Postol vs. the Pentagon
Technology Review, April 2002
By Gary Taubes
An MIT professor who alienates everyone in his path seems to have the inside track to the truth about missile defense technology. But the government doesn't like his pessimistic conclusions.
This steady stream of indignation and accusation has led Postol's colleagues to describe him as not so much interested in building coalitions or playing politics as he is in pursuing the truth with a single-minded, laserlike focus. They also suggest that his passion and his capacity for outrage constitute his best and worst qualities. His volatility leads him into conflicts that detract from his main point, which happens to be one of extraordinary importance. Postol is asserting that the U.S. government is on the verge of deploying a $60 billion missile defense system that cannot possibly work, a move that would make the world a considerably less secure place to live.
But Postol's passion is also what motivates him to risk career and reputation every time he decides that the U.S. Defense Department, or all too often, MIT, his own institution, is pushing dubious technology on the American public. More than anything, it's that passion that drives his research, which has repeatedly proven to be dead on when it comes to assessing the failings of antiballistic-missile defense systems. So it is that most of his fellow specialists in defense technology believe that if Postol says the missile defense program has critical flaws, it probably does, and the nation should take notice.
Postol's technical analysis of missile defense is the best work that anybody has done outside the bowels of the Pentagon, says former assistant secretary of defense Philip Coyle, the director of defense operational test and evaluation during the Clinton administration. Coyle makes what may be the salient point about Postol's role: when Postol is not publicly charging someone in the government-industrial complex of fraud or malfeasance or stupidity regarding missile defense, public discussion on the technology seems to grind to a halt. When Ted is not in the news every month, says Coyle, nothing happens.
The notion of a missile defense shield has been controversial since its earliest incarnation 40 years ago, when both the United States and the Soviet Union were actively developing such systems. Unlike Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, which sought to protect the country from a massive attack from the Soviet Union, current goals are more modest, and more achievable.
The idea behind national missile defense, as it's now called, is to guard the United States against any stray missiles that might be launched accidentally by the Russians or former Soviet states, or with intended malice by terrorist groups or a rogue nation such as North Korea. The centerpiece of those defenses would be a system of missiles, known in the lingo as exoatmospheric kill vehicles, or just kill vehicles, that would track down incoming warheads while they are still in the upper atmosphere and destroy them on impact.
Ted Postol happens to be one of many experts who have grave doubts that such a feat of technological virtuosity, often described as hitting a bullet with a bullet, is possible, or at least sufficiently probable to bet our national security and tens of billions of dollars on. If you're going to build weapons, he likes to say, they ought to work. And the kill vehicles, by his assessment, most likely will not work.
This adds a moral dimension to his outrage: if the government insists on deploying a dysfunctional missile defense system and believing, or at least pretending to believe, that it works, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people could get killed. Anyone who knows better and doesn't actively work to expose the truth is culpable, Postol believes. As he recently wrote in a characteristically irate letter to President Vest, failure to speak out under these circumstances is morally equivalent to the decision of a structural engineer who knows otherwise to [tell] the occupants of the burning World Trade Towers, Don't worry, the buildings won't collapse.'
Ted Postol's credentials as a serious analyst of military defense systems are impeccable. Trained at MIT as a nuclear engineer, he spent five years doing basic physics research at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois before moving to Washington in 1980 to work with the U.S. Congress's Office of Technology Assessment. At the time, he says, he believed the steadily growing U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals would get us all killed and that Washington was where his influence could help avert this fate. He spent two years at the technology assessment agency analyzing, among other things, deployment of the MX nuclear missile, and another two working as senior scientific advisor to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon.
In 1984, he moved to Stanford University, lured by physicist and national-security expert Sidney Drell to work at Drell's new Center for International Security and Arms Control. Drell describes Postol as a unique resource for doing hard-nosed, accurate, reliable and important technical analysis of military systems. Drell also says he has never known Postol to be wrong on an important issue. The respect is mutual. When Drell resigned from the Stanford program in 1989, Postol left as well, moving on to his current position at MIT.
Two years later, when the Gulf War broke out, Postol made his first overtly public appearance as a whistle-blower on the issue of antiballistic missiles. The subject was the Patriot missile system, which won near universal acclaim for what appeared to be its remarkable ability to shoot down the Iraqi Scud missiles. In the few short months of the war, according to the official U.S. Army tally, Patriot missiles shot down 45 of the 47 Scuds that they were sent forth to engage. As a result, the Patriot had become what the press would call Exhibit A in the push for a national missile defense program and, in the words of the first President Bush, proof positive that missile defense works. A convinced Congress promptly doubled the funding for national missile defense, allocating more than $800 million in 1992.
But Postol was skeptical. Using as his primary data televised video of Patriot-Scud engagements, he asserted that the Patriot almost certainly missed all the Scud warheads at which it was fired. Simply put, The Patriot didn't work, says George Lewis, who worked with Postol on the Patriot analysis and is now associate director of the Security Studies Program at MIT.
Pentagon officialdom was not amused. The Defense Department launched an investigation into whether Postol had committed security violations and slapped a classified rating on his 1992 article in International Security, the journal in which he made his case against the Patriot. Raytheon, the Lexington, MA-based company that built the Patriot, also attacked Postol's credibility and his analysis. Raytheon officials accused Postol of doctoring the video footage to make his point, and then claimed that his analysis was fundamentally worthless.
In the end, Postol's assessment of the Patriot's performance would be vindicated, but it would take years. Even the Pentagon eventually admitted that the Patriot had failed (though Raytheon still insists otherwise), while an independent American Physical Society panel reported in April 2000 that the criticisms of Postol's analysis had been without merit.
Along the way, Postol's relationship with MIT took a beating. A series of episodes, each relatively minor in itself, led Postol to conclude, and the local press to report, that the MIT administration was less interested in defending members of its faculty (i.e., Postol) than it was in protecting its relationship with Raytheon, a company that generously supported the university. In the midst of the controversy, for instance, and in the midst of Raytheon's attacks on Postol's credibility and analysis, MIT appointed Raytheon CEO Dennis Picard to the advisory board of Lincoln Laboratory, an MIT-owned lab that conducts R&D on a range of defense technologies.
Postol's latest exercise in missile defense whistle-blowing began a continent away in Redondo Beach, CA, and then moved along its own convoluted course for five years before Postol took it on as his own personal cause. For Postol, the story of this intrigue would become the leverage with which he would try to force public discussion and oversight of national missile defense research in a world in which, as Democratic congressman Tom Allen of Maine says, the devil is in the details, and the details are classified.
In this case, Postol acted as not so much a whistle-blower as a whistle amplifier. The first report of something wrong came from Nira Schwartz, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Israel and an expert on computer image analysis and pattern recognition. In 1995, TRW hired Schwartz to work on the software for an exoatmospheric kill vehicle that would in turn be built by Boeing, all under the auspices of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
Schwartz's task was to test and evaluate the algorithms that the kill vehicle would use to track an incoming warhead and to discriminate it from a potential swarm of decoys. Such target discrimination is the single most critical technology for the success of any antiballistic-missile defense plan. If target discrimination can be done in real-world circumstances, if a speeding bullet can truly track a speeding bullet, regardless of whatever countermeasures the enemy bullet deploys, then an antiballistic-missile shield might indeed protect the United States from attack. If target discrimination cannot be done under those circumstances, however, then any national missile defense system will fail.
As Schwartz later testified, she realized the TRW programs were incapable of discriminating warheads from decoys when they failed to do so repeatedly in her computer simulations. She further concluded that warheads produced no particular signature of heat or radiation or movement that would ever uniquely identify them.
Schwartz's insistence that TRW and Boeing admit to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization that the discriminator wouldn't work did not endear her to her employers; in early 1996, she was fired. She then filed suit in Los Angeles district court alleging that TRW had defrauded the U.S. government and seeking to recover damages for the government. (Schwartz sued under the False Claims Act, a law that allows private citizens to blow the whistle on people or companies that are defrauding the government, and get a cut of the award money should they win.)
In such a case, the U.S. Justice Department can choose to join the suit if its investigators decide the suit is valid. The Justice Department asked the Defense Criminal Investigative Service to look into Schwartz's allegations, and the service assigned Sam Reed to lead the investigation. Reed relied on Schwartz and other experts, including Roy Danchick, a senior TRW engineer who had also worked on the targeting software, to help him make sense of the complex scientific and technological issues. Reed concluded that Schwartz's accusations had merit and that, as he later wrote to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, the TRW discrimination program does not, cannot and will not work.
While Reed's investigation was in progress, the TRW software was put to its first $100 million flight test. In June 1997, the Boeing exoatmospheric kill vehicle was fired into space from a Pacific atoll to intercept a test missile that had been launched 20 minutes earlier from California. The kill vehicle wasn't supposed to actually intercept the missile, just fly by it. The mission was to test the ability of TRW's discrimination program to identify a mock warhead amidst a handful of decoys. Both the Pentagon and TRW would claim that the test was a success. But when Reed had Schwartz, Danchick and his other experts examine the data, they concluded otherwise. As Danchick would testify, the TRW analysis was impermissibly manipulating the data to get the right answer (see Why Missile Defense Won't Work). As he described it to Technology Review, the researchers had fudged, dry-labbed, manipulated and censored the data to get the result they wanted.
So far, the case was relatively straightforward, but it wouldn't stay that way. Reed's investigation prompted the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to look more closely at TRW's technologies for distinguishing warheads from decoys. First, Huntsville, AL-based Nichols Research, an independent contractor to the missile defense organization, reported in December 1997 that while the TRW discrimination software was no Nobel Prize winner, it nevertheless met the requirements of the government contract. This assessment had a caveat, however: the Nichols investigators reported that when they asked TRW tough questions about the discrimination program, they often got no answers.
But Reed, at the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, argued that Nichols was too dependent on the Defense Department to offer an unbiased view. He ordered a second investigation. This one was to be conducted by a group known as POET, which stands for Phase One Engineering Team. POET dates back to the early years of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, when it was founded to proffer just this kind of technical expertise on missile defense.
The POET report was a curious document. Superficially, it exonerated TRW, claiming that the company's discrimination algorithms are well designed and work properly. But the report's data belied this conclusion. In fact, the data made clear that the discrimination algorithms had not worked during the June 1997 flight test. Further, the data indicated that the algorithms would work reliably in the future only if they knew in advance precisely what all the decoys and countermeasures would look like. As critics pointed out, a rogue nation or terrorist group would be unlikely to disclose the shape, number and characteristics of its decoys before launching a nuclear missile attack. Nonetheless, the POET conclusions convinced the Department of Justice not to join in the suit against TRW, leaving Schwartz to press the case on her own.
This was when Schwartz decided to get outside help, and the story hit the public. First, she contacted the office of Howard Berman, a Democratic congressman from California. Berman was the author of the False Claims Act of 1986, the law under which Schwartz was suing TRW for fraud against the U.S. government. Berman requested that the General Accounting Office investigate Schwartz's claims against TRW. Schwartz then approached William J. Broad, a reporter with the New York Times who covered defense technology.
After reading Broad's March 2000 page one Times story on the affair, Postol invited Schwartz to give a seminar to his Security Studies Program at MIT. Postol found her presentation compelling and spent a few weeks confirming and extending her conclusions.
In addition to noting the POET report's dubious logic, Postol also questioned its objectivity. The POET group was not truly independent, he said, because its members included two people from Lincoln Laboratory, an organization that received $80 million a year from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization for national missile defense research. This was clearly a conflict of interest, says Postol. You don't even have to look at the science.
Then Postol decided to ratchet up the stakes. As he saw it, TRW had manipulated data to cover up the inability of its discriminator to discriminate. He also believed the POET report (an unclassified copy of which he had obtained from Schwartz) was suspect, since its data and analyses contradicted the summary statements exonerating TRW. What you have here is a key document that itself is scientific fraud, says Postol, and it's being used by institutions with oversight responsibilities [the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the Department of Justice] to abrogate their responsibilities.
Postol wanted to force the Clinton White House to publicly address what he considered serious and perhaps fatal problems with the planned national missile defense system. I quite coldly sat down and thought this through, Postol says. My view, right or wrong, is that these people couldn't care less about the truth. So he would force them to act. If they didn't do what he considered the right thing, he would use his contacts in the press to expose the shortcomings in the system.
First, in May 2000, Postol sent a letter to Clinton chief of staff John Podesta describing the scientific issues behind the exoatmospheric kill vehicle and spelling out the alleged frauds, step by step. He pointed out the extreme importance of the underlying issue, the ability of the kill vehicle to discriminate an incoming warhead and put it out of action. He suggested that the White House assemble a truly independent team of scientists to review the accusations and to monitor future missile defense flight tests. And he sent a copy of his letter to Broad at the New York Times, who promptly wrote another story about the alleged cover-up.
At this point, the episode starts to play like a reprise of the Patriot affair. First, the Pentagon responded to the New York Times articles by classifying both Postol's letter to the White House and the formerly unclassified POET report. Then a trio of agents from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service appeared at Postol's MIT office attempting to get him to read a classified letter that would allegedly explain why his letter to Podesta had been classified. During what he calls a Kafkaesque encounter, Postol refused; he figured that the agents wanted to reveal classified information so that his security clearance would prohibit him from discussing information he already knew from unclassified sources. Postol says the Pentagon had used a similar ruse during the Patriot episode and that he had seen through it then, too.
Congress responded by raising Postol's accusations in a series of hearings on national missile defense. Congress also launched more investigations, including one by the FBI. In May, Congressman Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who avidly supports missile defense, reported to Congress that the FBI had completed its investigation and had exonerated both TRW and the Pentagon. The FBI concluded that the charges were simply a scientific dispute and that Postol's attempts to raise it to the level of criminal conduct had no basis in fact. Postol, Weldon said, owe[s] the Department of Defense an apology.
When representatives less supportive of the missile defense program tried to obtain the FBI case report, however, they were told the case files were being reviewed for security reasons. (When Technology Review went to press, the files still had not been released.) What they did get was a superficial three-page summary that one congressional staffer said read like a press release; the document merely summarized the controversial issues and called the affair a scientific dispute.
Moreover, that document claimed that the FBI investigators had worked closely with those from the General Accounting Office. But the GAO study was still in progress, and the GAO investigators admitted to only minimal contact with the FBI investigators, as did Postol, Defense Department investigator Reed and TRW engineer Danchick. Indeed, Nira Schwartz says the FBI never contacted her at all. Congressman Berman was expected to publicly release a preliminary report on the GAO investigation by March. According to a report in Science magazine, the GAO stopped short of accusing TRW of defrauding the government. But the agency's investigators reportedly have concluded that the TRW missile test could not possibly have worked, if for no other reason then because an infrared sensor crucial to discriminating warheads from decoys had suffered a mechanical failure.
With the FBI having failed to clarify the issue, at least as far as Postol was concerned, he turned his attention to the MIT administration. Postol hoped to use MIT's relationship with Lincoln Laboratory, and the fact that two Lincoln Lab scientists had participated in what he thought of as the fraudulent POET report, to force an independent evaluation of the alleged fraud. Postol also wanted to force the school and the lab to live up to his own sense of intellectual and academic integrity. Postol says that he ran into Vest on a flight from Washington, DC, to Boston and briefed him on the POET report, the connection with Lincoln Laboratory and the implications for a viable national missile defense program. He understood the points I was making, says Postol. We were talking as two professors about technical matters. He then said he would look into it. I have been riding him since.
Vest speaks highly of Postol, calling him a very smart, very savvy, very dedicated individual, motivated primarily by patriotism, who is concerned about the nature of U.S. defense technologies. Finally, last November, six months after his first meeting with Postol, Vest acknowledged to Technology Review that MIT provost Robert Brown was looking into the allegations and doing a preliminary investigation. Vest said, however, that Brown was proceeding with extreme confidentiality so as to protect the privacy of all involved, which was why nobody had informed Postol that such an investigation was in the works.
TRW and the Pentagon, meanwhile, insist that Postol's charges are without merit and claim that every investigation so far, from the FBI on down, has exonerated them of wrongdoing. A TRW spokesman says the company is pleased, but not surprised, at this vindication. The Pentagon echoes this line. We are done with this, says Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.
Postol isn't buying it. This whole story has been one of every organization that has had a responsibility basically looking for a way not to do their job, he says, while he ticks off the names of the various organizations that chose to duck the issue rather than legitimately pursue an investigation. The list runs from the Defense Department to the Justice Department to the FBI and Congress and probably the GAO and, finally, to MIT. It is, says Postol, a failure of leadership at every level. It's a kind of shoddy work at every agency of the U.S. government with responsibilities. And now the president of MIT doesn't want to deal with the problem either. So it's going to escalate.