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Two reports released yesterday by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, state that early claims made by Boeing and its subcontractor TRW about the success of antimissile-sensor technology were greatly exaggerated. Preliminary results from these reports were reported earlier this year in Science magazine.

In 1997, Seattle, WA-based Boeing and Cleveland, OH-based TRW, as part of the Pentagon’s ongoing missile-defense research, launched a test vehicle equipped with an infrared sensor, to test the sensor’s ability to identify enemy warheads. Although problems with the sensor’s cooling system and power supply caused it to confuse warheads with decoy balloons, the contractors pronounced the $100 million test “highly successful.” Problems mounted when a lawsuit brought against TRW by a former employee alleged that the company not only used faulty algorithms in designing the test but had later manipulated results. But in 1998, an independent research team, led by two scientists from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, concluded that the Boeing/TRW data were “basically sound.”

MIT physicist and missile-defense critic Theodore Postol called the independent review “scientific fraud,” and prompted the 18-month investigation that culminated with the reports released yesterday by the General Accounting Office (See “Postol vs. the Pentagon,” April 2002).

Postol calls the reports extremely valuable. “It would be better if the GAO had connected the dots instead of just reporting the facts, but anyone can read it and connect the dots themselves,” he says. Roger Sudbury, spokesman for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, declined to comment on the GAO report, except to stress that the lab “cooperated fully with GAO in its review, providing information as requested.”

Discriminating between decoys and real warheads is a problem that has plagued missile defense systems for decades. “It’s partly an engineering issue, but it’s largely a basic scientific issue,” says Michael Levi, director of strategic security projects at the Federation of American Scientists. “The first public critique of the susceptibility of missile defense systems decoys was published over thirty years ago. It’s not a new argument.”

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