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Investigation Clears Officials of Delaying Missile Fraud Study

By Marcella Bombardieri

An internal MIT review has found university officials largely blameless for a three- to four-year delay in examining allegations of research fraud at Lincoln Laboratory.

The investigation into the possible fraud in a missile defense study began two months ago, five years after the allegations were raised by Theodore Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Postol has criticized MIT for dragging its feet, but university officials have said they were hamstrung by the US government’s refusal to allow them access to the necessary materials. Postol argued that a team that included MIT scientists could not have acted in good faith when they used what he said was flawed data to deem “basically sound” the results from a 1997 test of an infrared missile sensor.

A panel of four MIT professors began looking into the delays in the fall.

The committee affirmed MIT’s assertions that the US Defense Department was responsible for most of the delay. After an initial MIT inquiry concluded in 2002 that a more detailed investigation was warranted, the government refused to allow MIT to investigate and classified some of MIT’s documents related to the case.

MIT and Defense Department officials finally worked out a compromise, announced in March, under which the Pentagon will investigate and share its conclusions with MIT. Postol, however, believes MIT should do its own independent investigation.

The panel also found that Postol contributed to delays and complications by failing to offer a clear and detailed explanation of his charges at the outset, adding to his allegations over time.

“The absence of a clear, concise and consistent definition of the allegation complicated the conduct of the inquiry,” the panel said. They faulted Postol further for revealing confidential information to the media and others.

The panel recommended a few small changes to MIT investigative procedures. They identified a few minor factors that slowed the university’s initial inquiry, including a period of uncertainty about whether MIT’s research misconduct policy applied to the situation, given that the work was done for the government, not for MIT. But the panel did not find that MIT made any significant mistakes.

Postol dismissed the panel’s findings on May 19.