Barely on the Radar | Feature | Chicago Reader

Barely on the Radar 

Why are we getting big news about a U.S.-Israel defense deal from a North Shore synagogue's newsletter?

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You wouldn't expect to find a major international news story being broken by a house of worship. But when Michael Millenson arrived at his North Shore synagogue August 2 he came across the following item in the weekly bulletin:

"The U.S. will provide Israel with a new powerful radar system. Congressman [Mark] Kirk has been working with senior Israeli and American defense officials for more than a year to reach an agreement on the AN/TPY-2 radar system that will be 5 to 6 times more powerful than [the] present Israeli system. Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor thanked Congressman Kirk for his efforts."

Millenson, a former Tribune reporter, recognized this as major news—though he hadn't seen it reported elsewhere. His nose told him there was also some political opportunism at work.

The AN/TPY-2 radar system, better known as X-band, is a state-of-the-art strategic shield. If you'll forgive the pun, Russia went ballistic last year when the U.S. proposed installing X-band radar in the Czech Republic and a new interceptor missile system in Poland. The radar and the missiles would operate in tandem, and the U.S. claimed they were needed to protect Europe from "rogue states" such as Iran. Russia didn't buy it and still doesn't. Jarred by Russia's invasion of Georgia, Poland agreed on August 14 to accept the missiles, and the deputy chief of staff of the Russian military immediately warned that "Poland is making itself a target. This is 100 percent."

Whatever danger Iranian missiles do or don't pose to Europe, they certainly preoccupy Israel. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called Israel a "Zionist regime...heading toward annihilation" that should be "wiped off the map." Meanwhile, Iran seems hell-bent on developing its own nuclear-weapon capacity.

This back story is why Millenson was astonished to find the X-band agreement with Israel covered only in his synagogue's bulletin. He couldn't find the story in the Washington Post or the New York Times, let alone the local media, and he wondered if Kirk, in a self-aggrandizing flourish, had leaped ahead of the facts—or at least ahead of his government's willingness to disclose them. "As a Democrat," Millenson e-mailed me, "I kind of doubted that Kirk was single-handedly saving Israel, anyway, and as a former journalist I also knew that no administration, Republican or Democrat, sells an advanced weapons system overseas because some congressman asks them to."

Nevertheless, Kirk, a Republican battling for reelection in the North Shore's heavily Jewish Tenth District, has made the X-band radar his crusade. For months he publicly urged Washington to share it with Israel. Now he was telling voters he'd delivered.

Millenson's synagogue had picked up the story from the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. It was one of several items in the organization's July 31 weekly e-alert—"breaking news from the Jewish community." The JUF got the news in an e-newsletter from Kirk's office.

But Kirk's newsletters go everywhere, and nobody else had run the story. Downtown editors weren't buying what Kirk was selling. If you're wondering why, consider the events of July 30 and July 31, as a visit to Washington by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak came to a close. On July 30 Kirk rose in the House:

"Madam Speaker," he said, "we all know there is a growing Iranian threat, focused mostly on the people of Israel. Earlier this year, [congresswoman] Jane Harman joined my bipartisan letter with 70 members of Congress calling for the U.S. to extend our full ballistic missile defenses to protect Israel. Last night, the United States announced that we would make this key commitment. Secretary Gates told Defense Minister Barak that the first step will happen soon. America's most powerful radar, the X-band, will soon defend Israel."

But there'd been no U.S. announcement and there would be none. The next day, secretary of defense Robert Gates was asked about it point-blank at a news briefing: "Sir, earlier this week you met with the Israelis and talked about possible deployment of an X-band radar in Israel. I was wondering, is that something that is going to happen?"

Gates didn't answer the question and made it clear he had no intention of answering any like it: "I think what I'll say is that we have looked at a whole series of enhancements to Israel's defense and we are looking toward greater cooperation with them in terms of providing some additional capability," he said. "And I think at this point I'll just leave it general like that."

Either Kirk was at cross-purposes with the truth or he was at cross-purposes with the Pentagon.

When I started investigating, I discovered that Kirk seemed to know things about the X-band radar deal nobody else in Washington knew—including Representative Harman. A California Democrat, Harman has been joined at the hip with Kirk on the X-band. In May they collaborated on a letter to President Bush urging him to share the radar with Israel. "Given the Iranian President's threat to 'wipe Israel off the map,' we should put the full weight of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system behind our democratic ally," they wrote. They also collaborated on a long letter in the Jerusalem Post asserting their hope that "our two great democracies can rise above week-to-week concerns and create the capability to stop Iran from carrying through on its heinous threats."

Yet several days after Kirk spoke in the House I called Harman's office and asked what was going on with the X-band. Nothing to announce yet, I was told.

On August 14 I called the Pentagon. "There's no information on that now," said a lieutenant colonel in the press office. He said Gates's July 31 remarks remained the latest word on the subject.

The next day I spoke to Kirk himself.

"It's moving right now," said the congressman, speaking of the X-band radar. "The material was crated last week and it's going to be shipped to Israel this weekend or next week. Some folks in the Pentagon wanted it in Jordan. They were defeated. Some want it delivered in November. They were defeated. It'll be delivered immediately."

Kirk told me that before he made his announcement in the House both the Pentagon and Israel's ministry of defense had told him "it was a done deal." Barak had even "called me and thanked me," Kirk said. "I wouldn't have made a statement like that if they hadn't confirmed it was a go."

I pointed out that Gates hadn't called it a go.

"That's unimportant," Kirk said. "It's moving now. That's what I care about."

It's pretty clear that Israel and the U.S. did reach an agreement on the X-band radar, but only one country wants to acknowledge it. As Barak ended his visit to Washington on July 29 he jabbered, but American sources buttoned up. Reuters reported that day, in a story major American papers didn't pick up, that "Barak said he had secured the Pentagon's agreement to post a powerful radar, known as the forward-based X-band, in Israel." But although cnn.com carried a brief story saying an anonymous American official agreed the deal was on, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. was committed to nothing beyond "exploring additional defensive capabilities for Israel."

Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, ran the Reuters story. And on August 18 Defense News, a newsweekly published by Gannett, published a long article out of Tel Aviv full of detail: the radar will be based in the Negev desert, linked to American military satellites and manned by American troops, and when fully deployed "expected to double or even triple the range at which Israel can detect, track and ultimately defend against Iranian missiles."

The Israeli consulate in Chicago, when I asked for a progress report on the X-band talks, referred me to the above articles.

The general effect of this coverage is to frame Barak's mission to Washington as a triumph. But that's not the only way of looking at it. A story in Haaretz on August 14 described the X-band agreement as "compensation" for the U.S. denying Israel everything else it has asked for. Iraq and Syria both learned the hard way that when Israel feels threatened it believes in preemptive strikes. According to Haaretz, Israel wanted the U.S. to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. No, said Washington. Then back us up when we attack, said Israel. No, said Washington, which also told Israel "an attack on Iran would undermine American interests."

Kirk told me through a spokesman that he doesn't buy the compensation scenario. Either way, the Israelis appear ready and willing to talk about the exchange whereas the U.S.—with other Middle East relationships to take into account—is apparently trying to avoid the subject. As of Monday, August 18, the Pentagon was standing by Gates's nearly three-week-old no comment; the only American public official who doesn't seem to have a problem openly discussing the deal is congressman Kirk.

As a journalist I'm not one to reprimand truth tellers. Kirk may have scored political points by calling attention to the X-band radar deal and taking credit for it—but what of it? The American public deserves to know what went down, and if the only way to find out is to go to Shabbat services, well, more power to the two-fisted editor of the synagogue bulletin.

"What this means," Kirk told me, "is that the likelihood of Israel being wiped out has declined by a certain amount. To shoot something down you have to find out where it is. This increases the ability of Israel to find out where a missile is by five times further out." Instead of having a minute to respond to an incoming missile, Kirk said, Israel will have five.

Kirk has his own explanation for why the local press ignored his announcement. "The problem with X-band is nobody knows what it is," he said. "The mainstream press is always interested in missiles and things that blow up. Something like a radar sounds boring to them. But Israel already has Arrow interceptor missiles. What she didn't have was the ability to find the incoming threat in a very precise way.

"Radar just looks like a big box. It looks like a big box when it's turned off. It looks like a big box when it's turned on. To the press, radar issues are generally not big issues. But this is a very large upgrade to the defense of Israel."v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more from Michael Miner on the media, see our News Bites blog.

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