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Ted Postol Involved in NMD Debate

By Sanjay Basu


The advice on the side of his coffee mug is simple: “Back off Man! I'm a Scientist.”

But back off they did not, says Institute Professor Theodore Postol. Indeed, they showed up to his office unannounced -- twice. It happened first in 1992, when, he says, they tried to intimidate him after he wrote a scientific report detailing the ineffectiveness of Patriot missiles used in the Gulf War. And now, claims Postol, they’ve tried it again.

In the midst of heated debates on “rogue nations,” “national security threats,” and $60 billion “Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles,” Postol -- former science advisor to the Departments of Energy and Defense -- has emerged as an outspoken critic of the proposed national anti-missile defense system. A key component of the system failed a crucial test on June 7, having suffered from technical problems that Postol had predicted.

Getting the government’s attention

In criticizing the project, Postol first took the position of a scientist: publishing a detailed report in Scientific American entitled “Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work,” in which he described simple balloon devices that military commanders could use to foil the proposed anti-missile defense system. At that time, he fell far short of receiving a reply from the Pentagon.

But when Postol analyzed the Pentagon’s own documents and voiced his criticisms in a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, government officials took notice.

“I have obtained and analyzed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organizations’ (BMDO) own published data from the Integrated Flight Test 1A (IFT-1A) and have discovered that the BMDOs’ own data shows that the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) will be defeated by the simplest of balloon decoys,” wrote Postol in his letter to the White House. “I also have documentation that shows that the BMDO in coordination with its contractors attempted to hide this fact by tampering with both the data and analysis from the IFT-1A experiment.”

A visit from the Pentagon

Late last week, almost a full month after the letter arrived in the White House’s West Wing, three members of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Service arrived unannounced at Postol’s MIT office, telling the professor that he needed to look at files labeled “Secret.” He refused.

Although Postol’s role as a security advisor had given him the necessary clearances to view the papers, had he read the secret documents, he says, Pentagon officials could have later claimed that he had knowledge of classified information on the antimissile proposal. The professor might have been in violation of his security agreement if he later wrote about any component of the anti-missile plan. The penalty for such a violation could range from loss of security clearances to a prison sentence.

After the incident, Joseph Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Boston Globe reporters that “it appears they were trying to force feed him classified material for reasons other than his education on this matter.”

But Jennifer Weeks, a former congressional military analyst who runs a project on nuclear policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the matter might be more complicated. “I think its plausible this was an effort to silence him,” she said. “It also may have just been a dumb, badly managed way of showing him classified information.”

If the entire scenario sounds a bit too Kafka-esque, a brief talk with Postol will suggest that these practices are far from uncommon. “Kafka isn’t a bad analogy,” says Postol. “It happened before.”

“I wrote an article about to be published in 1992, about a year after the Gulf War had ended,” he said. “The article concluded definitively that the Patriot [missile] had not destroyed any Skud warheads. It was in press when Defense Investigative Service people came to my office and claimed that I had an obligation to go to a meeting at the Mitre Corp. where they would have classified documents telling me about the articles I had just published.”

Although his report was again based on public information, had Postol attended the meeting, he might have been in violation of his security clearance for having written about a topic about which he had classified information.

Pentagon classifies Postol letter

But in spite of his criticism, one wonders why Postol’s latest critique of the anti-missile plan has received such a strong response from Pentagon officials. After all, Postol is one scientist submitting a single critique on a plan that daily receives several dozen comments and hundreds of newspaper articles.

When asked why three security officials had visited Postol’s MIT office, Caryl Clubb, a Defense Security Service spokeswoman, told reporters that the agents had traveled to MIT to deliver a letter from the Deputy Chief of Staff for industrial security identifying which parts of Postol’s White House letter contained classified information.

“The purpose of our visit was to prevent the further disclosure of classified information,” Clubb said. “We in no way, shape or form meant to get him to stop speaking out.”

But several reviewers of Postol’s letter, which was later classified as “Secret” by the Pentagon despite its circulation on the Internet, have indicated that all of Postol’s sources are publicly accessible. Indeed, Postol’s primary source is an open court document from a lawsuit filed by a senior engineer against the military contractor TRW, Inc. The engineer accused TRW, now a primary developer of the antimissile defense plan, of sending Pentagon officials fraudulent reports claiming that key components of the antimissile system had been successfully tested when they had in fact failed.

In a second letter to the White House, Postol called for an investigation into the security officials’ visit to his office, writing that, “None of the investigators could explain why they had approached me more than one month after my letter to the White House of 11 May 2000 was declared “Secret” by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. They were also unaware that I had obtained all the information in my letter to the White House from open court documents.” Postol also asked why his first letter, revealing problems with the antimissile defense plan and citing attempts by BMDO officials to hide their test results, had been made a classified document.

Although he did not receive a written reply from the Pentagon or the White House, Postol later stated that “if, in fact, there is no legitimately classified information in the [TRW] document, then the only other possibility is that my letter was classified to hide abuse at the Pentagon, which is illegal. It seems to me that there are two possibilities: either somebody is doing something illegal to hide fraud, or somebody improperly declassified the original TRW document, which wouldn’t be my responsibility or fault anyway.”

Pentagon officials did not comment, but Postol’s words have received sympathy from Democratic US representative Edward J. Markey, who publicly stated his intent to submit a request for investigation to the General Accounting Office.

Missile tests fail early on

In the meantime, Postol is receiving fuel for his fire: from the June 7 failure of the missile test, from a recent Republican bill proposed in Congress that calls for the development of an anti-missile defense program whether or not the necessary technology works, and from a recent New York Times report revealing technological problems with the plan.

“The Republicans have sent a message that anything goes,” Postol said. “What they’ve says is that we need a missile defense whether or not it works. Imagine we are sending our troops to war with rifles that have been purchased using the criteria of [using them] whether or not they work.”

While Republicans and Democrats bickered over the bill, Pentagon officials acknowledged to New York Times reporters that an early defense department declaration of success during their first interception test was not accurate; the kill vehicle had initially drifted off course and picked out the large decoy balloon instead of the warhead. Then, in a January test, the missile interceptor missed its target altogether.

A Pentagon panel was appointed last year to investigate Raytheon, a principal player in the missile defense plan, and found that the kill vehicle designed by the company would fall apart if shaken slightly by its own booster rocket.

Although Postol says that the scientific reports speak for themselves, he offered a final remark about the Pentagon’s conclusions drawn from the government’s own data: “These procedures are like rolling a pair of dice and throwing away all outcomes that do not give snake eyes, and then claiming that there is scientific evidence that makes it possible to reliably predict when a roll of the dice will be a snake eyes.”