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Kafkaesque Encounters

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.”

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