WASHINGTON DESK - Challenging official U.S. intelligence estimates, a congressionally mandated panel reported yesterday that Iran and North Korea could develop weapons capable of striking U.S. territory sooner than government analysts have predicted and with little or no warning.
Members of the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Threat to the United States declined to link their findings to the contentious political debate over whether to deploy a national missile defense system. But some congressional Republicans quickly seized on the report as further justification for their determination to build such a shield despite high costs and doubts about its feasibility.
The Clinton administration has committed to planning a modest system by 2000 that could be deployed within another three years should the threat warrant. But GOP lawmakers have pushed for greater spending and a firm decision to build the system, citing a threat of missile attack despite the Cold War's end.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) hailed the panel's study as "the most important warning about our national security since the end of the Cold War" and said he will consult with the administration and congressional leaders from both parties about establishing a bipartisan "working group" to review intelligence and defense capabilities.
U.S. intelligence agencies have maintained that a long-range missile threat from potential Third World adversaries is unlikely to emerge before 2010, except possibly from North Korea, and would likely be detected well in advance.
But commission chairman Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense and White House chief of staff under President Gerald R. Ford, said at a Capitol Hill news conference that his group had access to broader and more highly classified information than most analysts in the compartmented intelligence world and it took "a somewhat different approach," weighing the information "as senior decision-makers would."
"The threat to the United States posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community," said the panel, composed of nine national security specialists, including a mix of academics and former government and military officials.
The ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to estimate the vulnerability of the United States to ballistic missiles is declining, the commission added, because the agencies do not have enough satellites and spies to track missile proliferation and because of shortcomings in the way analysts assess information.
The commission appeared to give greater weight than government analysts to technical assistance from Russia and China, availability on international markets of missile technology and cooperation among missile-developing nations themselves. It noted that North Korea already has medium-range missiles capable of flying about 800 miles and is "working hard" on a missile that could reach Alaska or Hawaii. Iran, it added, is making "very rapid progress" on a medium-range missile and has the technical capability to make a long-range missile.
If international sanctions were lifted against Iraq, the panel said that Iraq also could pose a missile threat to the United States within 10 years.
It warned that missile programs no longer follow the U.S. and Soviet patterns of measured development and prolonged testing, with Third World countries willing to settle for less accurate, less reliable and less safe missiles. This, it suggested, means there is less time and opportunity to detect the missile programs.
Discussing the difficulty of monitoring foreign missile development, the commission said potential adversaries also are getting better at hiding efforts. It noted that U.S. intelligence analysts were surprised by North Korea's deployment of its medium-range No Dong missiles after what appeared to have been only one test.
Intelligence officials defended their threat estimates, saying there was more agreement than divergence between them and the commission's findings, especially in predicting the pace and scope of North Korea's missile development.
The congressional initiative for the commission grew out of a heated political controversy over U.S. intelligence agencies' 1995 threat assessment, which flatly stated that no country outside the five major nuclear powers "will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada." Since then, however, government analysts have increasingly hedged their predictions with references to gaps and uncertainties in available information.