The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 51.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

DoD Bars Inquiry on Fraud at Lincoln Lab

By Keith J. Winstein

SENIOR EDITOR

The Missile Defense Agency has refused to allow MIT to investigate a professor’s longstanding allegations of scientific fraud in a Lincoln Laboratory-led study of the military’s missile defense system, according to statements released this week by MIT and the Agency, which is part of the Department of Defense.

As a result, MIT will not be able to begin the long-stalled investigation, the Institute said, despite a January 2003 decision by Provost Robert A. Brown that the allegations of scientific misconduct warranted a full investigation.

The Missile Defense Agency said yesterday that it denied MIT’s request because the subject matter of the disputed study has already been reviewed by three government agencies. “The multiple reviews by independent government agencies of essentially the same issues coupled with the extreme sensitivity of the information at issue precluded granting MIT’s request to use classified information for an internal administrative investigation,” the Agency said in a statement.

“If MIT does not have the necessary authority for access to classified information, or can not get it, then MIT has no business running a secret Laboratory that does classified work for the U.S. Government,” said Philip E. Coyle III, who was President Clinton’s assistant secretary of defense for test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001.

“I don’t think MIT can accept that conclusion from the MDA. MIT needs to have the authority to do its own investigation of its own conclusions,” said Coyle, who is now with the Center for Defense Information, an organization critical of the Pentagon’s design for national missile defense.

“You just can’t oversee the work of a classified research institution without access to the work that they’re doing,” he said. “MIT should have the necessary classified information and authority to do its job, and its contracts with the federal government should require no less.”

Dispute centers on “POET” study

The disputed study, released in 1999 and known as the “POET” study, concerns the ability of the Pentagon’s national missile defense system to tell the difference between actual warheads and balloon decoys in outer space. Critics argue that because warheads and warhead-shaped decoy balloons look so similar in outer space, the military’s national missile defense system will not be able to defend effectively against an enemy nation’s attack.

Not so, according to the POET study, which was led by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and included two Lincoln Lab staff scientists among its five authors. The team’s report concluded that a system produced by the military contractor TRW was “well designed” and up to the task of distinguishing warheads from decoys, based on the results of a 1997 test.

That conclusion enraged the critics, who say it is inconsistent with the contents of the POET report itself and has been used to whitewash an expensive design for the national missile defense system that will not work against a real attack.

In April 2001, one of the most outspoken critics -- Professor Theodore Postol -- began sending a stream of letters to MIT officials, calling the POET report “a serious case of scientific fraud” and demanding that MIT repudiate the report. In November 2002, a preliminary inquiry into Postol’s allegations by Professor Edward F. Crawley ’76, then the head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, found that Postol’s allegations had enough merit to warrant a full investigation.

Under MIT’s rules, an investigation should have begun “promptly” thereafter. But no investigation ever did, because MIT now says the Missile Defense Agency -- the successor of the agency that commissioned the POET report in the first place -- refused to allow an MIT investigation to proceed.

The Missile Defense Agency “decided that all of the information related to the allegations, including the report of the inquiry itself, had to be classified in order to protect national security,” MIT said in its statement, released Wednesday.

“MIT has identified a panel of distinguished outside investigators, all of whom have appropriate security clearances, to conduct the investigation. However, we have not yet been successful in obtaining approval from the Missile Defense Agency to give them access to this classified information. Without that access, the investigation cannot be conducted. We continue to seek the approval needed so that the investigation can proceed,” the statement said.

Coyle, the former assistant secretary of defense, wondered why MIT does not already have whatever classified information it needs. “It should go without saying, but Lincoln Lab must have had the necessary information they needed to do their work in the first place,” Coyle said. “If they did, then the investigation could be completed by MIT using information already in its possession.”

For scientists, no resolution

For Postol, who has been writing highly critical letters about the POET study to various officials for almost a half-decade, MIT’s inability to perform the investigation required under the MIT rules represents an inconclusive result.

In an e-mail, he argued that MIT did not need access to classified information -- just common sense and tough questioning -- in order to validate his accusations of scientific fraud.

Meanwhile, another kind of inconclusive result is surely present for the authors of the POET study, who include Dr. Ming-Jer Tsai and Dr. Charles K. Meins Jr. ’75 of Lincoln Laboratory.

Postol insists that his accusations of fraud are aimed only at the Pentagon and the management of Lincoln Laboratory, not the POET study’s named authors. But that is little consolation to the authors, who have been instructed not to defend their work publicly, according to a scientist familiar with the team’s work who spoke on condition of anonymity in 2002.

“Ted Postol is making all these claims,” the scientist said then. “Unfortunately I can’t talk to him, explain to him that we have data that proves that he’s wrong.”

Meins and Tsai did not respond to repeated requests for comment.