Missile Threat Looming, Panel Says

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The threat of ballistic missiles from countries such as Iran and North Korea could materialize with little warning, a congressional panel of defense experts reported today. That conclusion differs from earlier assessments by the U.S. intelligence community and the Clinton Administration, which have concluded that a new threat to U.S. territory is at least a decade off.

The panel--called the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States--was set up by the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 and first met in January 1998. Its nine policy-makers, technologists, and senior military officials had "unprecedented access to the most sensitive and highly classified information," said panel chairperson Donald Rumsfeld, a former secretary of defense, at a press conference here. The panel found that liberalized export controls, increased international exchanges of students and scientific personnel, and leaks of classified information have resulted in "massive technology transfer" both from developed nations to rogue nations and between those countries themselves. Moreover, potential aggressors could minimize the technical challenge by settling for missiles with limited accuracy or reliability.

The report warns that nations with Scud missile technology, such as Iran, could test a long-range missile within about 5 years from deciding to pursue such a program. North Korea also has the technology for producing biological weapons, the panel noted. Test flights of their missiles that would be able to reach parts of Hawaii and Alaska could take place within 6 months of a decision. Because of the United Nations arms inspections, however, Iraq is lagging behind and would take 10 years from initiating an effort to posing a missile threat to the United States.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called the report "the most important warning about our national security since the end of the Cold War," and urged the establishment of a bipartisan, bicameral committee to work with the Administration to decide future policy. A White House spokesperson was noncommittal, saying that the report's recommendations on intelligence analysis would be taken into account, but that the Administration stood by its March intelligence assessment. That report concluded that it is unlikely that countries other than Russia, China, or North Korea could deploy a ballistic missile capable of reaching any part of the United States before 2010.