WASHINGTON - A leading critic of the military's missile defense testing program has accused the Pentagon of trying to silence him and intimidate his employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by investigating him for disseminating classified documents.
The case has raised questions about whether a document can be considered secret if it is widely available to the public. And it has touched off a dispute between the critic, Theodore A. Postol, and M.I.T. over how to balance academic freedom with the university's obligations to cooperate with Pentagon investigators.
At issue is correspondence between Dr. Postol, a physicist, and the General Accounting Office, an investigative branch of Congress, in which he accused the Pentagon of using doctored data to defend missile defense technology.
Dr. Postol said his conclusions had been based on an unclassified report, which he disseminated over the Internet and can now be downloaded from Web sites around the world, including one in Russia.
But after Dr. Postol began distributing the report last year, the Pentagon determined that it contained secret information. This month, Defense Department investigators asked M.I.T. officials to stop Dr. Postol from disseminating that information and to confiscate the document from him.
The university has not done so. But in an e-mail message to Dr. Postol on Monday, Charles M. Vest, the university president, said M.I.T. might be required to ``move forward with at least the initial steps'' ordered by Defense Security Service, a Pentagon agency. Dr. Postol provided a copy of that message to The New York Times.
``They are basically threatening M.I.T. that it will lose its contract to run this big laboratory if they don't abide by these demands,'' Dr. Postol said in an interview.
The institute operates the Lincoln Laboratory at Hanscom Air Force Base in Lexington, Mass., under contract with the Defense Department to do research into missile defense, weather forecasting, military surveillance and other sophisticated technologies. The lab's contract with the Pentagon was worth $319 million last year.
M.I.T. officials declined to speculate today on whether Dr. Vest would cooperate with the Pentagon's requests. But Dr. Vest issued a written statement that raised questions about the investigation of Dr. Postol.
``While M.I.T. certainly abides by the laws that protect national security, we also believe that the legitimate tools of classification of secrets should not be misused to limit responsible debate,'' the statement said. ``Trying to treat widely available public information as `secret' is a particular concern.''
Pentagon officials declined to discuss details of their investigation. But Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, argued that the department was obligated to stop Dr. Postol from disseminating potentially damaging information, even if it was readily available.
``Just because it is made public doesn't mean it's declassified,'' Colonel Lehner said.
Dr. Postol agreed that the information was potentially damaging, but only because it showed that the Pentagon was far from developing effective antimissile weapons.
For years, Dr. Postol has argued that the Pentagon's prototype antimissile system could not distinguish between decoys and enemy warheads. He has joined forces with an engineer, Nira Schwartz, who has accused her former employer, TRW, a military contractor, of faking tests and evaluations of the technology to make it appear more successful than it was.
The latest dispute arose when the Pentagon hired five scientists, including two from M.I.T.'s Lincoln Laboratory, to review TRW's technology in the wake of Dr. Schwartz's accusations. The resulting report disputed Dr. Schwartz's assertions and has been used to defend the missile defense program on Capitol Hill.
But Dr. Postol, who in the 1990's successfully challenged the effectiveness of Patriot missiles in the Persian Gulf war, analyzed the report and concluded it had distorted data to make it appear that available technology could reliably distinguish warheads from decoys. In fact, Dr. Postol contends, that technology does not yet exist.
The Pentagon and TRW have denied that assertion.
Dr. Postol first raised concerns about the Pentagon report in a letter to the White House last year. Not long after, the Pentagon determined that officials had inadvertently not removed classified information from the report before releasing it, including the tables and diagrams Dr. Postol has used to attack the testing program.
But Dr. Postol, who has done work for the Pentagon and stands to lose his security clearance, contends that the Pentagon's actions smack of a cover-up. He has recruited supporters in Congress. Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, has asked the Pentagon to review Dr. Postol's accusations about the report. Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has asked the General Accounting Office to study the Defense Department's classification policy.
``The question that naturally arises is whether such a policy really protects national security or whether it merely serves to stifle the ability of Dr. Postol to communicate his views,'' Mr. Markey asks in a letter sent to the accounting office today.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company