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Patriot Games

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.

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