THE BLOG
12/04/2006 12:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oops - Did I Help Start a New Cold War in Space?

Until I wrote about the Bush Administration's new space policy document in the Huffington Post last October, I had only seen it discussed in technical and national security sites and journals. I wrote then that the Administration had "unilaterally declared its right to conduct pre-emptive attacks on foreign spacecraft and on any objects or installations that might support them from the ground" in order to protect its own efforts to use space for military purposes.

A week later the Washington Post picked up on the story, and pretty soon many in the media were repeating this interpretation of the new policy document.

Objections to the new policy, including a pointed one from Al Gore, quickly followed. Now, NBC space analyst James Oberg is arguing that these interpretations were incorrect and "inflammatory," leading to "knee-jerk reactions" in Moscow.

Oberg argues that Putin has been "spooked by alarming press reports," leading to "the threat of falsely sparking a genuine space weapons race through the cynical or just careless promulgation of myths of .. an 'arms race'."

In other words, Oberg is saying that these negligently (or deliberately) inaccurate reports could spark a new arms race in space. If he's right, then I must bear personal responsibility for helping to create a "cynical" or "careless" media frenzy that's pushing us closer to World War III.

I hate when that happens.

I don't mean to sound flippant. The fact is, like everyone, I've been wrong before - and unlike some, I've made corrections when I felt it was appropriate. I've reviewed the policy documents carefully, however, and am sticking with my original interpretation on this one. The Administration has taken a dangerously aggressive stance regarding the militarization of space.

It's Oberg who has misinterpreted the facts. Here's the crux of his argument:

... the unclassified version (of the Bush policy) states that the United States will 'preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space. ... and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. interests.'

Compare this to the Clinton-Gore policy document 10 years earlier: '...the United States will develop, operate, and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.' The key verb, "deny," is common to both policies, and neither policy is talking about denying access. That which is to be 'denied' is any hostile action by adversaries.

Here's Oberg's error: Whether carelessly or cynically, he has taken these two quotes out of their contexts in a way that changes their impact significantly.

The paragraph he quotes from the Clinton policy begins with these words: "Consistent with treaty obligations ..." The Bush policy has removed these words, and has inserted new language that specifically opposes any treaty language that restricts its freedom of action in space - or on the ground - to ensure its military capability outside the earth's atmosphere.

The Bush policy also promotes the use of nuclear power in space (which is somewhat odd since no technology of this kind is known to be in active development), and it dramatically de-emphasizes the role of international cooperation in space exploration.

Do James Oberg and other defenders of the Bush policy really believe that Putin, with his vast intelligence resources (and his own espionage background), is basing his response solely on what he reads in the newspapers? That's what you need to believe in order to buy their defense of this bellicose Administration policy.

Oberg does raise a legitimate point that needs further discussion. Many of the published reports have stated that, in the Post's words, the policy "asserts a right to deny access to space to anyone 'hostile to U.S. interests.'" Oberg is correct when he argues that the policy doesn't say that. It does not, in fact, deny "access to space" for potentially hostile countries - only access to capabilities that might threaten the U.S. But who makes that determination - and how?

Her's what the policy does say:

The United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.

The U.S. therefore asserts its right to "take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities" - whatever "those actions" may be. And this policy, like the notorious Dick Cheney "one percent doctrine," is pre-emptive. The U.S. claims the right to prevent other nations from "developing capabilities" at some point in the future that it has determined are intended to interfere with U.S. space capability.

The key word is not "deny," as Oberg argues. It's "treaty." All of the above has been asserted without reference to treaty obligations or international law. The word "treaty" only occurs once, in requiring that the Director of National Intelligence confirm treaty compliance - in others. That absence, and the assertions in this document, are legitimate cause for concern and criticism.

If the Bush Administration isn't starting a new arms race in space, somebody should tell these rightwingers. They're busy defending the Administration's widely discredited military space projects. Their spokesman is so-called "defense expert" Frank Gaffney, who has been so ludicrously wrong about so many things in the last five years that he would have no credibility left - if he didn't happen to run a "think tank" financed by Boeing and other major space defense contractors.

Of course, there's one way to move past these debates about the document's interpretation. The Bush Administration can publicly reaffirm its willingness to conduct its space policy in a manner that is consistent with international law and treaty obligations. Then we wouldn't need to have these arguments about the press's role at all.

If we're in danger of an arms race in space, it's hardly the fault of Al Gore or critics in the media. Mr. Oberg seems to forget that we have a President, and that it's his responsibility is to manage our international relationships. Given the deteriorating situation with Russia, it might be a good idea to call for some Administration diplomacy, rather than pointing fingers at those who justifiably criticize the new policy.

"Launch the truth into orbit," writes Oberg, "and abort the myths." Sounds good to me. Liftoff has to occur in the White House, however, not in the press corps. Until the President starts explaining himself and handling the situation - Houston, we have a problem.

A Night Light