Key 'star wars' test, data were faked, 4 aides say

August 18, 1993|By Tim Weiner | Tim Weiner,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Officials in the "star wars" project rigged a crucial test and faked other data in a program of deception that misled Congress as well as the intended target, the Soviet Union, four former Reagan administration officials said.

The deception program was designed to feed the Kremlin half-truths and lies about the project, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the former administration officials said.

It helped persuade the Soviets to spend tens of billions of dollars to counter the U.S. effort to develop a space-based shield against nuclear attack proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, they said.

But the deceptive information originally intended for consumption in the Kremlin also seeped into closed briefings that helped persuade Congress to spend more money on strategic defense, the former Reagan administration officials said. All would speak only on the condition that they not be named, and several still hold sensitive military and intelligence posts.

One military officer who described the deception program said it had overstepped its boundaries. "It wasn't designed to deceive Congress," he said. "It was used improperly."

Another military officer said that the deception should be seen in the context of the Cold War, when disinformation was a weapon used by both sides.

"At the time it was critically important," he said. "Our adversary was very aware of SDI. It was important to get them to divert their money and technologies.

"We were trying to develop extremely advanced technology. There needed to be protections. But this program exceeded the controls that were in place. In the process of fooling our adversaries there are an awful lot of people who are going to be fooled as well."

The former officials said the deception program was approved by Caspar W. Weinberger, the secretary of defense from 1981 to 1987. Mr. Weinberger would not confirm or deny that he had approved the deception. But he said that Congress was not deceived and that deceiving one's enemies is natural and necessary to any major military initiative.

"You always work on deception," he said in an interview from his home in Maine. The former administration officials cited what they said was a clear example of a rigged test that misled Congress and the Kremlin. In June 1984, they said, project officials conducted the fourth attempt to hit a target missile launched from California with an interceptor missile launched from the Pacific.

The first three tests in the series had failed. It was crucial that the fourth succeed, a scientist with the project said. "We would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in Congress if we didn't perform it successfully," he said. "It would be a catastrophe."

To ensure that the missile defense program would be seen as a success, the test was faked, the former Reagan administration officials said.

"We rigged the test," the scientist said. "We put a beacon with a certain frequency on the target vehicle. On the interceptor, we had a receiver." In effect, the scientist said, the target was talking to the missile, saying: "Here I am. Come get me.

"The hit looked beautiful," the scientist said, "so Congress didn't ask questions."

At the time, project officials described the test as proof that the program could clear a crucial technological hurdle, the first time a missile had ever intercepted a long-range ballistic missile in flight.

It was nearly seven years before project researchers hit a missile with a missile again, and that series of tests also included failures. James Abrahamson, who headed the missile defense project in the Reagan administration, declined comment.

A longtime critic of the missile defense program, Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, has asked Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher to investigate allegations that "there was a well-planned formal strategy to provide the U.S. Congress with a less-than-complete picture of the actual viability of the strategic defense technology."

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