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MIT Professor Alleges Missile Defense Coverup

Claims university is stalling investigation

4 min read

14 January 2005--A controversy over allegations of fraud and coverup at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, is heating up, as the university's decision to quash an internal investigation comes under attack. Theodore A. Postol, professor of science, technology, and national security policy, denies MIT's claim that the government's classification of data relating to the case makes an investigation impossible.

The controversy involves the 1997 flight-test of a missile defense system being developed for the U.S. Department of Defense's Ballistic Missile Defense Organzation, later renamed the Missile Defence Agency (MDA). Postol, who earned his reputation for uncovering the false claims of success in the Patriot missile system during the first Gulf War, argues his case in an open letter to be published in the January/February edition of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.

In a draft of the letter obtained by IEEE Spectrum, Postol describes a crucial test conducted by TRW Inc., Cleveland, Ohio (now Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Reston, Va.) in June 1997, which was supposed to determine whether the missile defense system could distinguish warheads flying through space from balloon decoys. Following a lawsuit by Nira Schwartz, a former TRW engineer, federal agents had come to researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory with evidence suggesting that TRW researchers had falsified test results to mask the failure of a critical infrared sensor system. At issue is a subsequent report written for the federal agents.

Postol alleges that the engineers who wrote the so-called POET (Phase One Engineering Team) report, among them two Lincoln Laboratory researchers, did not cooperate with the agents. Postol claims that they withheld information about the ability of the sensor and the associated software to extract the features of each target object's signal. Postol also disputes two claims of the engineers' report: that the sensor provided valid data and that the data was used successfully to distinguish warheads from balloons in a space experiment. Although the TRW system was not chosen by the MDA, a system from Raytheon Co., Waltham, Masss., system that was chosen instead uses a similar sensor. Postol says that this fact renders the entire missile defense system useless in the face of a real attack.

Postol has been pursuing the case since May 2000, when he sent evidence he had collected about the alleged fraud to John Podesta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House. In April 2001, he alerted Charles M. Vest, then president of MIT, to the situation at Lincoln Lab and asked for a full investigation. Provost Robert A. Brown, who is responsible for all research conducted at MIT, responded that MIT would not review the accuracy of the Lincoln Laboratory report, because it was a government, not an MIT, document. Instead, Brown promised to initiate an investigation of the two authors of the report who were affiliated with MIT and Lincoln Lab, Ming-Jer Tsai and Charles K. Meins. He appointed Professor Edward F. Crawley, the head of the aeronautical and astronomical engineering department, to determine whether a full misconduct investigation was warranted.

Four months later, in July 2002, Crawley wrote in a draft Inquiry Report that no investigation was warranted. After meeting with Postol that August, Crawley reversed his finding and in November 2002 called for a full investigation. In January 2003, Provost Brown accepted Crawley's recommendation to begin an investigation. Almost two years later, on 1 December 2004, outgoing MIT president Vest issued a statement that the university had not been able to investigate Postol's claims because the MDA had classified all of the relevant documents, including the POET report. The next day the MDA issued a statement saying, in effect, that enough was enough: it denied MIT's request for documents, because there had been enough investigations into the flight-test already.

"This claim of Mr. Vest turns out to be false, because there's plenty of documentation, which I have generated and an MIT internal investigation has generated, which are not classified, and in combination with [a 2002 Government Accountability Office] report, will show unequivocally that fraud and obstruction of justice occurred, Postol told IEEE Spectrum. "But MIT is now in the process of trying to evade continuing the investigation by claiming that it's all classified, but that's simply not true."

Postol has been waging a public campaign in both the MIT student newspaper, The Tech, and in the op-ed page of the Boston Globe. He is arguing that MIT should begin the investigation it promised two years ago and maintaining that all the necessary evidence is in the public domain.

In response, MIT Provost Robert A. Brown contends that MIT must have access to information classified by the MDA in order for a full investigation to commence and that MIT is still working to obtain such access. He also says that Professor Postol is pressing his case without knowing all the facts.

"Because Professor Postol did not read [Crawley's] Inquiry Rreport, he does not know what issues that report framed for investigation," Brown told IEEE Spectrum today via email from Singapore, where he is traveling. "Nor would Professor Postol have seen the complete POET report, because he does not have the appropriate security clearance. Both of these sources, as well as other material, are needed for MIT to proceed with the investigation." [click here for the full text of Brown's response to Postol].

Clearly, with an open letter to his colleagues, Postol wants to light a fire under new MIT president Susan Hockfield, who took over from Vest on 6 December 2004 and with whom Postol has already had considerable correspondence about the matter. Postol has also enlisted the aide of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, including Representatives Barney Frank, John F. Tierney, Edward J. Markey, and James P. McGovern to intervene with MIT officials on his behalf.

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