Published on Thursday, May 19, 2000 in the New York Times
Star Wars: Scientist Charges Pentagon With 'Elaborate Hoax'
by William Broad
A prominent antimissile critic has
found what he says is a major flaw in
the Pentagon's antimissile plan and
is calling on the White House to appoint a high-level scientific panel to
investigate what he says were fraudulent efforts to cover it up.
If the critic is correct, the flaw may cripple or even kill the proposed weapon system, the cost of which is estimated at up to $60 billion.
The critic is Theodore A. Postol, professor of science and national security studies at M.I.T., author of many reports on antimissile systems and in the 1980's a science adviser to the chief of naval operations on ballistic missile technologies and potential weapons against them. He made his new accusations in a May 11 letter to John D. Podesta, the White House chief of staff, after reviewing Pentagon data gathered by an antimissile whistle-blower.
Dr. Postol's critique centers on the hardest part of the missile defense challenge, distinguishing incoming weapons from decoys and destroying them.
In the letter, a copy of which he gave to The New York Times, Dr. Postol said Pentagon sensor data he had obtained from the first antimissile test flight in June 1997 showed that the ground-based interceptor was inherently unable to make the distinction and that the Pentagon and its contractors had tried to hide this failure.
The coverup, he said, was "like rolling a pair of dice and throwing away all outcomes that did not give snake eyes."
An inability to tell cheap decoys from costly warheads in theory could force a defender to fire interceptors at every threatening object, which as a practical matter could make the system useless.
P. J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House was carefully weighing Dr. Postol's appeal but was unlikely to move quickly.
"It's premature to say this merits an outside review," Mr. Crowley said. "We have to let the Department of Defense complete its deployment readiness review," which starts in late June and lasts a month.
A senior federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that if a scheduled antimissile flight test failed, that would tend to bolster concerns about the system and probably help prompt an independent investigation.
Lt. Col. Richard Lehner of the Air Force, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said a detailed written response was being prepared for Dr. Postol and the White House.
"We take allegations of fraud very seriously," Colonel Lehner said. "We have looked at many of these allegations in the past, and have found nothing which supports either the scientific criticisms or any fraud."
But Richard L. Garwin, a top federal science adviser who has expressed doubts about some aspects of the missile defense idea, said he had seen Dr. Postol's letter and considered his technical points "very important."
In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 58 percent of the respondents said they favored trying to build an antimissile defense. But that figure dropped to 25 percent, the poll found, when respondents were asked what their opinion would be "if many scientists conclude it is unlikely that such a system will ever work."
Testing of the would-be antimissile weapon has not gone smoothly. The first two flight experiments simply gathered sensor data on mock warheads and decoys. The most elaborate of these, in June 1997, is the subject of Dr. Postol's attack.
Last October, the Pentagon hailed the first intercept try as a success but later conceded that the interceptor had initially drifted off course and picked out the decoy balloon rather than the warhead. In a January test, a sensor coolant leak caused the interceptor to miss the target.
A third intercept test is set for late June.
President Clinton is expected to decide afterward whether the United States should build a limited defense against missile attacks by rogue countries.
To date, targets in the interception tests have consisted of a single mock warhead and a single decoy balloon. The Pentagon says it plans to increase decoy complexity in future tests.
In his letter to the White House, Dr. Postol said the Pentagon's analysis of the more elaborate June 1997 sensor test "urgently needs to be investigated by a team of scientists who are recognized for their scientific accomplishments and independence from the Pentagon." His three-page letter had four detailed attachments meant to back up his claims.
His charges are based partly on an antimissile criticism by Nira Schwartz, a former senior engineer at TRW, a top military contractor. In a suit against TRW, Dr. Schwartz has accused the company of faking antimissile tests and evaluations of computer programs for the interceptor's sensor and then firing her when she protested. Through her litigation and a Pentagon inquiry, Dr. Schwartz obtained many antimissile reports and data, some of which she has shared with Dr. Postol.
A nuclear engineer by training, Dr. Postol in his analysis of the Pentagon reports goes beyond questions of computer analysis of data from incoming targets. In fact, he said, the test showed that warheads and decoys appear so similar that sensors might never be able to tell them apart.
He also says the Pentagon conspired to cover up this sensor problem.
The brightness readings from the mock warhead and decoys, he told the White House, "fluctuated in a varied and totally unpredictable way," revealing no feature "that could be used to distinguish one object from the other."
Faced with this upset, Dr. Postal continued, the analytical team arbitrarily rejected and selected data to create an "elaborate hoax" that was then hidden in reports by the use of "misleading, confusing, and self-contradictory language."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company