CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- On Ted Postol's desk, behind stacks of paper and scale models of Iraqi missile launchers, is a coffee mug emblazoned with a warning: "Back off, man! I'm a scientist!"
Maybe Postol should try a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, because the mug doesn't seem to be working. The Pentagon is all over him like medals on a four-star general.
"What they're trying to do is maneuver me into a situation where I can no longer talk," Postol says. "I intend to continue talking." The subject is national missile defense, a complex system of radar-guided rockets designed to shoot incoming missiles out of the sky. The Bush administration wants to build the system to protect America from rogue states such as North Korea or Iraq.
"The technology to do so is within our grasp," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in July, two days after one missile intercepted another in a test over the Pacific Ocean.
Postol claims that test was rigged. He says the Pentagon knows it can't field an effective missile shield and plans to build one anyway, concealing the system's ineffectiveness with unnecessary secrecy.
Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, the spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, says Postol's charges are unfounded and outdated because they involve a component of the system that has been replaced.
Yet the Pentagon has taken the trouble of sending security agents to Postol's office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, classifying his correspondence and demanding that the university confiscate documents from him and investigate his actions.
It seems mighty strange, this lone professor proclaiming that the Pentagon, the president of the United States and several giant defense contractors are all wrong and that he, Ted Postol, is right.
"They hate me for this. Of course they hate me," he says, brandishing one of his thick technical papers. "I'm shoving it in their face."
Colleagues and foes alike call Postol a brilliant, tenacious and egotistical man who never gives up. His adversaries often try to dismiss him as a crank or a charlatan, but they cannot deny one fact: Last time Ted Postol took on the Pentagon, he was right.
Postol is most famous for suggesting after the 1991 Gulf War that the Patriot air defense system might not have been the smashing success that the Army claimed--and then spending years proving it.
Working with George Lewis, another MIT professor, Postol analyzed news footage of more than 40 Patriot-Scud engagements frame-by-frame, about half of the Gulf War total. They concluded that not one Patriot appeared to have stopped a Scud from reaching the ground.
The Army and Raytheon, the company that built Patriot, responded with a barrage of criticism: News footage was too coarse-grained to show anything, the camera's shutter speed was too slow, the flashes didn't correspond with the exploding Patriots.
But soon, government investigators also began finding fault with Patriot. Both the General Accounting Office and Congressional Research Service found that Patriot's success rate was far lower than the 96% claimed by the Army.
In a new review, the Army revised its own estimate of Patriot effectiveness down to 60%. But almost everybody who was involved in the debate agrees the real number is closer to zero.
It appears Postol knew what he was talking about. Whether that's true this time is nearly impossible to tell, because he and his Pentagon adversaries argue more about each other's alleged misdeeds than the facts.
Postol's most recent fracas with the Pentagon started last year when he learned of a whistle-blower named Nira Schwartz who had sued her former employer, the defense contractor TRW. Schwartz charged TRW had faked test results performed for the national missile defense program.
Postol invited Schwartz to MIT, where she made her case to experts from the university and the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group opposed to the missile defense plan and dedicated to reducing nuclear arms.
"We actually were very impressed by her," says David Wright, a physicist with the group. "It looked like [her case] really held up."
Schwartz's central claim was that TRW's kill vehicle, designed to identify and destroy an incoming missile, could not tell the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. Both the company and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization had declared a 1998 test of that capability a success.
The issue is important because any country technologically capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile could easily launch decoys. In an April 2000 study, a group of missile defense critics--including Postol--argued that simple decoys could render almost any missile defense system useless.
Lehner disputes that assertion. Furthermore, he says, TRW's kill vehicle has been dropped in favor of one built by Raytheon, which can distinguish warheads from decoys and "is going to get even better as time goes by."
At the meeting with Schwartz, Postol focused on a study the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization had commissioned to refute her claim--the "Independent Review of TRW Discrimination Techniques."
The report's summary said that TRW could distinguish a warhead from a decoy. But in the pages of charts and tables and impenetrable prose, Postol says, he found abundant evidence to the contrary. It looked to him as if the report's authors had ignored their own evidence to reach the conclusion the Pentagon wanted.
In April 2000, Postol wrote the Clinton administration about his discovery and attached supporting documents, including the report.
"I . . . have discovered that the BMDO's own data shows that the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) will be defeated by the simplest of balloon decoys. I also have documentation that shows that the BMDO, in coordination with its contractors, attempted to hide this fact," Postol wrote to White House chief of staff John Podesta.
Podesta passed the letter on to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which promptly classified it.
Postol was livid. As far as he knew, nothing he had sent to Podesta was classified. In fact, the report Postol had gotten from Schwartz had the words "Unclassified Draft" all over it.
In a second missive to Podesta, Postol complained that the BMDO had no reason to classify the report or his letter except to silence him.
Five weeks later, three Defense Security Service investigators showed up in Postol's office. The four men adjourned to a conference room, where the investigators produced a folder labeled "Secret" and asked Postol to read its contents.
It was a bizarre cloak-and-dagger moment. If these men were investigators, Postol thought, why were they giving him information instead of trying to get it?
Postol assumed it was a trick designed to shut him up. He held a security clearance through a defense contractor he did consulting work for. If this "secret" folder contained information from the report that he needed to make his case, he would be obliged by that security clearance not to talk about it.
According to a government report of the incident, Postol refused to look inside the folder. After some unpleasantness, the agents gave up and left.
The next day, Postol wrote Podesta a third time to complain that instead of responding to his first two letters, the government had sent agents to harass him.
"It cannot be ruled out that this unannounced meeting was an attempt at intimidation," Postol wrote. "I would therefore appreciate it if you would have this matter fully investigated."
Podesta responded in a handwritten note: "I must say that the overall impression you leave from your correspondence is that your brilliance is only exceeded by your arrogance. Rest assured that we are taking the issues you raised seriously and reviewing them at the highest levels."
The General Accounting Office did investigate the agents' unexpected visit. It concluded that the Defense Security Service had acted properly in classifying Pistol's letter and the attached report, because a Pentagon lawyer had failed to blacken a few sensitive parts before passing the study on to Schwartz. The FBI also investigated and determined that TRW was not guilty of fraud.
Things might have ended there. But two months before the GAO cleared the Pentagon of harassing Postol, the professor wrote yet another letter.
Postol explains that when he wrote the White House last year, he had good evidence that the report on missile decoys was phony. But this spring, after hours of analysis, he says he finally deciphered the instructions TRW used to tell its kill vehicle how to distinguish between a real warhead and a decoy.
Those instructions, he concluded, were useless--in some situations they might even guarantee that the kill vehicle missed its target.
Postol wrote the General Accounting Office, which was already investigating Schwartz's claims against TRW. Again, his letter reached the missile defense office and was classified.
This time the Pentagon took its case to Postol's employer. Valerie Heil of the Defense Security Service wrote two letters to MIT demanding the university confiscate the missile decoy report from Postol and investigate how he obtained it.
MIT has not done that. President Charles Vest responded with a public statement defending his professor's right to criticize missile defense and expressing concern over the Pentagon's attempt to reclassify public information.
Postol, who has never had warm feelings for Vest, considers that a weak effort.
"I'm surprised that he hasn't added that his favorite flavor is vanilla and his favorite color is blue, since being in favor of free speech as a university president is not a very controversial position to take," Postol says. "He's more intimidated by me than by the U.S. government."
And that is where it stands. At this point, the "secret" report has been bopping around the Internet for at least a year. Any North Korean or Iraqi who cares to see it almost certainly has already, though it wouldn't do any potential adversary much good because the Pentagon has abandoned the TRW kill vehicle in favor of the one made by Raytheon.
To people who pay attention to such things, the situation with Postol has become a joke. But thanks to the classified status of the report and his letters, nobody with a security clearance can talk publicly about it.
And there's the rub. Those who are best qualified to evaluate Postol's claims have either security clearances, strong opinions about missile defense, or both. The rest of us can only gaze at the mysterious charts and tables and weigh the accusations of a brilliant and fractious man against the Pentagon's denials.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times