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Postol Questions Success in Gulf War

By Karen Kaplan
Executive Editor

It sounds more like fiction than fact: An inquisitive professor decides to investigate military claims that Patriot missiles successfully engaged 96 percent of the Iraqi Scud missiles hurled at Israel and Saudi Arabia during last year's war in the Persian Gulf, on a hunch that the figure was a gross overestimate.

After submitting his findings -- that at most one Scud out of 50 was destroyed by a Patriot -- for publication, the professor suddenly finds himself the subject of a Defense Investigative Service probe. The professor does not know when the investigation commenced or whether it is officially over.

"It was a Franz Kafka kind of situation," said Theodore Postol '67, a professor of science, technology, and national security policy. "The DIS never told me in writing that I was either under investigation or that the investigation was over or the nature of the claims against me. ... which is a very, shall we say, unorthodox way to do business."

Postol later learned that he was accused of revealing classified military information about Patriot performance in an article reporting his findings. The article, which appeared in the International Security Journal early this year, was immediately classified by the military.

Postol, who has multiple security clearances left over from his days as a scientific advisor to the chief of naval operations, denied the allegations, saying his conclusions were based on a review of the open literature and other unclassified information.

After intervention by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security, the DIS backed away from its claims.

In the interveningweeks, Postol was ordered not to discuss his article, since its contents had been classified. In his opinion, the military's maneuvering had less to do with his research method and more to do with his findings, which were embarrassing to the Army.

"In my opinion, it was and is an abuse of the security and classification system aimed at suppressing public debate on the performance of Patriot," Postol said.

The Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system was designed to protect the United States against air strikes. The weapon became an instant hero during the gulf war, when Army officials reported that it had successfully destroyed 96 percent of Iraqi Scuds in mid-flight.

No one else doubted Army

In response to Postol's conclusions, congressional investigators have worked with Conyers' committee to investigate the Army's claims of Patriot success. They found that military evidence can support only one instance of a Scud hit by a Patriot. The committee will probably issue a report on the Patriot system in June, a congressional source said.

However, if Postol had not raised suspicion about the validity of the Army's figures, they never would have been questioned, the source said.

"If Ted Postol hadn't done this, there would not have been further investigation," said the source. "If Postol hadn't said the emperor has no clothes, we wouldn't have looked."

"Postol was the most capable person" to study Patriot performance, said a source from the Government Operations Committee. "His expertise enabled him to expose this information. Our committee could not have found that out."

But Postol says he is not a whistle-blower. "I consider myself an independent analyst who inadvertently got involved in a problem that has a high political visibility and has large sums of money involved," he said. "I came up with a set of conclusions that called into question some claims of people who had a big vested interest in having the public believe a different set of conclusions."

Debate is crucial

Uncovering the truth about Patriot's performance is crucial for further military planning and to protect soldiers' lives, and open debate is needed in order to do this, Conyers said last month during a committee oversight hearing in Washington, D.C. "We will never have the full story of the Patriot unless the Army's analysis is declassified for all to see," he said.

"This is a complex and controversial issue. Many lives and billions of dollars are at stake. ... If American soldiers think they can depend on Patriot battalions destroying nine out of 10 enemy missiles, when the actual defensive capabilities may be closer to one out of 50, it could be a disaster," Conyers continued.

Postol said he was driven to investigate the matter after Raytheon Company, the Lexington-based firm that manufactures Patriot, downgraded its estimates of Patriot performance in April 1991, saying the missile intercepted 50 percent of the Scuds aimed at Israel and 90 percent of those aimed at Saudi Arabia. Only a month earlier, the Army pegged the overall intercept rate at 96 percent.

"This statement tended to alter my view of what must be going on," Postol said. After original claims that the system had missed only 4 percent of the time, "that estimate was suddenly revised upwards by a factor of more than 10, to 50 percent. I was struck by the disparity ... and it made me wonder if I was getting an accurate description of what actually happened."

Postol, who was trained in physics and nuclear engineering at MIT, decided to write "a very careful article" based on a review of the open literature, video evidence of Patriot-Scud encounters, and a very detailed modeling of the weapons system. "From that I was able to ferret out all kinds of information" about the Patriot's performance. Because the military was so quick to classify his findings, Postol feels that his conclusions must be close to the truth.

Postol's claims were not taken kindly by the defense industry. "About that time, it came to my attention that people from Raytheon were saying rather critical things about me," he said. "I became concerned about what this might mean for my reputation in the academic community."

The attacks were not criticisms of his scholarly ability. Rather, he said, they were focused on "personal attacks, attacks on my integrity." Claims were also made that Postol is ideologically opposed to missile systems.

Postol said that at the same time, a $3 million grant from Raytheon scheduled for the School of Engineering was "held up," and that his name was mentioned during discussions between MIT and the company. "I consider this a highly improper attempt to bring pressure on me through my colleagues at the Institute," he said.

"MIT should stay out of the debate over Patriot. It's my argument and it's my problem. But when the atmosphere of free inquiry is attacked by improper means, then it should be the Institute's business." Postol noted that although there was no overt pressure from MIT, he did not receive a statement of support either.

In response to these allegations, President Charles M. Vest said, "I have, and will continue to defend the right of Professor Postol and any other member of our faculty to publicly express the results of their research and their personal and professional opinions." Vest also said he was not aware of any hold-up in funding and has not received comments about Postol's work from companies that fund research here.