WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is proposing to exempt the Pentagon's missile defense system from the real-world operational testing legally required of every new weapons system in order to deploy it by next year.
Buried in President Bush's 2004 budget, in dry, bureaucratic language, is a request to rewrite a law designed to prevent the production and fielding of weapons systems that don't work. If the provision is enacted, it would be the first time a major weapons system was formally exempted from the testing requirement.
The proposal follows administration moves to bypass congressional reporting and oversight requirements in order to accelerate development of a national missile defense system.
One of Bush's goals when he took office was to implement a missile defense system - an idea first proposed by President Ronald Reagan - and he almost immediately expanded both the scope and the funding of the controversial program, which had encountered scientific and budgetary difficulties in recent years.
Last year, to help achieve that goal, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the Missile Defense Agency unprecedented managerial autonomy and removed procurement procedures that were intended to ensure new weapon programs remain on track and within budget.
Administration officials believe the unusual measures are necessary because of a growing missile threat from countries such as North Korea and Iraq.
But critics maintain the new independence and secrecy of what has become a vastly expanded missile defense program increases the chance that the Pentagon will spend tens of billions of dollars on an antimissile system that doesn't work.
Exemptions granted previously gave the missile program unprecedented autonomy from congressional oversight but did not exclude it from testing.