It is conceivable, as one of his colleagues has suggested, that Theodore Postol could be more effective “if he did not eventually accuse just about everybody of fraud or malfeasance or stupidity.” Over the past two years, for instance, the MIT professor of science, technology and national security policy has publicly accused the defense technology corporation TRW of perpetrating a hoax on the U.S. government. He has charged the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (formerly known as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) with committing an “elaborate scientific and technical blunder,” compounded by fraud and misconduct. He has charged the authors of a report investigating those alleged frauds-who include two staff scientists at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory-with committing scientific fraud themselves to cover up the frauds they were allegedly investigating. He has charged the Pentagon’s Defense Security Service, in a letter to John Podesta, who was then President Clinton’s chief of staff, with “Soviet thuggish-style conduct.” And he has even accused MIT president Charles M. Vest of doing little or nothing to clarify the matter or investigate.
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.’”