WHAT WOULD you do if you had a missile defense system that couldn't tell a warhead from a balloon decoy? If you're the US Missile Defense Agency, you'd classify the data about missile defense tests to hide this fatal flaw.
In May of 2000 I wrote a letter to the White House that described how the Missile Defense Agency had doctored results of National Missile Defense tests to hide the fact that they could not tell the difference between simple decoys and warheads. I also described how the agency had altered its entire test program to hide the flaw. Two General Accounting Office reports issued in March of this year verified the facts I provided to the White House. The agency responded to my letter by claiming that it was classified, and it engaged in multiple attempts to stop me from revealing that its claims amounted to scientific fraud.
In one of these attempts, the agency tried to enlist the help of MIT's president in order to seize research papers from my office, and in another, it sent three agents to deliver a letter to me that was classified ''secret.'' The letter contained nothing more than publicly available information deemed classified by the government so that the agency could claim that I would be violating security agreements if I continued to speak about this matter of national security.
Now the agency wants to have the authority to, in effect, classify the fact that it cannot tell warheads from decoys. It claims that the nature of the decoys that experts know would easily confuse its defense will now be classified.
The intent of this ploy has nothing to do with national security. It is an admission that the only way it can save its unworkable missile defense from reviews that will kill it is to hide information from the public.
The current National Missile Defense interceptor tries to identify warheads and decoys by ''looking at them'' with infrared eyes. Because the missile defense is essentially using vision to tell which objects are decoys and which are bombs, this technique is no more effective than trying to find suitcase bombs at an airport by studying the shape and color of each suitcase.
All of the objects that are seen by the missile defense are in space, where there is no air-drag to cause light decoys to slow up relative to heavy bombs. In addition, because there is no air-drag, it is possible to wrap the bomb in light material and make it look like a decoy. The possibilities for changing the visual appearance of bombs and decoys in the near vacuum of space are virtually endless.
After the first two tests in 1997 and 1998, the agency learned that decoys shaped like nuclear warheads - and even balloons with stripes on them - could not be distinguished from actual warheads. The agency responded by removing these decoys from all subsequent flight tests. In one of the flight tests, the agency claimed a success in telling warheads from decoys that was beyond expectations.
Later on, General Accounting Office investigators found that the sensor in that test had failed to perform and that the claims of success could not possibly have been true.
When the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense inspector general were investigating the false claims of success for fraud, the agency used researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory to create a bogus study that had the effect of misleading the investigators.
In yet later tests the agency used a balloon that was intentionally designed to be 10 times brighter than the bomb and claimed that the fact that it could tell the difference between the bright and dim objects meant it could tell warheads from decoys.
It neglected to explain that it had to know in advance that the brighter object was a decoy, and if the warhead were placed inside a large balloon it would then be indistinguishable from the empty decoy balloon.
The agency has no technical program for solving this fundamental problem. It has also been unable to provide any credible scientific evidence or analysis to show that it can ever solve this problem. So what it proposes to do is to classify the fact that the targets it is flying have been preconstructed in ways that will allow it to tell one from another.
This misuse of the classification system to hide the fact that the National Missile Defense System has no credible scientific chance of working is a serious abuse of our security system.
A missile defense system cannot work unless it is based on sound science. Classifying the fact that there is no sound science that can be used to make this white elephant fly is a disservice to our democracy and the American people.
Theodore A. Postol is professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company