GMA, CNN, print media fail to challenge Bush's missile defense claim

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

Following President Bush's claim on Larry King Live that the United States had a functional missile defense system, numerous media outlets reported his statement without challenge. By contrast, a report on NPR's Morning Edition noted that the missile defense system "has been plagued with technical problems" and has never been thoroughly tested, citing Government Accountability Office reports that indicate the system has no proven ability to shoot down a hostile missile.

Following President Bush's July 6 appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, numerous media outlets aired, unchallenged, a portion of the interview in which Bush claimed the United States had a functional missile defense program capable of intercepting a long-range North Korean missile. Bush responded to King's questions regarding North Korea's recent missile tests by asserting: "If it had headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country." By contrast, a report on the July 7 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition noted that the missile defense system "has been plagued with technical problems" and has never been thoroughly tested, citing Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports which, as Media Matters for America has noted, indicate that the system has no proven ability to shoot down a hostile missile.

When reporting on the interview on July 7, ABC's Good Morning America, CNN's American Morning, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times all uncritically noted Bush's assertion, never pointing out facts that contradict his claim:

  • Good Morning America:

BILL WEIR (weekend anchor): The president also expected to speak about the North Korea situation at a news conference later this morning. Mr. Bush told Larry King last night that while he supports a U.N. plan to impose sanctions, the United States is prepared to defend itself.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: Donald Rumsfeld called me and said, look, he's fired, you know, rockets. Some of them Scuds, but we responded very quickly. We had a plan in place to respond if he were to fire these things.

KING: Were you prepared to shoot it down?

BUSH: If it had headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country.

[end video clip]

WEIR: Top U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill met with his Chinese counterparts this morning in Beijing. China, considered North Korea's closest ally.

MILES O'BRIEN: The North Korea crisis should be at the top of the agenda as President Bush holds a news conference in Chicago later this morning. Last night, he and the first lady gave an exclusive interview to Larry King at the White House. Larry asked him about the missile firings and how best to deal with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: If it headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country.

KING: Do you then fear it more now?

BUSH: I think that's what he wants. I think he does want people to fear him.

My response to him and the response of our partners is to be that, you know, it's very important for you, the leader of North Korea, to make rational decisions, because the United States is not alone in making these demands. The demand, of course, is that to give up his, you know, weapons programs in a verifiable fashion.

I think he'd love to have the United States sit down at the table alone with Kim Jong Il. The problem is we tried that, and it didn't work.

And I think the best way to solve this problem diplomatically is for there to be other nations around the table with us, so that when he looks out, when he looks at the table or he looks at the world, he hears China and the United States speaking one voice or China, the United States, Russia, Japan, and South Korea speaking with one voice.

I am into solving problems, and I'm convinced the strategy we've got is the best way to solve this problem.

[end video clip]

O'BRIEN: Once again, the president with a news conference in Chicago today, 11 a.m. Eastern Time. And of course, you'll see it here live on CNN.

Bush said Thursday night that the Pentagon's rudimentary missile defense system, based in Alaska and California, would have been used if missiles threatened U.S. territory.

"We had a plan in place to respond if he were to fire these things," Bush said in an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live." "If it headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country."

Pentagon officials continued to downplay any U.S. military role in response to the missile tests. The Navy announced Thursday that the aircraft carrier Enterprise was being redeployed from the Persian Gulf, where it backed the U.S. effort in Iraq, to the western Pacific, where it will join the Navy's 7th Fleet. The fleet last month conducted a massive set of maneuvers near Guam. Military officials said the ship movements were routine and had been planned.

During an interview broadcast Thursday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," Bush was asked whether he had been prepared to shoot down the long-range missile. The president replied, "If it headed to the United States we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country."

Pentagon officials said Thursday that the very brief flight of the Taepodong-2 missile made it difficult to collect useful technical data, such as its intended target, its payload and even whether it was a two-stage or three-stage missile. At this point, U.S. officials are leaning toward the theory that it was configured as a space launch to deliver a satellite into orbit, rather than as a flight test of a ballistic missile.

By contrast, when National Public Radio's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman reported on Bush's claim during the July 7 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition, he also noted that the missile defense system "has been plagued with technical problems"; hasn't had "a successful interceptor test in four years"; and that "the entire system ... has never been fully tested." Bowman continued:

The Pentagon pushed ahead with plans to set up a small number of interceptors in Alaska and California, but the entire system -- a vast collection of radar, satellites, and interceptors -- has never been fully tested. Only separate components have been tested over the years.

[...]

At the same time, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, raised doubts about the performance of the missile interceptors. It said it is uncertain whether some components can even work in space. President Bush, however, says he's pressing ahead with his plans for a missile defense shield, a program that has cost over $100 billion over the past 20 years.

As Media Matters for America has previously noted, the two most recent flight tests -- in December 2004 and February 2005 -- both failed when the interceptors did not launch. A June 16 Reuters report stated that, since those failures, the United States has suspended tests in which the missile defense system launches an interceptor that attempts to hit an incoming warhead. A March 2006 GAO report found that the "performance" of the interceptors that have been deployed "is uncertain because inadequate mission assurance/quality control procedures may have allowed less reliable or inappropriate parts to be incorporated into the manufacturing process." The report also stated that the ground-based missile defense system had "not successfully completed an end-to-end flight test." The Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) news website does not indicate that such a test has been attempted since the GAO report was released.

From the July 7 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition:

INSKEEP: And, I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. President Bush told an interviewer yesterday that the U.S. was ready for a North Korean missile.

[...]

INSKEEP: The president speaking with CNN's Larry King. The defense system was activated this week during North Korea's test of a long-range missile. As it turned out, the test missile failed. It never came close to challenging a missile defense system that has also failed a lot of tests. The administration calls the system limited but effective, while critics ask if it will ever provide real protection. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

BOWMAN: Eleven American interceptor missiles stand guard against a long-range North Korean missile. They are set in silos in Alaska and California. If all goes as planned, they would surge out of the ground, rise into space above the Pacific, and arc toward an incoming Taepodong-2 warhead.

JOHN PIKE (defense analyst): Because you'd want to have as many opportunities as possible to intercept the incoming object, you'd fire a pair of interceptors. If those failed to succeed, you'd want to fire more until eventually you'd manage to intercept it.

BOWMAN: That's John Pike, a defense analyst, who says there's a 50-50 chance of that perfect scenario. Missile defense has been plagued with technical problems. There hasn't been a successful interceptor test in four years, and he says there's a big problem if the North Koreans launch multiple missiles. Or worse, if they ever figure out how to confuse the American interceptor missiles.

PIKE: This is the famous decoy problem. If, instead of a single warhead coming off the front of the missile, you have a dozen objects, two dozen objects, and you can't tell which one's the hydrogen bomb and which one's the balloon, you're going to run out of interceptors before you run out of things to intercept.

BOWMAN: Lieutenant General Trey Obering, the head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, has declined interviews since the North Korean launches. But he told reporters two weeks ago he believes the system will work as planned.

OBERING: Based on the testing that we have done to date, I am confident that we could hit a long-range missile that would be fired at the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How come?

OBERING: It's -- in my mind, it's much higher confidence than what has been described by some of our critics in the press.

BOWMAN: Philip Coyle, who served as director of testing at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, is among the critics. He is skeptical, and he says it's because testing took a back seat to putting missiles in silos.

COYLE: What changed the priorities was in 2002, President Bush declared that he wanted hardware deployed, and that really changed the priorities in the program. The bottom fell out of the testing schedule, and the priority went to deployment.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon pushed ahead with plans to set up a small number of interceptors in Alaska and California, but the entire system -- a vast collection of radar, satellites, and interceptors -- has never been fully tested. Only separate components have been tested over the years. Rick Lehner, a spokesman with the Missile Defense Agency, says it would be too expensive to build an entire missile defense system for testing and another for operations. Lehner says it's better to build a limited defense shield than nothing at all. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, raised doubts about the performance of the missile interceptors. It said it is uncertain whether some components can even work in space. President Bush, however, says he's pressing ahead with his plans for a missile defense shield, a program that has cost $100 billion over the past 20 years.

BUSH: We will continue to build a robust system, because I think it's in -- I know it's in our interests to make sure that we're never in a position where somebody can blackmail us.

BOWMAN: Another $58 billion will be spent during the next six years. The Bush administration plans to have up to 54 long-range interceptors after 2010, including as many as 10 interceptors in Europe. Coyle says building such a robust system is easier said than done, and there may never be an effective missile shield.

COYLE: It's hard for Americans not to want technology to be a kind of silver bullet, the thing that will solve all of our problems. But sometimes technology just isn't there when we want it. Depending on what the threat becomes, it becomes harder and harder for missile defense.

BOWMAN: Still, Coyle says there are some promising parts of the missile defense program. The Navy has had success in its Aegis program, basically ships with advanced radar and missiles that can shoot down a warhead. Others see some hope in an airborne laser, which could potentially zap a missile out of the sky, perhaps sometime in the next decade. Tom Bowman, NPR news, the Pentagon.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
ABC, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press
Person
Miles O'Brien
Show/Publication
American Morning, Good Morning America
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