The Authorized Version

The Reagan Administration has been misrepresenting its own internal reports on the feasibility of the Strategic Defense Initiative


ALBERT CARNESALE, a Harvard professor and a longtime adviser to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, likes to say that at some point every President goes into a national-security meeting or sees a wall chart on possible nuclear casualties and says, “Wait a minute. I’m responsible for the lives of two hundred million Americans. You’re saying that if the Soviet leader wants to kill them all, he can?” An adviser replies that yes, sir, he can. “Well, that’s no good,” the President says. “Change that.”

For Ronald Reagan this epiphany occurred shortly before he reached the presidency. During a 1979 visit to the North American Air Defense Command headquarters, inside Cheyenne .Mountain, near Colorado Springs, Colorado, Reagan asked the commander on duty what could be done if the screens showed a Soviet ICBM approaching the United States. Not a thing, the commander said.

Martin Anderson, the domestic-policy adviser for Reagan until 1982, who was present on the NORAD trip, said in an interview not long ago, “On the plane back Reagan was struck by the fact that in the event a missile was bred at the United States—even one missile — there is absolutely nothing we could do.” A few months later Anderson wrote a campaign memo outlining ways to capitalize on Reagan’s concern while dispelling his public image as a warmonger. Anderson proposed the development of a protective missile system. “That idea is probably fundamentally more appealing to the American people than the questionable satisfaction of knowing that those who initiated an attack against us were also blown away,” Anderson wrote in the memo. “Formulated properly, the policy should become known in the press as ‘Reagan’s Peace Plan’ or some such nomenclature.” Anderson’s plan was one of several sources for what has since become known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

According to government sources who must remain anonymous, on Saturday, March 19, 1983, George A. Keyworth II was summoned to Reagan’s office to hear Reagan’s thoughts about a speech that would set in motion Anderson’s idea: replacing the current nuclear strategy of deterrence—that is, one based on mutually assured destruction—with a strategy of defense against nuclear weapons. Intil he left the government for private industry, in December, Keyworth was the White House science adviser, the person whose job it is to counsel the President on scientific and technical issues. Reagan was scheduled to give the speech, which would come to be known as the Star Wars speech, in five days. He wanted Keyworth’s scientific advice.

Coincidentally, the military-technology panel of the White House Science Council, a group that reports to Keyworth, had spent the past year working on an evaluation of both offensive and defensive technologies. The panel members had listened to a wide range of experts on all the technologies that strategic-defense advocates were pushing: the chemical space-based laser, the ground-based laser, “smart rock” kinetic kill vehicles that work like space bumper cars, the hydrogen-bomb-pumped xray laser, and the particle beam. Contrary to Keyworth’s characterizations of its findings, sources closely connected with the report {still classified) sav that it concluded that no technology had the potential to alter the current nuclear balance of terror. It answered the big question with NO in capital letters, though it did recommend further research on every possible technology. According to Solomon J. Buchsbaum, a vice-president at the Bell Laboratories research division of AT&T and the chairman of the White House Science Council, this report was signed and sent to Keyworth in early 1983. Keyworth, panel members say, did not object to any of the panel’s conclusions.

But, then, Keyworth was no stranger to skepticism about space weapons. He had repeatedly stated his view that strategic defense wouldn’t work. According to Angelo Codavilla, a supporter of switching to a defensive strategy, who was then an aide to Senator Malcolm Wallop, of Wyoming, Keyworth tried to talk the Senator out of his belief in space weapons. Codavilla, who was present at the meeting, which took place in October of 1981, says that Keyworth compared research on strategic defense to research on nuclear fusion, which, he said, had wasted a great deal of money and failed to produce results, dampening public willingness to fund morepromising science.

ON THAT SATURDAY in March of 1983 the President showed Keyworth a draft of his speech; it clearly indicated a dramatic personal commitment to strategic defense. According to Keyworth, Reagan was calling for defenses “all the way from the battlefield to the strategicforce structure”—for using American ingenuity to develop defenses even against tanks. Keyworth told me that his reaction was, “Mr. President, if there has ever been a feasible time to attempt to develop boost-phase defenses, the real lever, now is the time.” “Boostphase” defense—the capability of destroying enemy missiles just after they have left their silos—is the cornerstone of strategic defense.

Keyworth told me that his change of mind was occasioned by a breakthrough in astronomy that suddenly made the ground-based laser look feasible. Ground-based lasers work by shooting up through the atmosphere to orbiting mirrors that aim their beams at incoming missiles. Until recently, the distorting effects of the atmosphere were thought to make such weapons infeasible. According to Keyworth, the White House Science Council had reported that some astronomers in Hawaii were in the process of developing a mirror that could he deformed to compensate for these distorting effects. This technology gave hope of eliminating the inherent defect of the ground-based laser. A source who has read the council report, however, told me that this breakthrough received only a minor note; it was not treated as important.

“The fact is, I learned more from the President than he learned from me in preparing that speech,” Keyworth said of the meeting. He emerged one of the Administration’s most vigorous spokesmen for strategic defense, and he later told me, “When the speech was given, I was the happiest man in the world.”

Sources say that what Keyworth learned from Reagan was that strategic defense was going ahead no matter what: he could be either on the team or off it. He is not the only Administration official to have learned that lesson. Since March of 1983 several White House and Pentagon studies that have expressed reservations about strategic defense have been characterized by the Administration in ways that cast a distortedly favorable light on the SDI.

FOLLWING THE Star Wars speech the Administration convened several study panels to guide the SDI program. Two have been highly publicized: the sixty-seven-person Defensive Technologies Study Team, also called the Fletcher Commission, after its director, James Fletcher, a former NASA administrator; and a panel led by the defense consultant Fred Hoffman. The Fletcher Commission produced seven volumes, covering every aspect of space-defense technology. Hoffman’s group concentrated on the strategic implications of the SDI.

The Fletcher and Hoffman reports are both classified, but they are repeatedly cited be Administration officials and have been offered as Exhibit A in the Administration’s case for the SDI. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told the National Press Club in May, 1984, “We have some of America’s finest scientists who were members of the Fletcher Commission. . . . they found the dream to be indeed possible, after a study of about a year. And I’m here today also to tell you that some of our most renowned national-security experts, who are members of the Hoffman commission, declared that an effective strategic defense offers very great promise of strengthening deterrence and improving strategic stability.” Keyworth, in a 1984 speech at the Brookings Institution, said that the Fletcher Commission had determined that “the President’s objective is not an unrealistic goal and they concluded it probably could be attained.”

Portions of the Fletcher report have also been cited as evidence that some of the SDI’s intractable problems can be overcome. In a statement. Lieutenant General James A. Abrahamson, Jr., the head of the new SDI Organization, wrote that “the Fletcher panel has identified ways to counter every countermeasure the offense may choose to make. . . . the Fletcherstudyconcluded that effective discrimination of decoys from warheads could be accomplished in mid-course”—this meaning that the Soviets would not be able to trick a space defense by launching cheap dummy warheads alongside the real warheads.

But is that what the study really says?

After Abrahamson had written his statement, the retired Air Force Major General John Toomav, who is a deputy chairman of the Fletcher Commission, contested the document. Toomay, though an SDI supporter, said that the commission did agree on what offsetting measures were probably possible, but that research was needed to determine if they were practical.

Even the Toomav version may be gilded. Countermeasures are the subject of the (classified) seventh volume of the commission’s report. According to Theodore Postol, a former assistant to Admiral James D. Watkins, the chief of naval operations and a strong supporter of the SDI, “If you read volume seven first, you wouldn’t bother reading the rest of the report. It presents an oxerwhelming case against the possibility of a hope of mounting something useful. It quite unambiguously indicates the problem was insolvable unless certain things were solved that no one even knew how to address.”

More important, Administration claims that the report endorses Reagan’s overall plan are disputed. There are classified and unclassified summaries of the Fletcher report, and both present a generally positive picture of strategic defense. The classified summarv contains a statement that the panel “takes an optimistic view of newly emerging technologies and with this viewpoint concluded that a robust, multitiered ballistic missile defense system can eventually be made to work.” The unclassified summary of the Fletcher report says.

The members of the Defensiv e Technologies Study Team finished their work with a sense of optimism. The technological challenges of a strategic defense initiative arc great but not insurmountable. . . . The scientific community may indeed give the United States “the means of rendering” the ballistic missile threat “impotent” and “obsolete.”

But Kenneth Cooper, the retired lieutenant general who headed the Fletcher Commission’s systems-integration panel and who with Toomay wrote the classified summary, told me recently that the unclassified summary does not reflect the views of panel members—it is too optimistic. After several drafts. Cooper said, he and Toomav were able to hammer out a consensus that refleeted the views of the panel’s nine chairmen. “The original draft was very stark,” Toomay says. “It listed problems like stability during the deployment phase and concern that discrimination of decoys might not be made to work.” Toomay says that they prepared drafts for Fletcher, who was difficult to satisfy. “The way the issues were brought out was considered—well, I hate to use the words— too forthright. They wanted the document to read more smoothly. You don’t have to call a spade a spade. You could call it an instrument for digging in the dirt.”

After the draft had been smoothed, it was submitted to Fred Iklé, the assistant secretary of defense, and to Richard DeLauer, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and it underwent further transformations, this time without Fletcher Commission officials being consulted. According to Toomay, “The Administration in its public documents chose to interpret what the commission found out in a way that pleased them. A lot of technical people on the panel emphasized problems like whether the battle-management algorithms [part of the computer programs] could be done. The Administration tended not to emphasize these problems.”

A dispute also surrounds the Hoffman Commission report. Weinberger, in speeches, has cited it as approving the SDI. But the twelve-page published summary of the Hoffman study devotes little attention to the plan that Reagan announced. Only a few sentences of the summary discuss population defense— rendering attacking missiles “impotent,”to use the word from the President’s March, 1983, speech—and those few sentences betray no enthusiasm. The report mentions “the possibility that nearly leakproof defenses may take a very long time, or may prove to be unattainable in a practical sense against a Soviet effort to counter the defense.”

The Hoffman summary also mentions “the risks inherent in a program where each of a large number of demanding technological goals must be met in order to realize any useful result at all.” Fred Hoffman later told Science magazine, “If what you want defenses to do is to protect the bulk of our population against an attack by a large Soviet force that has the objective of destroying our population, then you would need everything to work. Even as a nontechnician, it seems to me that the likelihood of this happening is small.”What the Hoffman report in fact endorsed was not the SDI but a limited system of traditional ABM missiles deployed in the United States and Europe, to decrease Soviet confidence that a first strike would succeed in destroying our missile silos and to offer some hope of limiting the casualties in a war.

When Administration officials speak of their SDI studies, significantly absent is any reference to a third panel, headed by Franklin C. Miller. Miller, the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Forces Policy, was assigned to investigate strategic questions similar to those that occupied the Hoffman panel. Miller’s commission was composed of midlevel officials from the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the State Department, and other security agencies.

No unclassified summary of the Miller report was ever released. “The study didn’t meet with their approval, so it was suppressed,” a government official familiar with the Miller report says. A defense consultant who has read the report says, “The report doesn’t boldly state that the plan is idiotic. But after reading the list of disadvantages, only a fool could come to the wrong conclusion. It doesn’t pull punches.”

Miller declines to comment on his [lanel’s findings. My calls to the Pentagon about the Miller report were referred to a spokesman who would not even release the names of panel participants.

The handling of these reports is hardly sinister, but it does raise a disturbing question. Is the Reagan Administration facing up to the real scientific and strategic difficulties presented by the SDI. or is bureaucratic pressure to be on the team muffling internal criticism and making candor look like a species of disloyalty? If the SDI is really the President’s way of saying “Change that” to the grim facts of mutually assured destruction, then both accurate scientific appraisal and well-founded public trust are needed to turn the President’s dream into reality. Hyping the SDI could open a credibility gap perilous to that trust.

—Tina Rosenberg