CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is looking into accusations that its premier laboratory lied to cover up serious problems with the technology at the heart of the administration's proposed antimissile defense system.
The university was prodded to act by Theodore A. Postol, a tenured M.I.T. physicist in security studies and a prominent critic of the antimissile plan. In letters to Congress and elsewhere, Dr. Postol has said M.I.T. appeared to be hiding evidence of serious flaws in the nation's main antimissile weapon, a ground-based rocket meant to destroy incoming enemy warheads by impact. His accusations center on a 1998 study by Lincoln Laboratory, a federally financed M.I.T. research center, and have grown over the years to include the institute's provost, president and corporate chairman.
Dr. Postol became known as an antimissile critic after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when he argued that contrary to Pentagon assertions Patriot missiles had shot down few if any Iraqi Scud missiles. His contention, at first ridiculed, in time became accepted as truth.
Officials at the institute strongly deny any wrongdoing.
"The bedrock principle for all research done at M.I.T. is scientific integrity," officials said in a statement. "Any allegation that there has been any deviation from that principle must be taken seriously, and that is what M.I.T. has done in this case."
These officials dismissed Dr. Postol's accusation that they had delayed acting on his accusations.
Dr. Postol, who first called for an investigation 20 months ago and repeated his request many times, is unsatisfied. "Potentially, this is the most serious fraud that we've seen at a great American university," he said in an interview.
His argument draws on stacks of letters, reports and interview transcripts, their details technically daunting and plentiful.
But he is hard to ignore. Even Dr. Postol's critics, who call him pushy and arrogant, tend to admire his laserlike precision. A Navy science adviser in the Reagan administration, he came to M.I.T. in 1989 as an expert on advanced weapons.
His credibility rose after the Patriot case, which began in 1991 when the Army contended that the weapon had knocked out nearly all of the Scud missiles that Iraq had fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. After studying videotapes of the clashes, Dr. Postol said Patriots had probably made no direct hits. The Army initially strongly disagreed, but in January 2001 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen joined the doubters. "The Patriot didn't work," he said.
Dr. Postol's current battle is a spinoff from the case of Dr. Nira Schwartz, a senior engineer in 1995 and 1996 at TRW Inc., a military contractor. Dr. Schwartz accused her employer of faking test results on a prototype antimissile sensor meant to distinguish enemy warheads from decoys. This task was the hardest part of the antimissile challenge, and doubts about success would erode the weapon's credibility.
TRW denied Dr. Schwartz's charges and in a 1998 report federal investigators said TRW was essentially truthful. This report is at the center of Dr. Postol's charges.
The report was done under the direction of the Lincoln Laboratory, and two of its five authors worked there. The other three were drawn from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Aerospace Corporation, a military industry research company.
After Dr. Schwartz's accusations became public in 2000, Dr. Postol dug into the Lincoln Laboratory report. On April 26, 2001, he wrote Charles M. Vest, M.I.T.'s president, calling the report's conclusions "false and unsupported" and asking for an investigation by the institute. He repeated his request a month later and a year ago he wrote Alexander V. D'Arbeloff, chairman of the M.I.T. corporation, saying Dr. Vest had failed to investigate "a serious case of scientific fraud."
Nearly 10 months after Dr. Postol's complaint, the institute opened an inquiry into whether a formal investigation was warranted.
Robert A. Brown, M.I.T.'s provost, wrote Dr. Postol on Feb. 11 to say that since the disputed report was by "government, not M.I.T.," the university had no obligation to review its overall accuracy. He said the institute would examine only the work of the two Lincoln authors.
Dr. Postol objected, and federal investigators soon gave him new ammunition. On Feb. 28, the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said in two reports to Congress that TRW had exaggerated the sensor's performance, calling its contentions "highly misleading." The investigators faulted the Lincoln report for relying on data processed by TRW, instead of seeking the contractor's raw data.
The institute began its inquiry on April 12, led by Dr. Edward F. Crawley, who is in charge of of the school's department of aeronautics and astronautics.
Dr. Postol then suffered two setbacks. First, Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, who had been asked by the institute to look into assertions that it had not moved quickly enough, concluded on April 22 that the initiation of the fraud inquiry, "though prolonged," adhered to M.I.T. policies.
In July, Dr. Crawley weighed in with a preliminary report calling the 1998 study trustworthy. "Not only do I find no evidence of research misconduct," Dr. Crawley wrote, "but I also find no credible evidence of technical error." No investigation was warranted, he said.
Dr. Postol challenged the draft inquiry report's findings. In particular, he noted that Dr. Crawley's draft contradicted the General Accounting Office report, which the Defense Department and Lincoln Laboratory had reviewed for accuracy.
"Either there's a serious problem with the G.A.O. report, which needs to be corrected," Dr. Postol told Dr. Crawley in August, according to a meeting transcript, "or Lincoln Laboratory could be involved at the highest levels of management in covering up fraud."
On Nov. 4, Dr. Crawley reversed himself and recommended a full investigation. His revised report was given to Dr. Brown before Christmas. Dr. Crawley has not said why he changed his mind, and the institute has not said whether a full investigation will go forward. The institute refused to give Dr. Postol a copy of the final Crawley report, saying he had broken a promise to keep the draft report confidential.
On Nov. 26, the institute issued a statement saying, "It would be unfair to comment on the inquiry," and adding, "Professor Postol knows what the M.I.T. policies say about confidentiality and if he chooses to disregard them, he will have violated those policies."
Roger Sudbury, a Lincoln spokesman, said the laboratory was cooperating with the institute. He said he could make no other comments because of confidentiality restrictions.
Dr. Postol said he feared that the institute's references to confidentiality rules were preparatory to bringing action against him.
On Dec. 5, Dr. Postol began sending letters on M.I.T. letterhead to 20 members of Congress, including Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and Representative John M. Spratt Jr., Democrat of South Carolina, both defense experts. Recent actions by the the institute, Dr. Postol wrote, "may indicate an attempt to conceal evidence of criminal violations of federally funded research at the M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory." He said the criminal violations were laboratory officials lying to federal investigators.
He accused the institute dragging its feet for 19 months and suggested that the university's highest officials were trying "to conceal evidence of possible criminal violations."
Dr. Postol speculated that the institute was leery of his accusations because it wanted to protect the reputation of Lincoln Laboratory, the institute's top source of federal financing. President Vest is conflicted because he sits on the White House council of science advisers and "knows that the missile defense system won't work and that his own organization has lied about its capabilities," Dr. Postol added.
Military and some institute officials have long criticized Dr. Postol's focus on the TRW case, saying it was irrelevant today. They note that TRW in December 1998 lost out to a rival company, Raytheon, in getting the contract to build the antimissile weapon.
But Dr. Postol said the TRW case opened one of the few public windows on antimissile feasibility, which is usually wrapped in tight secrecy. He cited a June 1997 flight test in which, he said, a TRW sensor and computer brain failed to differentiate a mock warhead from nine decoys.
Because of that surprise, Dr. Postol added, all the nation's recent antimissile tests have been much simpler, typically using a single decoy.
"It's absolutely relevant," he said of the TRW episode. "It goes to the heart of whether this system has any chance of working. It's more relevant now than when the case first arose."
That, he said, is because President Bush announced on Dec. 17 that the ground-based weapon would star in the nation's first antimissile system to be built in a quarter-century.
In late December, Dr. Postol left the institute for a four-month sabbatical at Stanford University. "I'll fly back in a heartbeat if something comes up," he said. "I want to see this thing resolved."
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