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Postol Delivers Heated Talk As Faculty Voice Concerns

By Kelley Rivoire

Professor Theodore A. Postol ’67 presented a far darker analysis of ethics at MIT during a lecture this Tuesday than President Susan Hockfield had just eight days earlier at the Miller Lecture on the responsibilities of the university.

Speaking to a small crowd of about 20, Postol railed against the response of the MIT administration into allegations of scientific misconduct in a Lincoln Laboratory review of national missile defense tests. Postol has long been a staunch critic of MIT’s actions in investigating his allegation.

Postol’s lecture was jointly sponsored by the Boston Chapter of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.

Since Hockfield’s arrival at MIT, only days after Vest announced that the fraud investigation was stalled because the Missile Defense Agency had classified critical papers, Postol has become increasingly vocal in his complaints, which he believes are now gaining traction.

He cited Hockfield’s brief mention of the Lincoln Laboratory investigation last week as a success in that it represented a reaction from MIT “however pathetic it was that Hockfield felt she had to mention this in a talk about ethics where ethics was not discussed.”

His analysis gives a “harsh conclusion, quite at odds with the rosy picture presented by President Hockfield last week. But I have backed up my claims with documentable facts that any of you can verify,” he said.

“I’m tenured. I’m here. I’m not going away. And this issue is not going away,” he said. He said he will continue working to “create external pressure for MIT.”

Additionally, the past four issues of the faculty newsletter have included articles related to Postol’s allegation, including an editorial urging MIT to take timely action.

Postol’s Tuesday lecture, entitled “The Ethical Responsibilities of the Research University,” used the Lincoln Laboratory review as a case study.

Postol described the sequence of events, starting with the Integrated Flight Test 1A, initially claimed as a success, and later questioned in part because the sensor used to detect missiles did not cool to the correct temperature. A Government Accountability Office report later found the success of the results had been exaggerated; Postol claims that in fact, no useful data was obtained.

A subsequent review of the test, led by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and including two Lincoln Lab staff scientists among its five authors, found no evidence of scientific fraud.

When Postol raised concerns about how the report produced found no indications of misconduct, then-chair of Course 16 Edward F. Crawley ’76 subsequently looked into the case, producing an interim draft that absolved the Lincoln Laboratory scientists of culpability.

Postol examined this draft and raised strong concerns with Crawley and administrators; a revised report by Professor Crawley requested an investigation. Postol said that he was not given a chance to read the second draft report, and turned down the opportunity to read the final report under “the close supervision of the Provost’s office.” He said because the report was already final and because he could not obtain a copy, he “declined the meaningless invitation to read it.”

In a statement just prior to his departure from the presidency, Vest wrote that a team with security clearance had been assembled to investigate the matter, but could not continue because of limited access to documents that Department of Defense had classified on a “need to know” basis, including Crawley’s final report.

Postol said that management, including Director Lincoln Laboratory David L. Briggs, should be the target of any investigation, because they signed off on subsequent reports and participated in government briefings.

He compared the situation to that of Enron and Abu Ghraib. “You don’t investigate only the lowest level people who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, without also investigating the civilian and military leaders who were responsible for creating the conditions leading to the abuses.”

Postol also attacked what he called an attempt by MIT to use confidentiality to shield administrators from accountability. He maintains that MIT does not need classified information to conduct an investigation.

Postol asserts that he has been continually rebuffed by the MIT administration, most recently by Hockfield.

In a letter from Hockfield dated Jan. 26 that Postol provided, she writes that “I do not need to receive either a briefing or any documents from you at our meeting next week, and I will decline them if you offer them to me.”

Responding for Hockfield, Associate Provost Claude R, Canizares wrote that “it would be inappropriate for her to review materials about the specific allegations — that’s what the inquiry and investigation are for.”

Vest and Briggs did not return requests for comment.

FNL addresses complaints

The past four issues of the faculty newsletter have included commentary on Postol’s allegations.

The most recent issue includes an editorial from the newsletter board, a copy of a letter by three nationally known physicists prefaced by a letter from Professor Hugh Gusterson, and Hockfield’s response to the physicists’ letter.

The editorial urges MIT to take timely action “even if taking a proactive public stand provokes negative responses at DoD,” referring to the Department of Defense.

“The thumbnail public image of MIT with respect to this issue at this point is an administration that carefully crafts lawyerly responses to requests for information by MIT faculty, faculty at sister institutions, and the press,” the editorial states, “while acting indecisively within the MIT/Lincoln context, and gingerly stepping around the key issues in its interactions with the government.”

The three physicists, John Ahearne, director of the ethics of program of the scientific research society Sigma Xi, Richard Garwin, an IBM fellow emeritus, and Frank von Hippel ’59, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton, urge MIT to take action, writing that they are concerned that MIT “appears to have taken the [Missile Defense Agency’s] edict as legitimate.”

“We believe that MIT’s position should simply be that it will not manage research whose integrity it is not allowed to verify,” they write.

Hockfield’s response to the letter said that MIT is continuing to seek an investigation.

“The underlying issues are matters of governance and oversight, not missile defense technology,” said MIT Professor of Physics Daniel Kleppner in an e-mail. Kleppner recently co-chaired an American Physical Society panel investigating boost-phase intercept missile defense systems.

“The allegations of Professor Postol are serious and the ball is clearly in MIT’s court,” he wrote. “The community deserves to be informed and I look forward to seeing MIT’s response.”

Committee looking into process

As announced by President Hockfield in the October faculty meeting, Provost L. Rafael Reif has appointed a committee to look into the process, but not the specific allegations, associated with the Lincoln Laboratory investigation. The committee is chaired by Canizares, and also includes Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Professor J. David Litster PhD ’65, formerly Vice President of Research, and Dr. Gerald Dinneen, former director of Lincoln Laboratory.

Postol said that he believes the selection of Litster is inappropriate, in part because Litster was vice president of research when MIT appointed the CEO of Raytheon, Dennis Picard, to its oversight committee. At that time, the Patriot missile made by Raytheon was under fire in part because of Postol, whose allegations the Pentagon later agreed with. Litster was also involved in an inquiry at MIT related to Postol’s allegations about the Patriot.

Litster said in an e-mail that because he was a Canadian citizen while he served as vice president for research, “Lincoln Lab never reported to me and I have never been involved with selecting members of the Laboratory Advisory Committee.”

Canizares said it was “very likely” that the committee would contact Postol, and that “we’ve just gotten underway.”

The committee will “try to identify factors that made this allegation difficult to resolve,” Canizares said, in particular whether any changes to MIT’s policies, procedures, or practices “might help us avoid having so many frustrating delays in the future.”

“It’s also important that people realize that we are not in any way trying to assess the allegation itself. That’s somebody else’s job,” he said.

He said his committee hopes to complete their work early in 2006, though he would “rather get the job done right than get it done by a specific deadline.”

He said he anticipates that the committee will make a public report, but “we’re not going to be able to say anything about what we’re finding until we’re done.”

Additionally, Hockfield said last week in her Miller lecture that she is continuing “efforts at the highest level of government” regarding the Lincoln Laboratory case specifically.