret briefings that in a government-sponsored study, Sparta had shown that THAAD had no strategic capability. In 1995, they were told that the Sparta study has no official validity. What's the story? Alexei Arbatov, a key member of the Russian Duma, asked as much in a recent letter to BMDO.

Coming at a time when Russia is already edgy about NATO expansion and when Russian arms control officials have made it abundantly clear that they regard U.S. fidelity to the ABM Treaty as a litmus test for the prospects of post-Cold War superpower arms control, the fallout from the Sparta debacle has been particularly corrosive. The study has not only squandered nearly $10,000 of U.S. taxpayers' hard-earned money, but by overtaxing Russian trust, it has also unnecessarily depleted the arms control capital of U.S. ABM Treaty negotiators.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the study is that as a larger symbol, it illustrates that systematically distorted science is still an inherent feature of the U.S. missile defense program. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall has opened up two-way deception traffic. With ABM Treaty limits taking on increasing diplomatic importance in the post-Cold War superpower relationship, missile defense advocates have found it convenient to manufacture scientific evidence which makes missile defense systems more appealing by deflating, rather than inflating assessments of their capabilities.

What other new forms of strategic deception pervade the missile defense enterprise? Is the Sparta study just the tip of the iceberg? Has it become a presumptive sign of gullibility to take BMDOUs technical claims at face value? Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that members of the public will receive satisfactory answers to these questions as long as BMDO remains a scientific island, ringed by a moat of secrecy and cut off from the wider physics community.

BMDO would do well to follow the Department of Energy, which recently embarked on a sweeping openness initiative in order to transform its institutional culture to be more transparent and accountable. The impetus for such extensive restructuring at DOE was the discovery that during the Cold War, the Department was complicit in heinous acts of abusive science, including thousands of forced radiation experiments on human subjects. It may be the case that only a similar restructuring at BMDO can permit the Organization to transcend its own Cold War legacy of rigged experiments and strategically distorted science.


Gordon Mitchell
CL 1117, 4200 Fifth Avenue
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
email: [email protected]