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The Pentagon And the Professor

The Pentagon And the Professor

From Email of an article by Geoffrey Forden
The Washington Post Company
Wednesday, August 29, 2001; Page A21

There is a Web site in Russia that the U.S. government claims contains classified information. You can read it, but if you think about what you read there and conclude that the current U.S. national missile defense plans are bound to fail, the government will try to stop you.

That is exactly what is happening to Theodore Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Defense Department doesn't like what Prof. Postol has been saying about national missile defense: that it will not protect our country even from primitive incoming missiles. To stop him from saying these things, it has stamped "SECRET" on letters he sent to then-President Bill Clinton and now to Congress.

The letters explained how data from the Defense Department's own missile tests, now available on that Russian Web site, showed that a country -- even one just developing intercontinental missiles -- could sneak past our defensive missile shield and destroy one of our cities.

Just what did Postol say in those letters? In 1998 a team of engineers and scientists wrote a report reviewing the data from the very first national missile defense flight test. In that report they focused on the system's ability to pick out a real warhead from the accompanying balloons and other decoys. (This first test differed from the tests that they are now conducting in that the decoys actually looked like real warheads.) The scientists included a table of probabilities for picking the real warhead and a graph from which that table was produced. Both the graph and the table are available in a number of places, including a Web site in Russia.

Postol took the graph and, using techniques now taught in high school, calculated the chances for picking out the correct warhead from the incoming objects. Unfortunately, he got answers very different from those the table showed. In fact, his analysis proved that it would be better to flip a coin in deciding which was the warhead than to use the data to try to pick out the threatening object.

Then Postol noticed that if you took his numbers and added or subtracted them in just the right way, you could get the same numbers that were in the table. Of course, a scientist who cared about the truth would never have done what Postol said had to be done to reproduce the table. But that was just the point he was trying to make.

Postol sent his analysis as a letter to the General Accounting Office, the investigative agency of Congress, which is investigating not only allegations of fraud in the national missile defense program but also Postol's assertions that the Defense Department tried nearly a year ago to silence him by intimidation. Several weeks later, the GAO requested that Postol resend it the same letter, but with any references to fraud removed. The GAO then forwarded this second letter to the scientists and engineers who worked on the original report, presumably for their comments.

In the past few weeks, the Defense Security Service has been investigating Postol's mailing of this letter. Why? Because the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization classified its content as secret. It appears to hold Postol responsible for sending the letter to the authors of the original report, even though it was the GAO that sent it to them, through the regular mail. Just as disturbing, the investigators never informed Postol that an investigation was in progress; it was only a matter of chance that he found out, when he contacted the MIT security office about a different matter. In the latest development, the Defense Department has ordered MIT to seize all Postol's materials related to those letters, under threat of losing federal funding for defense-related research.

Why did the Defense Department classify Postol's letter? If he had been wrong in his calculation of the missile defense's chances for picking out a real warhead from decoys, his letter could have done nothing to harm our country and would only have made him look foolish. If, as I believe, his calculations are correct, then he did nothing but use high school mathematics to analyze information that is widely available over the Internet.

This incident raises serious concerns about how the government uses secrecy laws to suppress individuals who question policy. It also raises troubling parallels with the recent attempt of the Government Printing Office to recall the official history of U.S. involvement in Indonesia. If Postol's calculations are correct, the current national missile defense system will never protect us. Policymakers and the public need to know about this.

The writer is a senior research fellow in the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was formerly principal analyst for missile defense issues at the Congressional Budget Office.

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