Missile threat warning sounded CIA underrates peril from Iran, Iraq and N. Korea, panel says

'Little or no warning'

July 16, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea are working faster than the CIA realizes to obtain missiles that could strike the United States, a high-level government commission reported yesterday, warning that such an attack could come with little or no warning.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who led the nine-member commission created by Congress last year, said the "relaxed post-Cold War world" of technology transfers and leaked classified information has enhanced the ability of nations to build or acquire ballistic missiles.

The commission unanimously concluded that the threat is "broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly" than the intelligence community has said. The CIA has estimated that those nations are unlikely to develop such missile capability before 2010.

The commission avoided pinpointing a specific year but said North Korea and Iran would be able to inflict "major destruction" on the United States within five years of seeking such capability, while Iraq would need 10 years.

"We have not commented specifically on when the threat would emerge," said William Schneider Jr., a commission member who served as undersecretary of state for security assistance in the Reagan administration.

The commission found evidence that North Korea is working toward developing a ballistic missile that could reach Alaska and Hawaii. A lightweight version of that missile, the report warned, might be able to reach an arc of the United States extending from Phoenix to Madison, Wis.

Iran, meanwhile, is seeking equipment to produce a ballistic missile. Such a long-range missile, the report said, might threaten cities stretching from Philadelphia to St. Paul, Minn.

In its 300-page classified report given to Congress, the commission recommended a full-scale review of U.S. intelligence and defense policies regarding ballistic missile threats. A summary of the report was released yesterday.

In its review, the commission found that the intelligence community's ability to provide timely and accurate estimates of missile threats was "eroding." The intelligence community's budget and methodology, the report said, must be strengthened.

"The U.S. might have little or no warning before operational deployment" of a ballistic missile, the commission found.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the report "the most important warning about national security since the end of the Cold War." Gingrich said he would press for the creation of a bipartisan working group that would try to produce solutions, using the commission's report as a blueprint.

The report stopped short of endorsing a missile defense program, a military priority of Republicans since the Reagan administration. Members said they were charged with looking at the threat and not with producing solutions.

The report nevertheless served to renew calls for such a defense program. The Clinton administration -- pushed by Republicans -- has increased funding to about $3.6 billion for the next fiscal year.

The Clinton administration and congressional Democrats are at odds with Republicans, however, over when to develop a missile-defense system. Many Republicans want it set up as quickly as possible, while Democrats want first to determine whether the United States faces any serious threat.

Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the National Security Committee and wrote the legislation creating the commission, said he hoped the report would be "a catalyst for a more bipartisan and aggressive effort on moving forward with a national missile defense to protect all Americans."

Commission members denied suggestions that the report revealed an intelligence failure. But Rumsfeld said his commission and the CIA "diverged" on the urgency of the threat. "We've come to different conclusions," he said.

Besides North Korea, Iran and Iraq, Russia's and China's nuclear arsenals pose a threat, given that those countries "remain in uncertain transitions" and are the world's leading purveyors of ballistic technology.

Commission members said CIA Director George Tenet gave them unprecedented access to intelligence reports and analysts.

Responding to the report, Tenet said the commission and the CIA diverged only on when specific threats will materialize. The emerging ballistic missile threat is one of the CIA's "most important missions," Tenet said in a letter yesterday to Rep. Porter J. Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Tenet said he stood behind the CIA's estimates of a longer time line for a ballistic missile threat to the United States, saying those estimates were "supported by available evidence and well-tested in community debate."

"We looked at the problem with the same data," a top CIA official said yesterday. "Reasonable men can differ."

The commission was created in response to a widely criticized 1995 assessment by the CIA that concluded that no country other than the five established nuclear powers could threaten U.S. cities with ballistic missiles for 15 years.

"We think some of the conclusions drawn were wrong," said Paul D. Wolfowitz, a former undersecretary of defense and now dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

Wolfowitz said that CIA report saw foreign trade and technology transfers as a "wild card" in the development of ballistic missiles.

"It is not a wild card; it is a fact," Wolfowitz said yesterday. "People who want these things can get these things."

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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