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Undercover at the Star Wars Fan Club
by Frida Berrigan
was the mole, the spy, the interloper. I went to King of Prussia to attend a conference organized by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, stirringly entitled “Defending the Northeast, America and Our Allies from Ballistic Missile Attack.”
It was the first time I’ve been back to King of Prussia since 1981, when I was there for the trial of my father, Philip Berrigan, my uncle, Dan Berrigan, and six others who had symbolically disarmed a Mark 12A nuclear warhead manufactured by General Electric. This action, called the Plowshares Eight, sparked a movement of more than 75 disarmament actions on three continents. So going back to where it all started, to hang out with the merchants of death, was an experience.
As protesters including the Brandywine Community, the Angels Against Star Wars and the anti-Star Wars Darth Vader sweltered in 95-degree sunshine outside the hotel, I froze inside listening to Weldon give the opening address to the assembled men in suits. (An informal count yielded a grand total of 10 women among more than 200 men.) I felt more than a little conspicuous, even in my high-heeled shoes and business attire. I tried to keep my head down and my hair in place as I took notes and collected the issue briefs and reports from the array of right-wing think tanks representatives in attendance. The Heritage Foundation, Claremont Institute and High Frontier joined the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in co-sponsoring the conference and buried the conferees in material. I zealously collected the Claremont Institute’s “Why Nuclear War is Possible,” the Heritage Foundation’s “Priorities for a President: Defending America from Missile Attack” and the High Frontier newsletter, “The Shield: Controlling Access To and From Space.”
I also collected all the weapons manufacturers had to offer: glossy cards with high-tech graphics and slogans like “Boeing: Forging America’s Shield,” stickers depicting the American eagle clutching Raytheon’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle in its talons against an unfurling flag and handsome blue “Boeing: Team NMD” mugs, lapel pins, key chains and baseball hats.
Weldon, who chairs the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, gave the opening address. He welcomed us to King of Prussia and Valley Forge, saying, “It is especially fitting that we are holding this conference in Valley Forge, the defensive outpost for George Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.” He welcomed the broad spectrum of political, military and technology experts on missile defense assembled for the conference, commenting that the defense industry was “especially well represented.”
Indeed. I counted more than 70 participants from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and smaller missile defense companies like Alliant Missile Products and Science Applications International Corporation, out of a list of 200 or so conferees. That over-representation is not surprising, given how much the weapons industry has to gain from an accelerated push for missile defense and how actively they have supported missile defense boosters on the Hill. Weldon alone pulled in more than $200,000 in defense industry contributions in the last five years. But he had the gumption to say that he was convinced that missile defense was the way to go, even though he has “never worked for a defense contractor in my life.” With money like that coming into his office, the truth is that he’s stumping for Boeing and Lockheed every day on Capitol Hill.
Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and Analytical Graphics had elaborate displays in the basement “Independence Hall.” Raytheon brought a half-size model of its Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle—known as an EKV—which looks sort of like a vacuum cleaner or a snow blower and costs about $25 million. Pound for pound, it is among the most expensive weapons ever built.
But that does not mean it works. Its slogan is “Discriminate and Destroy,” but so far “Crash and Burn” seems more apt. The 1999 National Missile Defense Review Committee Report, chaired by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, highlighted the “‘hardware-poor’ nature of the EKV program” and pointed out that the EKV might not be able to withstand the shock loads once mounted on the actual Ground Based Interceptor booster. The failure of the July 7, 2000, National Missile Defense test was due in large part to the failure of the Raytheon EKV to separate properly from the Lockheed Martin booster rocket. As a result, the sensors used to hone in on the mock warhead were never turned on, and the vehicle sailed wide of its target. So much for discrimination and destruction.
To complement Raytheon and Lockheed Martin’s models and exhibits, Weldon brought his own props, a Scud missile and a Theater High Altitude Area Defense system, deployed in the Radisson’s parking lot. The Scud stood beside a poster bearing the names of 28 Americans killed in an 1991 Iraqi attack on a bunker in Saudi Arabia. Weldon dedicated the conference to their memory, saying they died because “America failed them.” Ten years later, he said, we still don’t have a fully deployed missile defense that could assure that “never again will Americans come home in body bags.”
It seemed as if Weldon’s main goal was to foment fear of missile attacks. “Some 34 countries today have ballistic missiles,” he said, “and 14 countries produce and or export ballistic missiles and related technology.” He used the word “vulnerable” countless times throughout his almost two-hour speech and Q&A session. Weldon envisions a series of regional conferences to follow this one, with the aim of awakening the nation to the fact that it is vulnerable to ballistic missile attack and there is no defense. This is necessary to combat the “left-wing rhetoric” and anti-missile defense slant of the “liberal media establishment.” Weldon singled out Dan Rather for special belittlement, saying the CBS anchor had the “intellectual honesty of my pet.”
An interesting side note on the celebrities who are interested in missile defense: The most well known is Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, who thinks missile defense “rocks” and was one of President Bush’s missile defense emissaries last month. Less well known is Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, who sits on the board of High Frontier. Strangely enough his interest in missile defense is not listed among his “pet projects” on his website beside the Rawhide Ranch and the Hospice Network.
Weldon said the conference was aimed at the U.S. public. “Our discussions will finally give the public a fair and comprehensive view of what our country is up against, and we will put to rest some of the misconceptions about missile defense as we educate America about the real world threats we face in the 21st century.” But I didn’t see the public at the conference (or Sajak or Baxter either). All I saw were representatives of weapons manufacturers, right-wing think tanks and the Pentagon.
The only members of the public I met were the demonstrators sweating in the hot sun on the curb outside the hotel, holding their signs and waving at the cars that honked in support. While the news coverage of the conference downplayed the presence of the Brandywine Community protesters, it was big news inside. Weldon referred to the 20 or so gathered outside as “misguided but well intentioned” and said that “Darth Vader is wandering around out there looking sort of bewildered, I think he’s lost.”
Every time he mentioned the protesters, the audience laughed and guffawed, but it seemed to me that they felt exposed. Darth Vader wasn’t lost, he had found them.
Frida Berrigan is a Research Associate at the World Policy Institute and a member of WRL’s Executive Committee.
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