Dan O'Neill is (update-WAS) a regular columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner and the author of "The Firecracker Boys,"the history of the Atomic Energy Commission's plans to build a harbor on Alaska's coast with nuclear bombs. The following is a selection of his columns dealing with the issue of missile defense in Alaska.
"Secret research not UA's mission ," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 1, 2002.
"Home on the range." Submitted to Fairbanks Daily News Miner on January 23, 2002.
"Little doubt: UA planned Scud launches." Fairbanks Daily News Miner, January 26, 2002.
"Poker Flat to add classified rocket launches," Fairbanks Daily News Miner, October 20, 2001.
"Defense money better spent on anti-terrorism measures." September 20, 2001, Anchorage Daily News.
"Terrorist attacks prompt hasty conclusions." September 15, 2001, Fairbanks Daily News Miner.
"Smelling serious rat," November 11, 1999, Fairbanks Daily News Miner.
"Military budget puffed by pork" October 28, 1999, Fairbanks Daily News Miner.
"Here comes the Pentagon: A chance for fiscal conservatives to walk their talk," October 7, 1999, Fairbanks Daily News Miner.
"Taz ties and loony tunes," Fairbanks Daily News Miner, July 15, 1999.
"Conservatives and liberals unite! You have nothing to loose but a gigantic boondoggle," Fairbanks Daily News Miner, March 25, 1999.
"ABM: pork, propaganda and pie in the sky," Fairbanks Daily News Miner, December 15, 1998
Copyright Dan O'Neill
December 15, 1998, Fairbanks Daily News Miner
Teachers who cover propaganda techniques could not have found a better field trip for the class than the carefully designed "public meeting" on a proposed missile defense system hosted by the Pentagon and its defense contractors at the Carlson Center recently.
Remember when a public meeting meant someone got up and explained what the project was all about, and members of the community could step up to the mike and express their views? Well, the format is much more controlled today. It's called an "open house." Promotional exhibits are scattered around a large room, and people drift from one to the other chatting one-on-one with a proponent of the project. But comments for the record must be put in writing.
This means there's no opportunity for the group to hear opponents of the project. Even if every one of your fellow citizens present opposed the project, how would you know? The only record is the written comments, and they are held by the proponents. Typically, those comments are released months later-in summary language written by the proponents-and buried in a fat environmental study. Pretty slick.
Another crafty technique evident at the Pentagon's open house was the device of limiting the debate to a narrow and relatively inconsequential set of issues. The pros and cons of the antiballistic missile project (ABM) were not presented to the public at the Carlson Center, and our views on it were not solicited. Instead, an earnest colonel told us that it would be a great help if we'd comment on some environmental questions. Questions like: Would 150 new jobs in your area be a good thing? Would you prefer good or bad air quality? Do you think we should install culverts across our driveways?
Let's imagine, for a moment, that the military was interested in our ideas on the important questions, that it held a real town meeting, and that an absolutely truthful colonel took public comments and questions from the floor. Here's how it might go:
PUBLIC: Can you say a little about the history of the ABM idea?
COLONEL: Certainly. It was promoted in 1960 by Father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller. At the time, Teller was also proposing to excavate an instant harbor in Alaska by detonating a string of nuclear bombs. His ABM idea was to launch nuclear-tipped rockets that would explode in the vicinity of incoming missiles and knock them out. Scientists called the idea costly and ineffective. But we built one such ABM facility anyway. In North Dakota. It protected only a battery of our own ICBM's. It was finished in 1975, at a cost of $7 billion, and scrapped the next year. Congress determined its upkeep was a waste of money.
PUBLIC: Didn't the Star Wars program come next?
COLONEL: Exactly. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, was the most expensive military program in the history of the world. By far. Tens of billions were spent on little more than the hope of a laser missile defense system. Weapons scientists called it "a fraud" and "impossible to accomplish." Defense contractors thought it was the next best thing to printing your own money. Needless to say, the system does not exist.
PUBLIC: So now you guys are back pushing a scaled-down version?
PUBLIC: Will this one work?
COLONEL: Not really, no. You see, there are easier ways for an Iran or a Libya to attack the US than to try to build ICBM's. They could smuggle a bomb across one of our borders. Or bring one into a city's harbor onboard a ship. Or launch a short-range missile from a ship offshore. If they did build an ICBM, they could build ones that release multiple decoys, thereby reducing our chances of hitting the actual warhead (assuming that we figure out how to hit one at all-our last nine tests have failed). And remember, the missile defense system we are proposing would only build 20 interceptors. So, for $10 billion (our critics say much more) we would not be buying any real security.
PUBLIC: Tell me again why we should do this.
COLONEL: It will deliver mega-dollar hardware and construction contracts to the home states of some pretty influential senators.
PUBLIC: Like Alaska?
COLONEL: Affirmative. Sen. Ted Stevens says he doesn't care where the ABM is based, just so long as it can defend all 50 states. Well, North Korea is just 2,000 miles from Attu Island at the end of the Aleutian Chain. North Dakota is nearly 4,000 miles from Attu. So even if North Dakota could launch an interceptor at the same instant that North Korea launched an ICBM toward Attu, the Korean missile would get there first. Sen. Stevens has got this figured.
PUBLIC: OK, I see what's in it for the politicians and the recipients of pork. But what's in it for you?
COLONEL: A $600,000 salary at one of the missile defense contractors after I retire from government service.
PUBLIC: Is there anything we can do about this?
COLONEL: Yes sir. You can insist on culverts.
Back to top
Back to home page
Conservatives and liberals unite!
You have nothing to loose but a gigantic boondoggle
Copyright Dan O'Neill
March 25, 1999, Fairbanks Daily News Miner
Imagine a political issue that could unite liberals and conservatives at the grass-roots level. One where they could stand in opposition to spend-happy politicians of both parties, a lazy media and defense contractors that bilk the taxpayers for $500 screwdrivers. That issue is at hand, and it is the so-called National Missile Defense program, which may be based in Alaska.
Presently, this fantastically expensive proposal is sailing through the Congress, aided by the turn-around endorsement of Bill Clinton (who, need we point out, couldn't stand firmly on principle if his vertebrae were surgically fused and his knees injected with epoxy).
Here in Alaska, the Republican-run legislature, while righteously slashing state spending, is as eager as ever to grovel shamelessly for wasteful federal spending-so long as it occurs in Alaska. Include in this lineup a Democratic governor who "enthusiastically" supports the boondoggle. Even the former head of the local environmental center is working within a state agency to grease the deal.
For its part, the Alaska press gives us repeated page-one news stories tracking the progress of our anticipated construction job windfall, but fails in nearly every instance to lay out the case against the scheme, or to quote any of the vast majority of experts who oppose it. [Since I wrote those words the News-Miner has run a page-one story covering opposition views.]
What, exactly, is wrong with a national missile defense system, and why should conservatives join liberals in opposing it? How much time have you got?
Let's look at the money. Fiscal responsibility, we'll recall, is a hallmark of conservative ideology. Since the late 1950s we have spent 108 billion inflation-adjusted dollars on various efforts to build a system intended to protect the nation from attack by incoming missiles. Taxpayers have shelled out most of that-$67 billion-in the years since Ronald Reagan's famous 1983 Star Wars speech calling for a space-based weapon that would shield us from ICBMs. I don't know of a plainer way to say this. It has been the most expensive military project in the history of the world, and it has failed to deliver. Sixteen years and $67 billion later, there is no such weapon.
Please, read for yourself the thoughtful review articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March, May, Sept., Nov. 1998). It's a very readable journal available at both local libraries. Learn about the ways that a missile defense system can destabilize our relations with the Russians, the relatively easy ways an attacker could use decoys to out-maneuver a defensive system, the more fruitful program already negotiated to destroy and de-alert Russian missiles, the inexpensive and more promising diplomatic options. But for now, let's just take a quick look at the issue of technical feasibility.
To evaluate the technical obstacles to building a workable national defense system, the Pentagon selected its own panel composed of missile defense advocates, mainly retired military brass. They looked at all of our medium range missile defense systems under development. These have a tenth the range of ICBMs, but even so, the Army's system, the most advanced under development, has failed in four of four interceptor attempts. The Navy's program: four failures in four attempts. In all, of 14 attempts to hit high-altitude targets, twelve failed. There have been zero tests of a system with intercontinental range. This panel-the Pentagon's own panel-called the current program "a rush to failure."
The General Accounting Office looked into the program, too. It noted that plans call for deploying the system after only a single full fledged flight test that integrates the space-based sensors, the radar and the interceptor missile. The GAO calls this test plan "anemic" and says the program involves "high technical risk" due to the hurry-up pace of deployment. The Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation warned Congress the program was filled with technical risks and that a rush to deploy means basic testing would have to occur after production began.
Conservatives like to think of themselves as straight-thinking, no-nonsense, both-feet-on-the-ground types who aren't going to be taken in by some fuzzy-headed, pie-in-the-sky government program, especially if it's got a gigantic price tag. Well, I don't know how it can be put more concretely: The technology that we are committing to deploy within three years at a cost of tens of billions of dollars does not exist.
If we were talking about a new method to teach kids to read at a cost of $50 million, conservatives would scream all the way to their talk shows. But if politicians want to spend a thousand times that amount in committing to a weapons system that has never been tested, they shrug, "Just be sure to waste some of that dough in my state."
I have been hoping, perhaps naively, that these facts might resonate with fiscal conservatives. But politicians like the idea of dispensing jobs and contracts around the country. And conservative constituents are just as happy as anybody else to abandon principle for a chance to slurp at the public trough.
Besides the bloated cost and the technical improbability, is there even a threat out there that suggests a national missile derfense system is warranted? Not hardly. Long before a "rogue nation" would be able to build an accurately guided, three stage intercontinental ballistic missile, it could launch short-range missiles at our cities from ships off shore and against which the space-based system is useless. It could smuggle a bomb into a harbor on board a commercial vessel. If and when a nation did build an ICBM, it could build one that released multiple decoys numerous enough to deplete our interceptor inventory.
Besides all that, if a North Korea, say, were to launch an ICBM at the US, we would quickly detect the launch and its origin. With very little hesitation, I suspect, the United States would launch a devastating counterattack with nuclear weapons. Pyongyang, and North Korea's principal military installations would be reduced to rubble. Does this sound like a trade the North Koreans are likely to make?
Finally, consider the destabalizing effect of a national missle defense program. We signed a treaty 27 years ago banning just such an ABM system. Why? Because if one country has it, its potential adversaries must increase their missile arsenal in order that some will get through. Better than that wasteful and dangerous course is our current policy of mutually reducing nuclear arms. But this latest recklessness puts at risk our arms reduction treaties with the Russians that call for the elimination of 3,200 former Soviet nuclear warheads. And, as former Secretary of Defense William Perry said, "No ballistic missile defense offers our country better protection than the elimination of an additional 3200 nuclear warheads."
Well, the national missile defense system should be a good test case. Will liberals and fiscal conservatives stand by while the politicians and the media pull off this snow job?. Will we sell out our principles for a few dozen pissant construction jobs? Will we shine on the idea of a peace dividend and slide into another arms race? Will we neglect poverty, illiteracy and disease while we throw tens, even a hundred billion dollars at this rip off? Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW are betting we'll do exactly that.
Back to top
Back to home page
Taz ties and loony tunes
Copyright Dan O'Neill
July 15, 1999, Fairbanks Daily News Miner
A recent news item says that Sen. Ted Stevens wears his Taz tie when he plans to lose his temper on the Senate floor. He wears his Incredible Hulk tie when he aims to throw his considerable weight around Congress. [quote] So, one imagines he was wearing his Porky the Pig tie the other day when he visited Ft. Greely and declared the obsolete military post a perfect place to base a bazillion-dollar national missile defense system.
Because pork is what this fantastically expensive project is all about. The idea, which has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, is to build an anti-missile system that can shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile by actually hitting it mid-flight with one of our missiles. Each would be traveling at something like 20,000 miles per hour.
If, at first blush, this sounds like a bit of a technical challenge, then you must be paying attention. In the 16 times the system has been tested, it has failed 14 times. And Congressional investigators discovered, in the two cases where the interceptor actually hit its target (in 1984 and 1991), that "the tests had quietly been made less challenging and that some results had been exaggerated," according to the New York Times.
And if you suspect that attempting to deploy such a system is likely to end up costing hundreds of billions of dollars, your suspicions are supported by recent history. Over the last forty years the US government has spent 108 billion inflation-adjusted dollars on various anti-ballistic missile schemes, including Ronald Regan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. Yet, for all that enormous expenditure, no workable system has been produced.
According to Sen. Stevens, however, "We have the technology for national missile defense now. It's integration of that technology that is a challenge." Well, yes, in the sense that we have the technology to shoot a moving mosquito with a 30.06 from a mile away. We can detect the bug at one end, and we can shoot the rifle at the other end, it's just the integration of those two things that's "a challenge."
Even if the senator had a good record with respect to technical matters (one remembers his claims about harnessing domestic electrical power from the aurora), a little skepticism can be a healthy thing. For example, when the military put on its national missile defense presentation at the Carlson Center last December, it featured a video loop showing the fantastic success of the Patriot missile during the Gulf War. Spectacular footage that we all remember from its repeated use on network news programs showed the Patriots streaking into the night sky over Israel and the subsequent explosion as it rammed into an incoming Iraqi Scud missile.
"Fantastic" is the right word. An honest look at the history yields a different story, as Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky catalogue in their entertaining book "The Experts Speak." In January, 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, then commander of allied forces in the Gulf, declared, "The Patriot's success, of course, is known to everyone. It's 100 percent. So far, of 33 Scuds engaged, there have been 33 destroyed."
In February, President Bush said, "42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted. Thank God for the Patriot missile!" And in April, the official statement of the Raytheon Company, builder of the Patriot and a bidder on the current national missile defense project, said, "In Saudi Arabia, just under 90% of Scud missile engagements resulted in destruction of the Scud warhead. . . . In Israel, about half of Scud engagements by Patriot resulted in confirmed destruction of the Scud."
But when the US General Accounting Office looked into the evidence the next year, it found strong evidence for only 9% of Patriot engagements resulting in Scud kills. While, according to the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, "only one Scud missile exploded as a consequence of a Patriot explosion."
Of course, these later reports were not featured on network news. The impression left with anyone watching coverage of the Gulf war was that the huge sums our government heaped on defense contractors for anti-missile technology was money well spent. Today, the current crop of promoters rely on our ignorance of the technical failure of this technology. And remember, there is a quantum leap in difficulty from building a theatre-range interceptor like the Patriot, and a national missile defense system capable of taking out high altitude, 20,000 mile per hour inter-continental ballistic missiles.
Besides all that, even if the technology should be developed to a 100 percent degree of reliability, it is an easy matter for an aggressor country to add multiple "bomblets" or decoys to its missiles. It's a technically easy way to overwhelm a defensive system like the national missile defense proposal, which will deploy only about 20 interceptor missiles.
Besides the military-industrial complex, about the only one cheering this loony tune boondoggle is the little fellow on Ted's tie who, at this point in the cartoon would say, "Abbada-abbada, that's all folks."
Back to top
Back to home page
Here comes the Pentagon:
A chance for fiscal conservatives to walk their talkOctober 7, 1999, Fairbanks Daily News Miner
Ten months ago a team of Pentagon officers landed in Fairbanks and set up a glitzy display at the Carlson Center unveiling the National Missile Defense (NMD) system to be based either in Alaska or North Dakota. There was a video showing-or rather, purporting to show-Patriot interceptors shooting down Scud missiles during the Gulf War. (Actually, the Patriot kill rate was a spectacular failure; some say 0-for-44.) There were fancy display boards with glossy photos and charts, all tended by well-spoken majors and colonels who touted this latest version of Star Wars. There were even fighter jocks, decked out in flight suits, slouching casually at tables. God knows why. Antiballistic missiles are not exactly flown by pilots.
Whatever was the cost was of transporting all this promotional apparatus up from the Ballistic Missile Defense Office in Huntsville, Alabama, it was borne by the taxpayers. Curious how, when the country is engaged in a controversial debate on a public issue, one opposing groups (here, the defense contractors and the Pentagon) is given all the resources of the federal government-a large staff of trained public relations specialists; professionally produced graphics, video and print materials; free air transportation and expenses; even "top gun" pilots to use as props at public meetings-while the other side is left to shift for itself.
After the Carlson Center meeting, I wrote a column faulting the Pentagon for rigging the presentation and allowing no opportunity for any opponents of the project to be heard by the gathered citizens. People could submit written comments. But those are typically held by the Pentagon, I said, and only released months later, in summary language drafted by the proponents and buried in a fat environmental study.
These words drew a sharp response from a lieutenant colonel from the National Missile Defense Team: "Mr. O'Neill implied that the proponents would hold the public comments and not make them available for public review. That is simply not true. All comments will be part of a published document available to the public in August."
He was referring to the draft environmental impact study, which actually came out in September. I just received a copy. Digging through the thousand-or-so pages, I couldn't find the public comments. Only a single paragraph of summary language drafted by the proponents. I called the contact person and asked where the public comments could be found. "We just keep them on file for our own records," she said. "Those will not be published." When I read to her the lieutenant colonel's emphatic assertion that they would be published, she said, "Well, he's retired."
Besides public testimony, a draft EIS normally contains, as evidence of public sentiment, copies of relevant op-ed pieces from the affected region's newspapers. There were six such editorials in the News-Miner alone in the interval between the Carlson Center meeting and the release of the EIS. All contained evidence and reasoning that suggested the National Missile Defense program was a high-cost scheme likely to deliver very little security. Even the News-Miner ran an editorial entitled, "Unconvinced." It said, "Under the best of circumstances, a limited missile defense system would seem to have limited value. It's hard to detect the sense in spending untold billions upon it." None of these editorials appeared in the EIS.
Now, the missile defense folks are packing up the display boards and the videos and preparing to return to Alaska in a few weeks for a second round of public hearings. And this time, I am assured, citizens will be able to step up to the mike and offer their views. It will be a chance for the highly vocal fiscal conservatives in this town to walk their talk.
Of course, Pentagon spokesmen, not critics, will give the introductory remarks. They will promote NMD, presenting the technology in the best possible light. You can bet dollars to doughnuts that they will ignore the technical failures of the test program to date, downplay the costs, shine on the damage it will do to arms control efforts, and so on. And they will try, as they did before, to limit comments to the issue of environmental impact.
So far as I know, nobody here is greatly worried about the potential environmental impact of digging holes for missile silos at already-contaminated Ft. Greely or at Clear. What we have hoped to do is have an honest discussion about the technical feasibility of the system; about its costs; about its destabilizing effect; about its potential to rekindle a nuclear arms race; and about what, if any security we would be buying for the enormous expenditure of tax dollars.
Because the Pentagon has not entered into a discussion on these issues with Alaskans, a debate is being organized by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Tentatively scheduled for Friday, Oct. 29, it will coincide with the next round of public hearings (Fairbanks on Nov. 1, Anderson on Nov. 2, Delta on Nov. 3, Anchorage on Nov. 4). While the university awaits the Pentagon's reply to the invitation, an expert who opposes NMD has already signed on to make the opposition's case. He is Donald Clark Whitmore, an aerospace engineer with thirty years' experience on such weapons systems as cruise missile defense, AWACS and the Strategic Defense Initiative. If the Pentagon refuses to send a representative, says Whitmore, he'll argue their position, as well as his own.
Mark your calendars. This should be good.
Back to top
Back to home page
Military budget puffed by pork
Copyright Dan O'Neill
Fairbanks Daily News Miner, October 28, 1999
A little statistic in Harper's magazine proves we do indeed live in interesting times: it will cost 1,500 times more money to build the new F-22 jet fighter than it would cost to upgrade the F-15 to twice the F-22's effectiveness.
Why on earth, you ask, would we do something like that. Well, why are we building a new helicopter carrier ship at a cost of $1.5 billion when the Navy says it has plenty of those ships already, can refurbish the existing ones and doesn't want more? Why are we going to build a half dozen C-130 cargo planes at a cost of $400 when the Air Force says that it already has 682 of those planes, at least 50 more than it says it needs?
Because, whether they knew it or not, the Navy certainly did need the helicopter carrier ship. At least, that's what Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss,) decided. It is to be built at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Pascagoula is Lott's home town. He can see the shipyard from his house.
And the C-130s that the Air Force doesn't want? Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the former speaker of the house, insisted that the Air Force was mistaken. They really needed more, not fewer, C-130s. They are to be built in his home district, Cobb County, Georgia, where per capita military spending has reached $6,600. (And we thought the Permanent Fund dividend was a bonanza.)
Now we bring the story home, to a project that makes Lott and Gingrich's theft look like purse snatching. Any idea why the country is embarking on a national missile defense program that has a price tag in the tens of billions, that the technical experts say will not work, and that has a good chance of throwing the nuclear powers of the world back into an arms race just when we were reducing the global nuclear threat?
Well, the prime mover behind NMD is the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. And, by a strange coincidence, the missiles are to be based in his home state. Yes, Ted Stevens will bring some construction jobs to Alaska, if this boondoggle goes through. Some of us will get union-scale jobs digging the holes and pouring the concrete. Once the facility is built, other Alaskans may be hired on to sweep up and what not.
But the megabucks will head south to defense contractors in the States, like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, who will build the hardware and write the computer programs. By another strange coincidence, defense contractors are prominent donors to Ted Stevens' personal political action committee. In fact-and this is really some coincidence-according to news reports, the treasurer of Stevens' Northern Lights PAC, is Richard Ladd, a registered lobbyist for such defense contractors as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. I mean, is it a small world or what?
The National Missile Defense program out-porks the porkiest projects on the platter. Consider the issue of technical feasibility. To put it susinctly, the technology that it proposes to deploy does not exist. The idea is to send up a missile that actually hits and destroys by force of impact an incomming missile traveling at perhaps 20,000 miles per hour. There has never even been a test of a fully integrated radar and high-altitude anti-missile system. There have been some successful tests of individual components of the system, but even that record is poor: around an 18 percent success rate. You'd do far better betting your fate on the flip of a coin.
On the matter of costs, the US has spent some $60 billion on ballistic missile defense in the last decade and a half. The General Accounting Office figures the price tag to deploy NMD in one site at another $28 billion. But, of course, these things have a way of expanding.
This leads me to a question. Last month the talk of Alaska centered on a proposal to spend some Permanent Fund earnings on state government. And we frequently heard the assertion that Alaska spends more per capita on government than any other state. I doubt that's true. But, for argument's sake, let's suppose it is so. My question is, will the same voices be raised and the same fiscal logic be applied now to federal spending?
Will the folks who compared Alaska's spending to that of other states now take a look at our nation's military spending relative to that of other nations? Our annual defense budget is nearly as large as the military spending of all of the other nations of the world combined. Think about that for a minute. It's 17 times more than the combined defense expenditures of our six most likely adversaries.
Can we agree that a little fiscal restraint might be in order here? If so, a good time and place to speak up is at a series of public meetings and a debate on NMD next week. Representatives from the Pentagon will present their view of the program Monday at a public hearing at 6:00 pm at the Carlson Center.
What should be even more interesting is the forum to be hosted by the University of Alaska on Tuesday at 7:00 pm at the Geophysical Institute's auditorium. A weapons expert named Don Whitmore who has worked on Minuteman ICBMs and Star Wars systems will argue that NMD is fatally flawed. Presenting the position of the Pentagon will be Lt. Col. Richard Lehner from the Ballistic Missile Defense Office. Do come.
Back to top
Back to home page
Smelling serious rat
November 11, 1999
Copyright, Dan O'Neill
Here's a neat little case study in how counterfeit news can end up on the front page of a newspaper.
It happened last Thursday. A page one story covered the Pentagon's hearing in Delta Junction on National Missile Defense. A solid 130 Delta residents turned out-more, even, than had come to the hearing in Fairbanks. They were pretty much all in favor of basing the silos nearby, and a color photo showed smiling Delta folk applauding the plan. OK. No surprises there.
But right next to this display ran a related story from the Associated Press wire that validated the need for missile defense. It reported that according to a congressional study just released, "a dramatic improvement in North Korea's missile capabilities now permits the country to reach the US with a high explosive, chemical, biological, or possibly nuclear weapon." The study was released by the North Korea Advisory Group, who were said to be "senior members of Congress."
Well, I don't know about you, but my reaction to this news was that either a fairly major development in the international strategic equation happened while I was dozing, or I'm smelling serious rat here. It was my understanding that North Korea (ital)did not(ital) have the capability to reach the US with a missile. Who were these "senior members of Congress," and what did this report actually say?
A little digging revealed that all nine members of this group are Republicans. I learned, too, that appeals by Democrats to take part in the policy review were rejected by Republicans. Yet no information that indicated the partisan nature of the report made it into the AP story as it ran in the News-Miner. In a later AP rewrite, which the News-Miner did not receive, these facts were included.
I found the report, itself, too. The body of it appears to be a moderately responsible job by the staff of the General Accounting Office and others. But a summary at the head of the document is more political in tone and draws conclusions at odds with the accompanying research.
Sadly, the AP reporter apparently read the summary and let it go at that. And it does, indeed, say that North Korea "can now strike the United States with a missile" including, possibly, one carrying a nuclear warhead. But had the reporter taken the trouble to read the pertinent section in the body of the study, he would have gotten a different picture.
What the study actual says is that IF North Korea had an operable three-stage Taepo Dong 1 missile (it tested one once, in August, 1998, but the third stage broke apart and tumbled into the Pacific), and IF it had a reentry vehicle capable of surviving reentry into the atmosphere at ICBM speeds (North Korea has never tested a reentry vehicle), then it could reach the US (meaning western Alaska). But even "in such a case," the report says, "about two-thirds of the payload mass would be required for the reentry vehicle structure. The remaining mass is probably too light for an early generation nuclear weapon..."
A little further digging revealed that this analysis came, almost word-for-word, from a September report by the National Intelligence Council, which emphasized that these capabilities COULD develop but for the present do not exist. So, the truth is, our intelligence reports say that North Korea does (ital)not(ital) have the technical ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to US territory via an ICBM.
At every stage up the news chain, this story was distorted a little more-sometimes willfully, sometimes negligently-until the result was the opposite of the truth. The National Intelligence Council put out a fairly straightforward report, maybe only slightly influenced by the administration's support for National Missile Defense. The nine Republicans who issued the congressional report manipulated the research data to exaggerate the threat, and they inserted summary language that was false. The AP reporter failed to check out either the obvious partisanship or the obvious factual inaccuracies before filing his story. And, finally, the News-Miner gave this dubious article front page play and, in "editing for space," cut out the only critic of the report cited in the story.
Had the last two paragraphs of the AP story not been cut, here's what you would have read from David Albright, who, I am told, is a very solid nuclear-issues analyst:
(ital)One critic of the report, David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the group of lawmakers was giving a "hyped up account" of the actual situation in North Korea.
"Exaggerating the situation may be necessary for the report to conclude affirmatively that the threat to US security from North Korea's nuclear weapons is greater today than five years ago. However, a more balanced approach may have concluded the opposite," he said. (ital)
Of course, it's easier to notice the occasional lapse than the routine success. But it doesn't hurt for the consumers of news to be aware of how things sometimes go wrong, and how it can influence our discussion of public issues.
Back to top
Back to home page
Terrorist attacks prompt hasty conclusions
September 15, 2001
By DAN O'NEILL
When your grandchildren reach college, they will read about how we
behaved following the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. Our response to this
crisis will say much about the character of the American nation at the start of
the 21st century.
Before we react to this wanton atrocity, we should remind ourselves of the
sort of people we are, and of the liberties we value. We should remember
that we aspire to become a freer nation, not a more repressive one. And we
should prepare for those who will try to advance their own agenda by
whipping our people's revulsion into a cyclone of fear and revenge.
Covering these events, broadcasters could not invoke the Pearl Harbor
metaphor often enough, while blithely dodging dissimilarities. The raid that led
America into the last world war was a surprise attack, but it was not
anonymous. The Japanese were open aggressors, and the action was carried
out by that nation's military. Pearl Harbor was an act of war.
For his part, and before much could have been known about the assailants,
President Bush used all the code phrases meant to prepare public
opinion--not for retaliation, but for war. He began calling the attack "an act of
war" that would require a "monumental" response. Soon, the President spoke
openly of America being at war, though a new kind of war.
And this was before release of any official information associating the attacks
with any entity. As I write Thursday, none of us know if the terrorists are a
military force, let alone a nation. We don't even know for certain if this
violence was imported from abroad. I've not heard even once the suggestion
that the perpetrators could possibly be American.
Yet at Oklahoma City, media pundits had accused Arabs before the ashes
had cooled. And the real culprit was nothing like the stereotyped
"drug-crazed fanatic" (to borrow UA president Mark Hamilton's phrase), but
a crew-cut, right-wing, American fanatic, trained by our military.
It is quite possible, perhaps likely that an Islamic military entity is behind
Tuesday's terror. Maybe it is Osama bin Laden. The important point--which
should not have to be made to academics--is that we were being asked to
accept that conclusion in advance of any officially released data. We were
being asked to accept war when we did not know whether our retaliation
should properly be governed by U.S. and international law dealing with
attacks by terrorists, or if it should be governed by the norms associated with
a military attack by a nation's armed forces.
Already, the proponents of missile defense are hitching their wagon to the
country's rising fears. Surely, Tuesday's events will influence the debate on
missile defense, as Mark Hamilton has said on this page. They should. The
relative ease and stunning effectiveness of an unattributed surprise attack
launched from within our borders is now proven to be not only possible but
All along, Star Wars opponents have pointed out the illogic of underfunding
anti-terrorist measures while spending tens of billions, perhaps $100 billion,
dollars on the negligible chance that a "rogue nation" will first build, and then
lob an intercontinental ballistic missile at the strongest military power in the
history of the world.
The origin of an ICBM launch is readily identifiable. Within the hour, that
country's major cities likely would become piles of irradiated rubble. Name
the rogue in all of history who would pay that price?
Further, no such state has built a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of reaching
U.S. territory. None. Not even North Korea, and notwithstanding claims to
the contrary by Alaskans eager for Pentagon spending.
Meanwhile, an anonymous attack, like Tuesday's, officially disclaimed by the
perpetrating (or abetting) government, offers multiple advantages. The US is
left to conduct an extensive inquiry. Then we must convince the community of
nations that our findings are unbiased, or lose the favor of international
support. And any (inevitable) ambiguity will reduce our moral authority to act.
Besides missile defense, there is much to be wary of right now. Will Congress
hand the President and the military a blank check, as they did with Vietnam in
the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, this time to conduct a war at any cost, of
unlimited duration, against any perceived enemy, anywhere in the world? Will
those who have long sought to expand domestic police powers--to tap our
phones and our computers--use this crisis to press for a more authoritarian
America? Will we be asked to curtail environmental laws and drill the Arctic
Refuge because of the "exigencies of war"?
Clearly, this aggression must be answered. But before we relinquish our
hard-won and bravely defended freedoms, we should remember what sort of
country America is and hopes to be.
Dan O'Neill, author of "The Firecracker Boys," comments regularly
on Fairbanks and Alaska issues.
Back to top
Back to home page
Anchorage Daily News
Defense money better spent on anti-terrorism measures
Author, Firecracker Boys(Published:
September 20, 2001)
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, no doubt will influence
the national debate on missile defense. They should. Because now the
relative ease and stunning effectiveness of an unattributed surprise
attack from within our boarders has been proven to be not only possible
but tactically preferable.
All along, opponents of missile defense have pointed out the illogic
of underfunding anti-terrorism programs, while spending tens, perhaps
100 billion dollars on the beyond-remote chance that a rogue nation'
will first build, and then lob an intercontinental ballistic missile
at the strongest military power in the history of the world.
The origin of an ICBM launch is readily identifiable. Within the hour,
that country's major cities likely would exist only as piles of irradiated
rubble. Name the rogue in all of history who would pay that price.
Meanwhile, an anonymous attack, like Tuesday's, officially disclaimed
by the perpetrating (or abetting) government, offers multiple advantages.
The U.S. is left to conduct a thorough investigation and then to convince
the world that our findings are unbiased, or lose the favor of international
Moreover, our retaliation might properly be governed by U.S. and international
law dealing with attacks by individual terrorists, rather than the
norms applying to a military attack by a nation's armed forces.
And remember that no such state has built a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable
of reaching U.S. territory. None. Not even North Korea, and notwithstanding
claims to the contrary by Alaskans angling for Pentagon dollars.
By contrast, terrorist attacks do not require such a long-term and
expensive technical program. A hijacked airliner becomes the poor man's
guided missile, already aloft in the target's air space.
You can read for yourself about how the use of decoys must inevitably
overwhelm the most sophisticated defensive system; about defense contractors
rigging test results; about the much more promising and inexpensive
diplomatic options; about how missile defense will certainly unravel
the fragile, interconnected web of arms control treaties, replacing
them with an arms race.
If you don't care to do the research, and if the clandestine attack
last week does not yet convince you that defense money would be better
spent on genuine anti-terrorism measures, do attend the talk to be
given by arms expert Donald Whitmore tomorrow, 7 p.m., at the First
Methodist Church, 9th and G Streets. He is a solid analyst ready to
address each argument advanced by the military and the arms industry.
Then, please, speak up.
Dan O'Neill is author of Firecracker Boys, a study of Project Chariot,
the abandoned proposal to dig a harbor in northwest Alaska using a
Back to top
Back to home page
Poker Flat to add classified rocket launches
By DAN O'NEILL
Saturday, October 20, 2001 - Most Fairbanksans are justifiably proud of Poker Flat, the only university-owned rocket range in the world. It was largely the brainchild of Neil Davis who grew up on a homestead in North Pole, then earned a Ph.D. in geophysics at the University of Alaska.
In 1969, he and friends at the Geophysical Institute built the range in a few months' time, on a shoestring budget. They scrounged surplus military equipment, commandeered graduate students as laborers and roped engineers and scientists into jury-rigging computers to analyze the data once rockets would fly into the aurora.
The vision was to do basic scientific research on the aurora. As it turned out, work on military projects was frequent, particularly in the early years. Sometimes these projects had a low level of classification, Davis said, meaning some documents might be kept in a locked safe. "We'd do 'locked safe' work," he said, "but we wouldn't do 'locked room' work, where students couldn't work alongside."
Now it seems that Poker Flat's mission is quietly undergoing a change. The Ballistic Missile Defense Office, a Pentagon group set up to promote national missile defense, is moving in with a classified launch scheduled for April. That much is acknowledged by the Geophysical Institute, which manages Poker Flat. Institute director, Roger Smith, said he has drafted a number of statements intended to inform the campus and the community about the project. However, "Anything that we might say publicly needs to be passed by (BMDO) first." So far, the agency has permitted nothing to be said publicly.
Smith acknowledged that there are actually two projects in the works that have classified components. The first, involving two launches, goes by the attractive name of the Arctic Debris Experiment. But Smith would tell me almost nothing about it, citing classification restrictions. He did, however, offer more details to the institute faculty at its Aug. 24 meeting.
According to faculty members who were there, each rocket likely will be shot into the Brooks Range north of Fort Yukon. As the rocket descends, an explosion may shatter it, creating a debris field some five kilometers across. The thought is that the debris will shower down on a frozen lake where the military can recover it. What's the purpose of blowing up the rocket and picking up the pieces? Which is the lucky lake? Nobody's saying.
The second project for which the institute is seeking funding (the debris project is already funded) is the Arctic Missile Signature Program. It has to do with detecting the "signature" of an Arctic-launched missile, that is, its particular characteristics as picked up by surveillance equipment. Such research would have obvious application to a national missile defense system. Here university faculty would be involved not just in launching a classified payload, but in analyzing the classified data. The university does not do this sort of classified research now, nor has it for decades, if ever, according to Norman Swazo, president of the Faculty Senate. So if AMSP is funded, it will represent a significant departure from current practice.
Swazo said the Faculty Senate is looking at establishing a policy on classified research. He is troubled by the AMSP project especially. As a faculty member, he recognizes that scientists are keen to landing multi-million dollar contracts that bring access to high-tech equipment and funding for interesting space physics. But, as Swazo wrote in UAF's accreditation review, he finds it "a morally objectionable undertaking" insofar as it can be argued that research toward the deployment of a National Missile Defense System violates international law--specifically, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a memorandum of understanding signed by the U.S. and the USSR Successor States, and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
Swazo notes the strong opposition of the country's most prominent physicists. He said it is "false to assert that AMSP is a purely scientific project," that it is "politically driven," and that geophysicists cannot dodge the ethical issue of working against the ABM Treaty.
Universities elsewhere have shied away from this sort of work, and for good reason. Scientists dedicated to perfecting the maiming capacities of land mines, or finding a more incendiary napalm, can go work for weapons labs or the arms industry. A university occupies a different position in society.
For one thing, it is a place where knowledge is developed according to protocols that depend on openness. Research results are obtained with the help of students, reviewed by colleagues, and disseminated internationally by publication. Critics are invited to disprove the scholar's assertions in an open forum. Concepts that survive are propagated further via classroom instruction.
A culture of secrecy may be intrinsic to military research, but it is anathema to a university.
Dan O'Neill, author of "The Firecracker Boys," is and independent writer whose columns appear regularly on the Opinion Page.
Back to top
Back to UAF NMD Research main page
Back to home page
Little doubt: UA planned Scud launches
By DAN O'NEILL
Government documents leave little doubt that the
Pentagon and the University of Alaska's Geophysical
Institute intended to use Poker Flat Research Range to
launch captured or otherwise-acquired Scud missiles
into the Brooks Range.
Citing restrictions imposed by the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense
Organization (BMDO), Poker Flat range manager Greg Walker wouldn't confirm
or deny that Scuds were to fly from the university's auroral research facility in a
pair of classified launches scheduled for April. But Walker does say that the
launches won't occur after all.
It's the first time in the range's 30-plus year history that the identity of a rocket
has been kept secret. In another unusual move apparently intended to thwart
journalistic inquiry into the project, the university restricted access to the
normally-available proposal that sought $1.5 million federal dollars for the two
classified launches. Nor was the public allowed to inspect the BMDO's draft
Through back channels, I obtained these documents, and they are illuminating.
For example, Poker Flat and the Pentagon didn't hope to launch just two of these
unnamed "liquid-fueled" rockets, as Poker Flat was saying, but up to 20 over five
This will be news to the few folks who live along the Chatanika River near Poker
Flat. At a Dec. 5 meeting for the locals, range manager Walker spoke of only two
classified launches, and he couldn't say much about them--except that the
people would have to evacuate their homes at launch time. He couldn't reveal the
purpose of the experiment, other than to say that the payloads contained objects
that would disperse on reentry and be retrieved by downrange personnel
stationed near the impact zone. About the rockets themselves, he said only that
they were single stage, liquid fueled.
I attended that meeting and asked Walker if he could disclose the rockets'
propellant. He said the fuel would be kerosene-based, and that the oxidizer would
be inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA). Later, I asked Walker if the missiles
might land either in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or in the Yukon Flats
National Wildlife Range. He hastened to assure me that they would not, though
they would cross the Yukon River. That put the range in the neighborhood of 150
miles, as there isn't much room between the two refuges.
As it turns out, there just aren't many single-stage missiles in the world that burn
kerosene and IRFNA with a range of 150 miles. The secret missiles were almost
certainly Scuds--more particularly, Scud Bs. I called missile experts around the
country and they agreed.
But so what? Should we worry about firing Scuds into our landscape?
Popular among the client states of the former Soviet Union, the
Russian-designed Scud is the most proliferated missile in the world. And,
because of its use in the Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq War, it is probably the most
famous ballistic missile in the world. It is also famously erratic. Pentagon
documents note its "notoriously poor accuracy," its "crude guidance systems"
and "unsophisticated gyroscopes." Iraqi versions fired during the Gulf War
sometimes crashed near the launch site. Frequently, they broke up in flight,
spewing brownish clouds of red fuming nitric acid. On the skin, this highly
corrosive acid causes deep and painful burns. Breathed as a vapor, it can cause
dizziness, anxiety, vomiting, burned lungs, choking, pulmonary edema and
death. The Pentagon and the CIA ascribe some of the illnesses suffered by Gulf
War vets, not to chemical warfare agents, but to IRFNA.
Even barring accidents at launch or along the flight path, these 20 missiles were
intended to crash into the Chandalar River Valley with an aggregate 820 gallons
of unburned IRFNA on board. The military says it would have cleaned up its
mess, but its environmental record in Alaska does not exactly inspire
The Pentagon recently announced that the secret launches may be moved to
White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. It seems sensible that this kind of
testing occur on a dedicated military range. And it seems wrong that, while its
faculty dozes, our university's auroral and atmospheric research facility is quietly
being transformed into a proving ground for secret military projects.
At any rate, it looks like Alaska has dodged a fusillade of rockets. But if I lived
near White Sands, I'd be asking some questions. Like, will the Pentagon
acknowledge these missiles are Scuds? What foreign country built them? How
old are they? How well have they been maintained? And come launch time, I'd
take a vacation. To Alaska.
Back to top
Back to UAF NMD main page
Back to home page
Home on the Range
Submitted to FDNM Jan. 23, 2002
Theyre going to kill somebody out here, I guarantee you that.
Charlie Donahoe, a retired stone mason, and I took a drive out to his place along the
Chatanika. The road into his property is not far beyond the entrance to Poker Flat
rocket range. He and a handful of others built in an old subdivision, a relic of the
mining days, occupied on and off perhaps since the 1920s.
Charlie's neighbor, Jim McFarland, comes out of his log cabin when he hears his
dogs barking. Both men bought their property about 20 years ago. Its peaceful,
they say--at least it is when errant rocket parts arent whistling down through the sky
and crashing within paces of their doorsteps.
When he first moved into the area, McFarland thought it would be great to be
around rocket scientists, the stereotypical smart guys. Now he laughs bitterly at the
idea. "I have had people come to the door and ask me if I'd heard or seen any
impacts. I've been out in the woods walking around and have met people from
Poker Flat that are within half a mile or so of this house looking for rockets that they
haven't found. And they will turn around and tell me there is no danger. Well, if there
is no danger why are they in my area looking for pieces of rockets?"
There have been more than 20 rocket vehicle failures at Poker Flat. In 1994, a
rocket malfunctioned and the payload and motors landed 15 miles away in the
vacant downrange flight zone. At least thats what the News-Miner understood
from Poker Flat. But just a few months ago, the caretaker of the RV park across
the road from the range found the twelve-foot-long first stage in the woods about
280 yards from his cabin.
The previous year, a 70-foot-tall rocket exploded two seconds after ignition. The
first stage crashed near the launch pad and blew apart; the second stage
disintegrated; the third stage crashed beyond the first and ignited; and the forth stage
and payload came down in the middle of the Steese Highway.
In 1991, a two-stage Nike-Orion came apart. The Nike went one way, the Orion
another. The latter went mostly up, but the Nike abruptly turned itself from vertical
to horizontal and went streaking up the Chatanika River Valley, finally slamming into
the base of a mountain half a mile away.
One night McFarland and his wife were asleep when they heard a roar, then silence,
then a roar, then silence. Later they were told that "the rocket had blown out the
side, instead of coming out the nozzle," he says. "It was on the launch pad and
spinning like a top." Somehow, he says, the rocket got airborne, lifting and spinning
like a pinwheel.
"I heard it come over. I though it was coming down on me. I guess you always
assume the worst, but when I heard this sound--it kept getting louder--this whop,
whop, WHOP, WHOP, WHOP, I thought, Oh, God, here it comes."
The thing roared by like a runaway lawnmower rotor, shedding pieces into
McFarland's yard. "There were pieces right were you parked your truck."
Nobody knows the date that one landed in the Chatanika River alongside the
subdivision, but McFarland can point out the spot where it lies, now invisible beneath
the river ice. And stabbed like an arrow into the hillside above, is yet another
rocket. Its an impressive piece of steel, about 52 inches around, with nearly five
feet of its length exposed. According to my GPS, both rockets are between 211
and 264 yards from three residences: McFarlands, another neighbors, and a cabin
Donahoe rents to a young woman.
"A piece like that would totally wipe out a house," McFarland says. "It scares the
hell out of us," says McFarland. "It does."
After the 1991 accident, an unusually candid scientist acknowledged, These are
really bombs youre flying these things on. Sooner or later your luck runs out.
Thats exactly what Donahoe and McFarland have been saying. Theyd like to see
the university address the obvious problem. Instead, they see Poker Flat looking to
expand its operations into more hazardous military launches.
Dan O'Neill, author of The Firecracker Boys, is an independent writer whose
columns appear regularly on the opinion page.
© 2002, Dan O'Neill
Back to top
Back to UAF NMD research main page
Back to home page
Secret research not UA's mission
By DAN O'NEILL
Friday, March 01, 2002 - Every once in a while a thinker
ventures an idea and reaps the whirlwind. So it is with a
philosophy professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks,
who's seeing his colleagues from the scientific schools
circle and snipe. What is Norman Swazo's offensive idea?
Well, he thinks the university should "leave to weapons
laboratories classified research having to do with weapons."
It all started once it became known that UAF's Geophysical
Institute proposed to do to classified, weapons-related
research at its Poker Flat Research Range. First there were
to be secret launches of up to 20 foreign-built and
notoriously erratic Scud missiles into the Brooks Range.
Later, university professors would get clearances and gather
and interpret classified data concerning the "signature" of
incoming missiles. And although this level of involvement
with classified work had never been done at UA before, the
shift was going to take place without any discussion on
Swazo, who is president of the faculty senate at UAF, questioned whether this
sort of work fit very well with the university's mission. So he had a look at the
board of regents' policy. It said that "universities function on the principle of free
inquiry and open expression," and that they "broadly disseminate research
The policy recognizes that a university isn't some rent-a-researcher enterprise,
where customers control research results to further their own narrow interests.
Scientists favoring that sort of work can hire on at industry or government
laboratories. Rather, the university occupies a different place in society. Its
mission, as the regents' policy states, is "to foster international understanding
and mutual cooperation in scientific discovery that benefits humanity at large."
To support these values, Swazo thought that some safeguards were necessary.
He proposed that the university shouldn't normally work on weaponry, but that
classified research might be allowed under certain circumstances, including
approval by a faculty oversight committee.
Now several scientists and engineers with a stake in classified research are
voicing displeasure in "open letter" e-mails circulating throughout the university
system. One called Swazo's initiative "an attack on our academic freedom."
Frankly, the arguments seem little more than a collection of aphorisms,
adolescent conceits that prove nothing so well as the need for more humanities
courses in the training of our math and science people.
Consider some of the arguments:
"Many of our most well-respected universities conduct classified research." If you
have kids, you've heard this argument: "But the other guys get to!" And, of
course, you respond: "We make our rules according to our values." Yes, many
universities do classified research, and many do not. Stanford, for example, and
the State University of New York do not. Aren't the more pertinent questions
these: considering what other universities have decided, have we construed our
mission reasonably? and if so, shouldn't our policies support that mission?
Classified work "puts UAF in a position of high visibility." The old
it'll-put-us-on-the-map argument. It's used by every promoter looking to sell a
piece of our heritage for money. It makes you wonder, is our sense of inferiority
so great that we would abandon our values for notoriety? It would seem that if the
university sticks to its business and does its work well, it will be sufficiently
This from a department chairman: "Let's not overreact because you don't like
missiles." It takes one back to the fourth grade. At no point in his several written
arguments had Swazo indicated whether he "liked" missiles. He said that national
missile defense research presented problems of a moral nature, which he was at
pains to explicate. Certainly one may disagree, but a thoughtful reply would have
acknowledged Swazo's arguments and addressed them.
From the same fellow: "I don't like cutting open sea otters to see if the Exxon
Valdez oil is impacting their reproduction. I'm not the one to argue that my
squeamish stomach should dictate what is valid science or important to
academic research." Actually, he is the one. Consider, instead of otters, human
subjects. During the Cold War, several universities participated in classified
research where people were injected with plutonium without their knowledge or
consent. Of course faculty can and should provide oversight of
experimentation--especially secret experimentation--at universities.
The oversight committee that Professor Swazo calls for should be established.
And besides people who know how to compute, it should include people who
know how to think.
Dan O'Neill, author of "The Firecracker Boys," is an independent writer
whose columns appear regularly on the Opinion page.