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Missile Review Still On

For a Year, ‘Working to Establish a Process’

By Keith J. Winstein


MIT confirmed yesterday that it will investigate a professor’s longstanding allegations of scientific misconduct in a 1998 MIT-led study that validated a part of the military’s national missile defense system.

But fifteen months after Provost Robert A. Brown decided to begin an investigation, MIT would say only that the Institute “has been working to establish a process that permits these issues to be investigated fully and objectively. To achieve that goal, MIT must explore with the relevant federal agencies the steps necessary to permit the investigation to proceed.”

MIT spokesman Arthur L. Jones declined to discuss whether the investigation was yet under way or whether an investigative committee had yet been appointed, events that MIT’s policies say should happen “promptly.”

Theodore Postol, the professor of national security policy who first requested an independent investigation of the study in April 2001, said he has not been contacted by any investigators. “What they’ve been doing is finding every reason not to do an investigation,” Postol said. “It’s absolutely clear that there would have been no investigation if I hadn’t persisted on this for the last three years.”

It was not clear what federal agencies MIT has been working with to permit the investigation to proceed. “I don’t know if they’re referring to us or not,” said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, which commissioned the 1998 study at issue and funds about $100 million a year of research on missile defense at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.

“MIT has requested classified information from the Missile Defense Agency in the course of its inquiry,” Lehner said, but the agency’s lawyers were unaware of any discussions with MIT about how to proceed with an investigation, he said.

Study checked fraud allegations

The 1998 study, known as the Phase One Engineering Team report, was commissioned by the military to investigate allegations of fraud in a June 1997 test of the national missile defense system. Two of the five authors -- Charles K. Meins Jr. ’75 and Ming-Jer Tsai, the group’s chairman, work at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. They did not return calls for comment.

The 1997 test they reviewed was supposed to determine whether the missile defense system could identify an enemy nation’s warhead flying through outer space, disguised among a series of decoy balloons. The test was initially announced as a success.

An engineer fired from TRW Inc., a defense contractor that participated in building the system to distinguish warheads from warhead-shaped balloons, alleged that TRW had faked the results, and her allegations eventually led the military to commission an “independent review” -- the Phase One Engineering Team study, chaired by Tsai.

That review, in which Postol alleges scientific misconduct, finished in 1998 with the conclusion that TRW’s methods “are well designed and work properly, with only some refinement or redesign required to increase the robustness of the overall discrimination function.”

Postol has been alleging fraud in the study almost ever since, writing repeated letters to the White House, Congress, and MIT officials. He stresses that he does not want an investigation of Tsai and Meins, the named MIT authors. “I have no desire to see anybody punished,” he said in 2002. “All they [MIT officials] need to do is write a letter to the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice.”

Investigation requested in 2001

Starting in April 2001, Postol wrote nine letters to senior MIT officials calling for MIT to repudiate the study, which he says ignored the fact that the missile defense system’s sensor “produced no usable data” because the sensor failed to cool properly. (The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, would later conclude that TRW had exaggerated the performance of its system, but the GAO’s experts did not agree with Postol’s assessment that the cooling problem had rendered the sensor useless.)

In February 2002, Brown responded, denying Postol’s request to review what Brown called “a government, not MIT, document” but saying he would commission an inquiry into whether Meins and Tsai had committed scientific misconduct. He appointed Professor Edward F. Crawley ’76, then the head of the Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering Department, to conduct the inquiry.

In MIT’s two-part procedure for dealing with scientific misconduct, an “investigation” must be preceded by an initial “inquiry” that determines whether or not a full investigation is warranted.

In July 2002, Crawley concluded in a draft report that no investigation was warranted. “Not only do I find no evidence of research misconduct,” Crawley wrote, The New York Times reported, “but I also find no credible evidence of technical error.”

But after a technical discussion with Postol, who took strong issue with the draft recommendations, Crawley then reversed himself and recommended a full investigation on Nov. 4, 2002.

Crawley “said that he could not resolve a number of issues within the scope of the inquiry,” the MIT statement said. “After a review of the report, the provost determined that an investigation into those issues was therefore warranted.”

Jones, the MIT spokesman, said Brown had accepted Crawley’s recommendation by January 2004. MIT will not give status reports on the status of the investigation, or discuss when it will begin or whether it has already begun, Jones said, but when the investigation is over, there will be “some sort of public notice that there is a conclusion,” he said.