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Missile Mayhem In Congress

A report to Congress that ballistic missiles from rogue nations could strike U.S. cities with "little or no warning" has lawmakers pressing for a review of intelligence assessments that conclude there is no immediate danger.

"The missile threat is not 15 years away. It is here and now," said the House National Security Committee chairman, Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., who sponsored legislation asking for the report.

During a committee hearing on the findings Thursday, Spence pressed a Republican proposal dating back to President Reagan's "Star Wars" plan to quickly build a national missile defense system against attack.

"We're refusing to defend ourselves," he complained.

Virginia Rep. Norm Sisisky said he was among Democrats who backed the Clinton administration's more moderate program to explore ways to fend off ballistic missiles and decide by 2000 whether to deploy in 2003 a limited defensive umbrella to protect U.S. cities.

But he said the report findings have shaken his confidence in the U.S. intelligence community and in America's defense plan.

"You have frightened me, and the American public ought to be frightened, too," Sisisky said. "Maybe enough of us didn't pay attention, or we were looking at the wrong information."

Although critics question whether it's possible to shoot a ballistic missile out of the sky, Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Pentagon is diligently working on plans for a limited national missile defense system.

"No one should doubt our ability and determination to respond with decisive force to a missile attack," Cohen said Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., has cautioned against using the report findings as an excuse to speed up plans for a national missile defense system. "We should not rush to judgment," he said.

An unclassified executive summary of the report, written by a bipartisan panel of defense and security experts, was released Wednesday, a day after lawmakers received a classified version that runs more than 300 pages.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, chairman of the commission, said his panel concluded that nations such as North Korea and Iran are developing long-range missiles - partly thanks to technology from Russia and China - that have intercontinental weapons. He said Iraq also has aspirations, although they're stymied by U.N. oversight.

"We see an environment of little or no warning of ballistic missile threats to the United States from several emerging powers," Rumsfeld said.

The nine-member commission, nominated last year by Congress and selected by the CIA director, unanimously recommended a full review of U.S. analyses and policies regarding the ballistic missile threat.

In 1995, a widely criticized assessment by the CIA concluded that no country other than the five established nuclear powers would be able to treaten U.S. cities with ballistic missiles for 15 years.

White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Thursday there was a disagreement between the Rumsfeld commission and the CIA "about how you factor in different variables when you make these assessments."

"We're confident that we are not chasing vapor trails when it comes to investments in missile defense," McCurry added. "We've got a prudent, well-designed investment that deals accurately with the threat that's been assessed."

Written by Laura Myers