Campus Profile -- Theodore A. Postol
National security technology expert discusses allegations against MIT
MIT Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy Theodore A. Postol ’67 has been the focus of recent media attention because of his allegations that MIT scientists at Lincoln Laboratory helped cover up serious problems with proposed U.S. anti-missile defense systems. Postol has also suggested that members of the MIT Corporation and administration are obstructing justice and concealing evidence of possible criminal violations. A leading critic of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and the Gulf War Patriot missile system who revealed otherwise-ignored problems, Postol believes that current U.S. technology is incapable of defeating a ballistic missile attack. Postol is currently on sabbatical at Stanford University.
TT: How does teaching at Stanford differ from teaching at MIT?
Postol: I’d say Stanford is a somewhat different student body. Students appear more relaxed, although I’m not sure if they really are. At MIT, I think the students are exceptionally capable and it’s always a lot of fun teaching there. Only rarely do you get a student who isn’t exceptional.
TT: What are you working on now?
Postol: Two problems. The first is related to non-proliferation in the emerging new world in which many non-weapon states are potentially developing weapons of mass destruction capability. We’re also looking at a possibility of sharing early warning systems with nuclear states.
TT: Now to the politics. When you first heard Ronald Reagan announce the Star Wars Defense Initiative, how did you react?
Postol: I was working at the Pentagon at the time, and I was at home in the evening watching the president’s speech ... At the end, he gave some comments about Star Wars, and I thought it was totally crazy. I was very upset because it seemed to me that he must have had advisors who should have known better. I went into the Pentagon the next day and there was a senior Navy captain dancing around bragging that he had been part of process that led to the President’s speech. I remember asking, “how are you going to do this?” and the whole room froze.
TT: Did you eventually get an explanation?
Postol: No, he had no explanation. He quietly attended many of the briefings I gave about the problems with Star Wars.
TT: Tell me a little about the recent controversies you’ve been involved in with MIT.
Postol: I believe that the MIT Corporation, which includes [President Charles M. Vest], [Alexander V. d’Arbeloff ’49], and [Provost Robert A. Brown], has been foot-dragging in an attempt to avoid dealing with a matter that may well be criminal. I think it’s a very serious matter that may result in indictments.
TT: Do you think MIT has changed its attitude on professional investigations over this scandal as opposed previous incidents such as the one involving Patriot missiles?
Postol: I think MIT has clearly and unambiguously violated the regulation issued by the presidential science advisor about being prompt about responding to an allegation of fraud. The National Science Foundation requires that no more than 60 days pass between the date of the initial allegation and the date that the inquiry is finished and documented. MIT has taken two years. Their own records show they’re not telling the truth about being prompt in this matter. The administration is lying and manipulating like nothing I’ve seen before.
TT: So things are worse now than they were with Patriot?
Postol: Definitely. This is an administration who has created so many problems for itself. It seems to me that Vest has done a good job stacking the administration with his cronies. The result is that you have an administration that is loyal to Vest with or without valid backing. They are dishonest and incompetent, and that’s led to this problem because they’re in a trap of their own making and they can’t escape it. There were attempts by President Vest that had the appearance of trying to intimidate me into not pursuing the matter any further. The Provost and the Chair of the Corporation have also made threats.
TT: When you hear that you’ve developed a reputation as being arrogant, how do you react?
Postol: I think that’s simple. I provide facts and information and analysis, and they accuse of being arrogant. That’s an indication to me that they have no response to my analysis. A trick of people who don’t have answers is to become personal.
TT: Provost Brown has made comments about separating the government and MIT. Comments?
Postol: You can’t separate the government and MIT. Mr. Brown’s statement is ridiculous and false. Lincoln is operated by law by MIT. Brown has direct responsibilities for overseeing the lab. If he doesn’t adequately investigate, he himself can be accused of being part of the criminal activities, provided he is aware of what is happening. I know he knows because I repeatedly told him in letters. The lab manipulated data and produced a fraudulent report and misled federal investigation through [it]. It’s obstruction of justice, and I’ve repeatedly told d’Arbeloff, Vest, and Brown. They are really playing with fire.
TT: If you were placed in entire control of the fraud case, and all problems with confidentiality were waived, what procedures would you hope to have happen?
Postol: First I think it’s very important that everyone understands that confidentiality has been used as a device to cover up misconduct on the part of the MIT Corporation. This is no different from when the Church used confidentiality about claims that certain priests were engaging in sexual acts with kids. There are legitimate reasons for confidentiality in some cases, but not this one. The fact that Vest knew that fraud occurred and didn’t take action is not a matter of confidentiality.
TT: So what would you like to see happen?
Postol: My view now is different from the view when I started. When I started, I thought MIT should correct the record of what they did and write the Department of Justice and Department of Defense correcting the record, since they knowingly misled a Federal investigation. Now I’m not so sure that’s enough. The ways this thing has been handled by the MIT Corporation are so serious and blatantly against their supposed principles that something far more reaching will have to happen. I think it’s very possible that something will happen.
TT: What country do you consider to be the greatest threat to the U.S., and how should we go about countering it?
Postol: The threat is clear. It’s from North Korea. I think it’s very serious, and the Bush administration is not treating this matter with nearly the amount of attention that it merits. I don’t agree with the Secretary of State, who says that since they already have some nuclear weapons, it doesn’t matter if they have more. It does matter because if they have more, they can attack more. The administration is totally focused on having a war with Iraq that is not even close to justified given the threat. I was for the Gulf War because I believed Hussein was too well-armed and too interested in weapons of mass destruction. He no longer has that capability and the real threat is in North Korea. It’d be very difficult for us to be in two wars given the resources. It looks like [Bush] has decided to punt on the most serious threat while he engages in a war of choice.
TT: Any final thoughts?
Postol: I’m looking forward to going back to MIT in early May and continuing to pursue this matter if it’s not finished with by then.