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Tough Questions

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.”

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