Reagan's Strategic Deception Initiative If the Pentagon Was Willing to Rig Crucial `Star Wars' Test, How Credible Will It Be in Steering Clinton's $4 Billion Follow-On?

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THE sole surprise in the recent revelation that a critical "star wars" missile test had been rigged to assure its success was how little it surprised a public by now inured to being deceived by its government.

"We've developed a national security system that will never tell the truth when a lie will do," says John Pike, director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, citing "a systematic cold-war pattern of exaggerating the Soviet threat and either understanding or overstating US capabilities," depending on the needs of the moment.

Just how widespread this policy of deliberate deception has been was hinted at in June, when the General Accounting Office completed eight classified reports concluding that the Pentagon had deliberately misled Congress about the cost, performance, and necessity of the most expensive strategic weapons systems built during the Reagan era.

According to a nuclear physicist who participated in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the program was characterized by "secrecy, greed, self-deception, deception of the Congress and actually even of the president."

From its inception a decade ago, SDI was less a serious scientific enterprise than a brilliantly orchestrated disinformation campaign designed to regain the moral high ground from the citizen-inspired nuclear freeze campaign that was sweeping the country.

Where freeze activists sought to replace the offense-only strategy of nuclear deterrence with a common security of mutually protective defenses, SDI's proponents appropriated the language but shed the substance of the shift.

President Reagan's call for a missile-proof astrodome elicited skepticism and ridicule from much of the mainstream scientific community when it was first presented. But to the dismay of many, it found ample political support in a Congress lured by the ever-attractive promise of high-wage jobs and lucrative technological spinoffs.

Ten years and $30 billion later, virtually none of SDI's stellar promises have been realized. The program generated no significant technical breakthroughs and few civilian spinoff technologies. It has yielded few jobs in proportion to its lavish funding but has handsomely rewarded a coterie of high-priced consultants with questionable scientific integrity. Coincidentally or not, fully half the program's largesse landed in Mr. Reagan's home state of California.

All of this is sufficiently suspect to merit a comprehensive investigation by a special prosecutor. But SDI is not a past-tense project.

Conscious that the shaky rationale for a space-based shield has altogether evaporated with the demise of the Soviet Union, Defense Secretary Les Aspin recently announced the end of the star-wars era and redirected the program's vast resources into ground-based missile systems designed to defend against potential third world threats. …