Finding Flaws in Missile Defense

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  3/04/2002

A Pentagon agency, two major military contractors, and an independent research team led by MIT scientists produced flawed studies that exaggerated the success of a key test used to justify spending billions of dollars on the fledgling national missile defense program, according to two reports obtained by the Globe.

The long-awaited reports, to be released today by the General Accounting Office, detail the flawed analysis of critical missile-defense technologies provided by the contractors, Boeing Co. and TRW, verified by senior researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, and hailed by the Pentagon's recently renamed Missile Defense Agency.

In reports about a highly sophisticated sensor used in the first test of the missile-defense program - a technology similar to one now designed for the vital task of distinguishing decoys from warheads - contractors described its performance as "excellent" and the overall test as a "success." The team directed by two MIT scientists, which evaluated the contractors' reports of the test, pronounced them "basically sound." And officials in the Missile Defense Agency called the first test of the technology in space "highly successful."

Yet the review by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that crucial elements of the 1997 test failed - prompting investigators to raise questions about the oversight of a program that has already cost billions of dollars and could, if the Bush administration has its way, ultimately cost taxpayers as much as $238 billion, according to a recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.

"The data are garbage - they had to use all these software shenanigans and throw out two-thirds of the data to make it look like a success," said a congressional source close to the GAO investigation. "Up to now, there has been no independent verification of the contractors' claims. This pulls out the rug from those calling the test a success. By any definition, there's no way to call it a success."

The main defect in the test, according to the GAO, was that the infrared sensor built by Boeing failed to cool to a sufficient temperature to function properly. Also, the power supply of the sensor turned out to be much louder than expected. The excess heat and noise, missile specialists said, caused a significant distortion, by a factor of up to 200 times, in the ability of the sensor to detect targets. As a result, the sensor often detected targets where none existed.

The performance of the sensor is crucial because the planned land-based national missile defense system might have only one chance to hit its target. And once the military launches an antimissile against an incoming ballistic missile, military analysts say they believe it would almost certainly face a barrage of decoys. Moving at great speeds, it would have to distinguish the fake from the real in a matter of minutes.

Regarding what became known in defense circles as the "MIT study," a review of the contractors' findings that the Pentagon used to champion missile defense spending, the GAO faulted the team led by scientists at Lincoln Lab for relying on data processed by TRW - instead of seeking the contractor's raw data.

Although the team reported that TRW's sensor contained a few software glitches, GAO investigators said the scientists' use of the processed data allowed them to review only 14 of 54 seconds worth of data. The limited look at the sensor's performance, according to the GAO, skewed the scientists' review and led them to pronounce the sensor's software well designed and say it worked properly.

The failure to review the raw data, investigators wrote in the report, means "the team cannot be said to have definitively proved or disproved TRW's claim that its software successfully discriminated the mock warhead from the decoys."

For MIT physicist Theodore Postol, a frequent critic of the Pentagon's missile defense plans, the omissions of his colleagues and their stamp of approval for the Missile Defense Agency amounts to scientific fraud. Postol recently lodged complaints with the MIT Corporation about the study - charging that the university's president, Charles M. Vest, knew of the alleged misconduct and did nothing about it.

"This certainly has the appearance of a well-orchestrated fraud," Postol said. "The managers at Lincoln Lab either knew or should have known that this experiment was a total failure - and they falsely represented it as a success. The implications of that deceit could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars."

MIT officials did not return calls for comment. But Roger Sudbury, a spokesman for Lincoln Lab, told the Globe last month that the Lexington-based research arm of MIT received no complaints from contractors or the Pentagon about their review, and he said, "There is no evidence of fraud."

Lieutenant Colonel Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, which oversees the Pentagon's effort to develop an overlapping air, land, sea, and space-based missile shield, insisted that, as far as he knows, the sensor guiding Boeing's "kill vehicle" worked as planned.

Still, in the scheme of the overall missile defense plan, he said, the 1997 test is irrelevant. Not long after the test, the Pentagon decided to use a sensor built by Raytheon Corp., one with "totally different" technology than the one designed by Boeing.

"I would guess our people will take issue with this report," Lehner said. "At face value, the only thing I was told was that the Boeing kill vehicle did discriminate against the decoys and warhead. Until the agency tells me otherwise, I have to go with that."

The GAO reports, requested by Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and two other members of Congress, were sought nearly two years ago after Postol sent the White House a detailed analysis of the 1997 test, alleging both Boeing and TRW misrepresented the results.

The MIT professor analyzed the raw data of the test, which he obtained through Nira Schwartz, a senior staff engineer at TRW who was fired after she reported that the software her company developed would not distinguish decoys from warheads. Schwartz, who is suing TRW, and Postol insisted it's a fallacy to say the 1997 test is irrelevant.

Because both the Boeing and Raytheon sensor use "infrared eyes," "It's the equivalent of looking at a bunch of suitcases with only your eyes and trying to find a bomb inside," Postol said. "If I give you a telescope, a microscope, or dark glasses when you look at the suitcase, none will tell you which has the bomb."

Despite the allegations, the GAO studies stop short of calling the reports and exaggerated results fraud. Unlike most GAO reports, and despite congressional requests for them, they don't include recommendations.

The reason, another congressional source close to the investigation said, is political. The reports, delayed by sluggish responses from the Pentagon and contractors for documents, were vetted very closely to avoid casting too much blame on any one party, the source said.

"Much of the findings were buried inside the text and purposely written in technical language so as not to highlight many things," the source said. "There are many political pressures, and the report was certainly edited for political reasons."

With billions of dollars at stake and $100 million a pop for each antimissile test, a lot is riding on whether it is technically possible to build a national missile defense that works. Over the past five years, three out of the five anti missile tests hit their targets. But during that time, the tests have been downgraded in complexity, now using only one decoy that is much larger and brighter than the mock warhead.

For the Bush administration, which vowed to build a robust national missile defense during its campaign two years ago, fielding a viable system is one of its highest priorities. In December, President Bush announced the United States would withdraw in June from the 30-year-old ABM treaty, which bars a nationwide missile shield.

In a statement about the GAO reports, Markey, who has proposed a bill calling for independent oversight of the missile shield, cautioned that relying on questionable technology could amount to a massive waste of taxpayer dollars.

"The national missile defense program needs independent oversight and testing milestones to ensure that it works before we spend countless billions of dollars deploying it," he said. "If it can't tell the warhead apart from a decoy, what good is it?"

David Abel can be reached by e-mail at

Copyright, The Boston Globe


By David Abel
Globe Staff


After nearly a year reviewing allegations of scientific fraud at MIT, a senior professor called for a full investigation into whether MIT scientists knowingly gave their seal of approval to a major component of the fledgling national missile defense program that did not work.

Over the past year, some professors at MIT have vigorously criticized the university for a 1999 report that validated a crucial missile defense test for the Pentagon. Though researchers at the university's Lexington-based Lincoln Laboratory said sensors in the missile defense system worked as the manufacturer claimed, investigators later found that the sensors could not have worked properly, and critics have said MIT participated in a coverup.

In two reports released last March, congressional investigators confirmed that the studies by MIT scientists were flawed. But the question remains whether scientists or managers at Lincoln Labs made a simple scientific mistake or engaged in deliberate fraud, producing favorable results that helped the Pentagon justify spending billions of dollars on national missile defense.

The university appointed Ed Crawley, chairman of the aeronautics and astronautics department, to look into the allegations. In a letter provided to the Globe, Charlene M. Placido, an assistant dean for research, wrote that Crawley has decided "to recommend an investigation . . . under MIT's scientific misconduct policies."

Crawley did not return calls for comment and university officials would not release his report.

"The reason for confidentiality is simple: The reputations of individuals are at stake," Massachusetts Institute of Technology spokesman Ken Campbell wrote in a statement.

Also at stake is the university's academic reputation for independent scientific review, which critics say was compromised by MIT's interest in maintaining hundreds of millions of dollars in annual government contracts.

In recommending an investigation, Crawley seemed to reverse his previous findings. In a draft report sent to administrators this summer, he called the Lincoln Labs study "a well-reasoned analysis," adding "not only do I find no evidence of research misconduct, but I also find no credible evidence of technical error."

Senior administrators contacted this week would not say why Crawley has now called for an investigation or whether the university will follow his recommendations. MIT provost Robert Brown, who also did not return calls, will decide in coming months whether the university should investigate.

The call for an investigation represents a small victory for MIT physicist Theodore Postol, who alerted administrators to the possible fraud in April 2001 and has since urged them to launch a full inquiry. In the past year, Postol sent university officials and members of Congress thousands of pages to support his allegations of scientific fraud.

"This isn't simply a case of bad or fraudulent science, it was quite likely obstruction of justice - and every major official at the university has been fully aware of this," said Postol, who believes administrators misled federal investigators and want to avoid a full investigation.

"My hope is that whoever finally investigates this case, it will be free of bias," he added.

MIT officials wouldn't comment on Postol's allegations. But in the statement released by Campbell, they said: "Professor Postol knows what the MIT policies say about confidentiality, and if he chooses to disregard them, he will have violated those policies."

In response, Postol said: "Evidence of criminality is not covered under MIT's confidentiality rules."

Postol's allegations arose out of a lawsuit by a senior staff engineer at TRW, one of the main contractors for the missile defense system. The engineer, Nira Schwartz, alleged that the contractor had falsified results of a 1997 test, which the Pentagon later said proved that the system could correctly distinguish warheads from decoys, a vital task for any missile-defense system. The Lincoln Labs scientists were given data by TRW and confirmed the positive results.

Postol later assessed the raw test data himself and argued that there was no way scientists at Lincoln Labs could have approved the contractor's data in good faith. Two reports by the General Accounting Office validated his finding in March, saying the infrared sensors failed to cool sufficiently, producing a distortion that made it impossible for the sensor to properly detect warheads.

The Pentagon ultimately chose not to buy the TRW sensor, opting for a version built by Raytheon that uses similar infrared technology.

One of the five senior MIT researchers who did the review declined to comment yesterday. But Ming-Jer Tsai, a Lincoln Labs senior staff researcher, called it "strange" that Crawley initially found no problems with their work and then called for an investigation.

"I was surprised to realize there was a reversal of the professor's position," he said. "I don't want to speculate what changed his mind."

Postol said he believes Tsai and the other researchers could not have simply overlooked the data that showed that the missile system did not work. He believes there was a deliberate effort to misrepresent the results.

"I don't know who the responsible parties are," he said. "I just know there was fraud - and someone has to be held accountable."

David Abel can be reached at

By David Abel
The Boston Globe


As the debate heats up over whether the United States should build a national missile defense, one of the program's leading critics, an MIT professor, is charging the Pentagon with trying to silence him.

This week, three agents from the Pentagon's Defense Security Service arrived unannounced at Theodore A. Postol's office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They said they came to show the outspoken physicist classified documents, Postol said.

But Postol said he refused to look at the papers stamped "SECRET." Recalling the Army's attempt to classify his critical analysis of Raytheon Corp.'s Patriot missile after the 1991 Gulf War, he believes the agents' visit was a ruse to prevent him from speaking out further against the proposed antimissile system, which has already cost at least $60 billion.

"I definitely saw this as potential for entrapment and a means of intimidation," said Postol, so miffed he wrote a letter to John Podesta, President Clinton's chief of staff, after the Wednesday morning visit. "By showing me classified information, they could say I was talking about classified information. I saw it as a means of abridging my First-Amendment rights."

The surprise visit came more than a month after Postol, once one of the military's top science advisers, made headlines after a letter he wrote to the White House detailed potential pitfalls in the Clinton administration's missile-defense plan and exposed what he says is evidence of a cover-up.

In the letter, the 54-year-old professor explained why he and many scientists believe current technology is incapable of defeating a ballistic missile attack. The essence of his dissent is that the system being developed can't differentiate a potential enemy's decoys from its warheads. A few balloons, he said, might be sufficient to fool current or future antimissiles.

But shortly after the letter arrived at the White House, officials sent it to the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Office. Officials there promptly classified Postol's findings, even though the letter had already been posted on the Internet. The move echoed the Army's attempt to muzzle him after the Gulf War, Postol said.

Although Postol says he never received a call before the Pentagon agents popped into his office, and accuses the security service of improperly handling secret documents, a Defense Security Service spokeswoman said the agents repeatedly tried to contact the professor and followed strict protocol in presenting the information.

Caryl Clubb, a Defense Security Service spokeswoman, said the agents went to Postol's office to deliver a letter from the service's deputy chief of staff for industrial security. The document detailed areas in which Postol's White House letter contained classified information, she said.

"The purpose of our visit was to prevent the further disclosure of classified information," Clubb said. "We in no way, shape or form meant to get him to stop speaking out."

But Postol and others describe the visit as a tactic they say the government has used before to silence informed dissidents with high-level security clearances. A scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the 1980s, Postol has top-secret clearances at the departments of energy and defense.

Yet all the information he assembled in his White House letter, he contends, came from a lawsuit filed by a senior engineer against the military contractor TRW Inc., which accused the contractor of sending the Pentagon fraudulent performance reports about a key portion of the antimissile system.

If Postol had consented to view the letter, he said, he would be obliged not to talk about its contents, even if the information was identical to what he previously published. The penalty for revealing the contents of a classified document ranges from the loss of security clearances to a prison sentence.

"This entire episode is Kafkaesque," said Democratic US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden, who said he plans to ask the General Accounting Office to investigate. "First, you have the government classifying a report raising questions about potential fraud . . . then you have government agents showing up at the author's office, trying to force him to read a classified document that he doesn't want to read."

Joseph Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it "appears they were trying to force feed him classified material for reasons other than his education on this matter."

Jennifer Weeks, a former congressional military analyst who runs a project on nuclear policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the episode might have been a clumsy attempt to explain the missile program to Postol.

"I think it's plausible this was an effort to silence him," she said. "It also may have just been a dumb, badly managed way of showing him classified information."

Postol, though, has no doubts.

"This wasn't an accident," he said. "They know what they were doing."