After more than 3 1/2 years of foot-dragging, excuses, and violations of federal regulations, MIT announced last week that it could not investigate credible evidence of possible scientific fraud in fundamental National Missile Defense research being done at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. The reason outgoing president Charles M. Vest gave is that the Pentagon had classified everything about the investigation.
If the particular allegations of fraud have merit -- and I believe they do -- MIT and the Pentagon have been involved in a fraud that has promoted a weapon system that will have little or no utility and could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Of even greater importance, millions of lives could be lost if this weapon system failed to defend our nation from a nuclear ballistic missile attack.
The allegations of fraud involve the critically important Integrated Flight Test 1A, or IFT-1A, in June 1997. Its purpose was to determine if the currently deployed National Missile Defense could tell the difference between warheads flying through space and simple balloons designed to look like warheads. If the IFT-1A experiment could not demonstrate that the weapon could perform this task, the weapon could never have a realistic chance of working in combat.
In May 2000 I sent evidence to the White House that, despite the claims of unqualified success by the Pentagon, the IFT-1A had in fact been a total failure.
Initially, the Pentagon claimed that the letter I wrote to the White House was secret. Then the Pentagon reversed itself and claimed that the experiment was old and irrelevant, and then it reinforced this claim by arguing that it now uses a slightly different sensor that renders the results of the IFT-1A irrelevant. Finally, after trying for years to dismiss the relevance of the IFT-1A, the Pentagon has again reversed itself and claims that the release of any and all information about it would cause grave, direct, and immediate harm to the national security.
In subsequent work, I learned that the document that had led me to warn the White House about fraud in the National Missile defense program had been produced for the Pentagon by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.
The Lincoln Laboratory report was written in 1998 for federal agents from the departments of Justice and Defense. The agents had come to MIT for help in evaluating evidence they had collected that indicated researchers at TRW might have fraudulently tampered with data to make the IFT-1A test look like a success when it had in fact failed. Since Lincoln Laboratory had been deeply involved in early analysis of the IFT-1A, and has special national status as a federally funded research and development center, it was in a unique position to evaluate all the evidence uncovered by the federal agents.
In April 2001, I began a process of alerting MIT's then-president Charles M. Vest and his provost, Robert Brown, that MIT's Lincoln Laboratory had failed to cooperate with the federal agents and had withheld critical information that the sensor in the IFT-1A had not performed as designed. Since the sensor did not collect valid data, the experiment was a total failure and fraud had occurred at TRW. Of even greater concern, it was clear from documents created shortly after the IFT-1A in 1997 and General Accountability Office reports published in March 2002 that Lincoln Laboratory was fully aware of the failure of the sensor.
MIT's response during this period was at first to deny that it had oversight responsibilities for the report, then, in July 2002, to produce an interim inquiry report, reviewed by MIT's lawyers, that praised the work done by Lincoln and concluded: "The good news is that the management and culture of the Lincoln Laboratory . . . have created processes to insure that the nation's trust is protected."
Four months later the conclusions of the interim inquiry report were completely reversed and an investigation recommended. It is this investigation which MIT now says it cannot pursue because material is classified. In fact the investigation can be fully accomplished with material already made public.
The mishandling of this affair by MIT poses threats to the integrity and credibility of all university-based research in this country. MIT's continuing excuses for not investigating this matter and its attempts to evade its responsibilities represent a serious violation of the public trust and the most basic principles of academic integrity. But of far more importance than the future of MIT, it does a disservice to our system of government and undermines the defense of our country.
Theodore A. Postol is professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
© 2004 Boston Globe