Media uncritically reported, overstated missile defense system's ability to defend against actual attack


Recent reports on the reported activation of the U.S. ground-based missile defense system have overstated its ability to defend against an actual attack and uncritically reported administration claims about its effectiveness. Government Accountability Office reports indicate that the system has no proven ability to shoot down a hostile missile.

Recent media reports noting the U.S. government's reported activation of its ground-based missile defense system in response to the threat of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test have overstated the system's ability to defend against an actual attack and uncritically reported administration claims about the system's capability. Some reports have noted the system's 50 percent success rate in tests (five out of 10), but have omitted the fact that, as Media Matters for America has pointed out, no successful test has occurred in roughly three years and that no test of the currently deployed system as a whole has occurred. Other reports have uncritically aired comments by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley that the missile defense system has a "limited" or "modest" capability. However, as Media Matters has noted, Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports indicate that the system has no proven ability to shoot down a hostile missile.

In fact, NBC's Nightly News reported that the missile system had been activated without acknowledging any of the system's problems. NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski stated: "[M]ilitary officials tell NBC News that the Pentagon has issued an execution order which officially puts the U.S. missile defense system on alert to shoot down a North Korean missile, but only if it poses a direct threat to the U.S."

By contrast, a June 22 Los Angeles Times article reported that "U.S. government assessments and investigative reports indicate little confidence in the centerpiece portion of the program" and explained the issues that led to that assessment:

Eleven ground-based interceptors in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California, the cornerstone of the administration's new system, have not undergone a successful test in nearly four years and have been beset by glitches that investigators blame, at least in part, on President Bush's order in 2002 to make the program operational even before it had been fully tested.

In all, the interceptors hit dummy missiles in five out of 10 tests, but these were under controlled conditions that critics say do not reflect the challenges of an actual missile launch.

A little-noticed study by the Government Accountability Office issued in March found that program officials were so concerned with potential flaws in the first nine interceptors now in operation that they considered taking them out of their silos and returning them to the manufacturer for "disassembly and remanufacture."

"Quality control procedures may not have been rigorous enough to ensure that unreliable parts, or parts that were inappropriate for space applications, would be removed from the manufacturing process," the report says.

From the June 22 broadcast of the CBS Evening News:

BOB SCHIEFFER (anchor): Russia and China joined the United States today in urging North Korea to call off its preparations to test fire a long-range missile with the capability to reach the West Coast. No one really believes that if the North Koreans do fire it, they will aim it there, but administration officials made it clear today that if it does appear it is headed our way, they'll try to shoot it down. David Martin from the Pentagon now with more on that.

DAVID MARTIN (national security correspondent): Orders have been issued to the fledgling missile defense system to be prepared to shoot down the North Korean missile if it is launched in a direction to land on American soil. That includes the Pacific island of Guam, site of a growing U.S. military base. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said today the decision to fire would be up to the president.

RUMSFELD: The president would make a decision with respect to the nature of the launch, whether it was threatening to the territory of the United States or not.

From the June 22 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): And, Jim, before you go, I know there was another story out of your building rather urgently reported earlier this evening. Not sure how urgent it is. Has to do with that missile threat and North Korea.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Well, military officials tell NBC News that the Pentagon has issued an execution order which officially puts the U.S. missile defense system on alert to shoot down a North Korean missile, but only if it poses a direct threat to the U.S. NBC has obtained a satellite photo of the missile, the latest photo, on the launch pad taken only this morning. But officials here at the Pentagon are warning that there's been a lot of overheated reporting about all of this and say they're not even sure yet if North Korea even intends to fire the missile.

From the June 22 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

SUZANNE MALVEAUX (White House correspondent): Mr. Bush is hoping a 60-hour visit through Europe will buy him more time, resources, and goodwill for the U.S. mission in Iraq. But now he faces increased threats from the other members of what he calls the axis of evil, Iran and North Korea. National security adviser Stephen Hadley briefed reporters traveling with the president about the growing tensions.

On North Korea's threat to test a long-range missile, Hadley reported Pyongyang is ready, saying, "Preparations are very far along, so you could, from a capabilities standpoint, have a launch. What they intend to do, we don't know."

Hadley admitted the U.S. missile defense system has limited capabilities to intercept long-range missile from hitting American soil, but refused to say whether it's been activated or will be used if Pyongyang carries through on its threat, admitting the way out is for the North Koreans to decide not to test this missile.

From the June 22 edition of CNN's Live From ...:

KYRA PHILLIPS (anchor): Communist North Korea. Nobody outside really knows what's going on inside, especially when it comes to the military. Pyongyang and the West have known little more than tension and mutual distrust for more than 50 years, with plenty of missile tests. So, why all the fuss now?

PHILLIPS: It's one of the most isolated countries in the world, led by one of the least predictable leaders in the world.

JOHN R. BOLTON (U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) [video clip]: We don't know exactly what North Korea has in mind. Nobody can read Kim Jong Il's mind.

PHILLIPS: That's why everyone is so concerned about reports North Korea may be getting ready to test a long-range Taepodong-2 missile. North Korean leaders say they have one, and that that nuke has a firing radius of 9,300 miles.

What does that mean to you and me? It means U.S. cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Denver, are within its range. The Pentagon is working on a missile defense program, but, so far, only five of the 10 tests of the interceptor have been successful.

JOHN PIKE (founder of [video clip]: If it's only working half of the time, and it's the only thing standing between you and an incoming hydrogen bomb, you'd say it's not working very well at all.

From the June 22 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BRIAN WILSON (Fox News correspondent): Officials are vague about whether the U.S. might try to shoot down the North Korean missile if it's launched. Anti-missile defense systems based in Alaska and California, systems still in development, have reportedly been put on alert. Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers that might be used to track a Korean missile launch are conducting drills currently off the coast of Hawaii.

RUMSFELD [video clip]: What we have is a developmental, initial system which does not have all the pieces in place but has some modest initial capability.

From the June 22 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

NORAH O'DONNELL (guest host): Let me ask you, Secretary Eagleburger, the U.S. today suggested that it has limited ability to shoot down a North Korean missile. Our defense system is just not perfected at this point. Do you advocate, too, a pre-emptive strike?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER (secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush): I would advocate that, yes. Again, I think we have -- diplomacy has failed, and I think it is more than time. In fact, I think we should have done something about this in North Korea some time ago. But you - it's not just the issue of firing this particular missile.

What you need to think about is where all of this leads, and where this leads is missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach the United States from a pipsqueak country like North Korea, which has no sense of responsibility for world order and is headed by someone who has no understanding of the world as such. The same is true of Iran, and it would seem to me at some point we need to take a look at the longer-term consequences of our failure to do now what we can do at far less cost.

O'DONNELL: Secretary, I love the way you phrase that, that this is a pipsqueak country, North Korea, and quite frankly, ruled by what we think is a crazy man. However, we do know that North Korea may have anywhere between six to eight bombs' worth of plutonium, that they could put on one of these missiles. The vice president said today he rejected this proposal that there should be a pre-emptive strike, and he said, I think, the issue is being addressed appropriately, and you have to look at more than just firing a shot in there. That's not just -- it's not that simple.

EAGLEBURGER: The answer to that is it's not the first time the vice president has been wrong, No. 1. And No. 2, this -- if we -- again, I'm so frustrated by this issue that is drives me crazy sometimes, because the question is not this particular missile so much, or the -- or what they may be able to put on the warhead, what warhead they may be able to put on it. It is that if we don't stop this process now, we will have to deal with it in a far more difficult way five or 10 years from now, and I don't know why the vice president and a lot of other people can't seem to understand that.


O'DONNELL: Welcome back to Hardball. As North Korea prepares to test-launch a long-range ballistic missile, the U.S. is readying its missile defense system. And today Vice President Dick Cheney called North Korea's missile capabilities, quote, "fairly rudimentary." How good is our intelligence on North Korea, and are they exploiting us at a time when we're dealing with Iraq and Iran? Bob Baer is a former CIA officer and author of the new novel, Blow the House Down [Crown, 2006]. Bob, thank you for joining us.

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