Last week saw the release of a report from the General Accounting Office that details how the Pentagon, two major military contractors--TRW and Boeing--and a team of MIT scientists exaggerated the success of the nation's first missile defense test, turning an embarrassing failure into a phony triumph.
As attention-grabbing as this sounds, the report is not really news to anyone who has followed the case of Nira Schwartz and the U.S. government versus TRW and Boeing.
Schwartz, a scientist and computer expert, was hired in 1995 by TRW to test the key component of the missile defense system: the ability of our missiles to discriminate between incoming enemy warheads and harmless decoys. She soon discovered that the technology being used was fatally flawed. Alarmed by her findings, she approached her boss and insisted that TRW reveal the problem to the Pentagon. The company responded by firing her.
Two months later, Schwartz sued TRW under the False Claims Act, asserting that the defense contractor had knowingly defrauded the American people. The lawsuit is now in the discovery stage. In the six years it has taken the case to work its way through a legal maze, ongoing tests, including the $100-million debacle highlighted in the GAO report, have only confirmed Schwartz's findings.
By any yardstick, this is a shocking story, affecting both our national security and the nation's fiscal health. According to a recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the price tag for a missile defense system would be more than $230 billion. Worse, by sacrificing the Antiballistic Missile Treaty on the altar of a missile defense shield that has been proved not to work, we are ushering in a new era of nuclear proliferation that will make the world a far more dangerous place.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), who requested the GAO report on TRW, makes it clear that he has no "theological problem" with a missile defense shield.
"If you can prove to me," he said, "that we can build a system capable of intercepting missiles from rogue nations, and that it will not bring with it the consequence of restarting an arms race, then I'm open to it. But the report raises way too many questions about concealment and fundamental flaws in the technology."
It's not like the information about test failures and fraud has been flying under the radar. After a judge finally unsealed Schwartz's suit, the story ended up on the front page of the New York Times in March 2000, followed by a Dan Rather interview with Schwartz on CBS.
So the question becomes: What will it take for this story to penetrate Washington's defenses against critical information affecting national policy?
"The government's system of checks and balances has badly failed at every level throughout this process," said Ted Postol an MIT missile defense expert. "What it's going to take now is stirring the public imagination and outrage."
Perhaps it will take dramatizing Schwartz's story and turning her into the Erin Brockovich of the nuclear arms debate.
It can be difficult to picture Schwartz as the heroine in a David versus Goliath struggle. She speaks haltingly in a soft, thickly accented voice (she emigrated from Israel in 1984). But as she tells her story, it is clear that this is a woman on a moral mission.
"We've wasted a decade and billions of dollars," she said, "in a quest for a missile defense shield based on a technology that will never work."
Her commitment to exposing the truth has come at a high price. A gifted scientist with a PhD in physics and engineering and the holder of 24 U.S. patents, Schwartz has found herself effectively blackballed since filing her suit, unable to land a job in her field despite having sent out more than 300 resumes.
It's a disturbing precedent, especially given the Bush administration's obsession with secrecy and our elected representatives' unwillingness to take on a popular wartime president.
In this kind of political climate, we need courageous whistle-blowers like Schwartz more than ever. Schwartz is "like a 21st century Paul Revere who is warning that this fundamentally flawed technology will not protect the American people," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has requested a congressional hearing on this issue.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times