The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 39.0°F | Partly Cloudy

Missile Dispute Enters 7th Year As Air Force Takes Over Inquiry

By Keith J. Winstein

Last Friday, MIT turned to a new chapter in the seven-year-old dispute over whether Lincoln Laboratory researchers fraudulently issued a passing grade to a 1997 prototype from the military’s missile defense system.

The Lincoln-led study gave a generally positive review to claims of the defense contractor TRW, now part of Northrop Grumman, that its software was able to tell the difference between an enemy warhead and a decoy balloon in a 1997 missile test.

For three years, ever since a preliminary inquiry found that the matter warranted a full-blown examination, the Institute’s policies have called for a “prompt” investigation into the allegations of scientific fraud levied in 2001 by Professor Theodore A. Postol ’67.

That hasn’t happened, because the Missile Defense Agency forbade MIT to investigate, saying the risk of disclosure of classified information was too great.

But last week, MIT and the Pentagon agreed on an end to the standoff: MIT will diverge somewhat from its written rules and disband its panel of outside investigators, but the Defense Department will conduct its own investigation, by a senior Air Force scientist and administrator, Brendan B. Godfrey.

At the Institute’s insistence, Norman R. Augustine, the retired longtime chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp., will serve as “advisor and consultant to the investigator, to help assure an impartial and thorough investigation,” Provost L. Rafael Reif wrote in an e-mail to the faculty.

MIT officials clearly regard the compromise as a welcome step toward reaching some resolution of the allegations, even if the MIT rules are not being strictly adhered to.

“Would we prefer to be overseeing the investigation? Yes. That’s why we tried to do that,” said Claude R. Canizares, the associate provost. “Given the limitations that we have not been able to get around and that are the law of the land, this is the best we can do.”

The entire matter is shrouded in secrecy, both because of MIT’s requirement to keep misconduct matters confidential as well as the presence of classified information. As a result, questions raised about the compromise may prove difficult for MIT to answer:

Did MIT submit to so many restrictions on Augustine’s ability to “advise” the investigation that he won’t be able to do anything?

As part of the MIT-Defense agreement, Augustine, who is volunteering his time, is to “have full access to all classified and unclassified documents,” except those on a special list of documents withheld in 2003 from a civil lawsuit that also alleged fraud in the missile defense system.

Unfortunately, the list of withheld classified documents is itself classified, and no MIT official appears to have had access to the list before agreeing to this condition.

That could put Augustine in a difficult position, because the disputed Lincoln Lab-led report itself is on the list, according to Nira Schwartz, the dismissed TRW engineer who filed the civil lawsuit.

Also on the list is the MIT document that lists the six issues that Godfrey will be investigating, according to Reif.

If Augustine can’t read the disputed report or the questions that have been raised, how can he advise Godfrey’s investigation?

“That’s a good question,” Reif said. “Augustine may be able to say at the end, ‘Look, I don’t subscribe to this conclusion, because it was important for me to see this, and unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to see it.”

“If he’s going to say that, I don’t think DOD’s going to like that,” Reif said. “Let’s see how the process evolves.”

How independent will the investigation be?

The choice of investigator and advisor illustrates the difficulty in finding independent experts in the small, classified world of missile defense.

The Defense Department is both the principal beneficiary of the disputed report — the Lincoln-led team’s positive findings helped the Missile Defense Agency end a criminal investigation into fraud in the system — and, now, the entity investigating whether the report’s findings were wrong.

Lockheed Martin is both the home of Augustine, the advisor — he was chairman and chief executive when the disputed test took place and still maintains an office at the company — and a participant in the very analysis now at issue. (Official documents refer to “Lincoln Laboratories/Lockheed Martin” providing data to TRW in the test.)

A 2002 report by the Government Accountability Office blamed some of the problems in distinguishing warheads from decoy balloons on “software that did not function as designed” because of the poor performance of a Lockheed rocket engine used in the test.

“I don’t see how Mr. Augustine can pass the laugh test of being independent and impartial,” Postol said.

MIT officials described the situation as unavoidable and said there is no conflict of interest.

“It’s hard for me to understand how either an employee of the DOD or Norm Augustine would get a benefit of shading that either way,” said Canizares.

“If we want to identify somebody that has the right credentials, who has the right integrity, who has the right knowledge, and is completely uninvolved in anything that has ever happened, it would be almost impossible to find,” Reif said.

Augustine has “certainly shown himself to be an independent-minded person,” said Philip E. Coyle III, a missile-defense critic who was President Clinton’s assistant secretary of defense for test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001. “He has a wonderful reputation.”

Did MIT’s researchers end up giving the government exactly what it asked for?

A large part of the dispute here is about the responsibilities of scientists who agree, under carefully-defined parameters, to prepare reports for the government. Should they bend over backward to report possible errors or flaws in the data they used to draw their conclusions, or may they ethically stick to a narrower scope?

In this case, the disputed report was commissioned under a charter whose narrowness was virtually unprecedented in the history of the relationship, known as POET, between the Missile Defense Agency and its federally-funded research partners.

“Unlike almost any other POET report,” said Edward F. Crawley, the professor who conducted MIT’s preliminary inquiry, “they were tightly constrained, or they were told to be tightly constrained.” (Crawley made his remarks in a 2002 conversation with Postol, according to a transcript of the conversation.)

Postol takes a broader view: “When you write a scientific paper with results, and you present the results based on data that was taken, you explain how you corrected the data for problems in the measurement. That’s part of the procedure.”

In this case, “they simply said that there’s no problem, and they didn’t describe the problems with the data acquisition. That is fraud, period.”

Canizares, the associate provost, said that the Lincoln-led team simply was not supposed to discuss problems “with the data acquisition,” whether they were there or not.

“They said that the software basically worked the way TRW said it worked,” he said. “It wasn’t a statement that IFT-1A worked,” he said, using the abbreviation for Integrated Flight Test. “That’s not what they were asked to look at. That’s not what they looked at. They had a very narrow charge.”

Timeline of events related to this article:

March 23, 1983 President Ronald Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious proposal derided by critics as “Star Wars,” to protect the United States from a massive Soviet missile attack.

1993 The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization is renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, or BMDO, with the goal of developing a much more limited defense against missiles.

1996 Nira Schwartz, a senior engineer at the military contractor TRW Inc. (now known as Northrop Grumman Systems & Mission Corp.) accuses TRW of exaggerating the ability of a sensor and computer program that try to tell the difference between warheads flying through outer space and balloon decoys. She sues TRW on behalf of the government. (In March 2003, the case is dismissed on the grounds that it would hurt national security by revealing classified information. She has appealed.)

June 24, 1997 The BMDO and its contractors, including TRW, conduct a test, known as the Integrated Flight Test 1A, to see whether the TRW system can tell the difference between warheads and decoy balloons floating in outer space. The director of the BMDO calls the test “very successful.”

June 1, 1997 In response to Schwartz’s allegations, the BMDO commissions a group of five scientists, known as the Phase One Engineering Team, or POET, to review the June 1997 IFT-1A test. The team is led by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and includes two Lincoln Lab scientists, Ming-Jer Tsai and Charles K. Meins Jr. ’75.

1998 The POET team concludes that “Mrs. Schwartz’s allegations were not true,” according to a scientist familiar with the team’s work who spoke on condition of anonymity. The team writes that in general, TRW’s methods “are well designed and work properly.”

December, 1998 TRW’s system is not selected for the missile defense system. Instead, the BMDO chooses a competing system from Waltham-based Raytheon. Critics, including Professor Theodore Postol of MIT, maintain that the Raytheon system has the same problems in distinguishing warheads from decoys as the TRW system.

May, 2000 Schwartz sends an unclassified copy of the POET report to Professor Postol. He sends it to the White House, along with a detailed letter accusing TRW of “fraudulent methods.”

April, 2001 Postol begins 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.

January, 2002 The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization is renamed the Missile Defense Agency.

February 11, 2002 Provost Robert A. Brown writes to Postol that MIT will not review the factual accuracy of the POET report, because it is a “government, not MIT, document.” But MIT will initiate a misconduct investigation against the report’s two MIT authors, Tsai and Meins, Brown writes.

February 28, 2002 The General Accounting Office, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, gives Postol some ammunition by releasing two reports criticizing the POET report and concluding that TRW had exaggerated its system’s performance.

April, 2002 Brown appoints Professor Edward F. Crawley ’76, then the head of the Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering Department, to conduct a preliminary inquiry in order to determine whether a full misconduct investigation is warranted.

July, 2002 Crawley writes in a draft report that no investigation is warranted. “Not only do I find no evidence of research misconduct, but I also find no credible evidence of technical error.”

August 2, 2002 Crawley and Postol meet for a lengthy technical discussion.

November 4, 2002 Crawley reverses his earlier draft finding, and recommends a full investigation into Postol’s allegations.

January, 2003 Brown accepts Crawley’s recommendation for a full-blown investigation. At this point, the MIT Policies require that an investigation begin “promptly.”

March, 2004 Brown releases a statement that MIT has not yet begun the investigation into Professor Postol’s allegations. “MIT has been working to establish a process that permits these issues to be investigated fully and objectively. To achieve this goal, MIT must explore with the relevant federal agencies the steps n necessary to permit the investigation to proceed.”

December 1, 2004 President Vest releases a statement that the Institute has so far been unable to investigate Professor Postol’s allegations because the Missile Defense Agency has not allowed an investigation of the POET report. “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.”

December 2, 2004 The Missile Defense Agency releases a statement that it has denied MIT’s request because there have already been enough investigations into the Integrated Flight Test 1A.

February, 2006 MIT and the Department of Defense announce an agreement to end the deadlock. MIT will call off its effort to investigate the report itself. A senior Air Force scientist and administrator, Brendan Godfrey, will conduct an investigation, advised by a retired Lockheed Martin chairman, Norman Augustine.