Published on Saturday, May 20, 2000 in the New York Times
Pentagon Classifies As Secret a Letter Critical of Clinton's 'Star Wars' Plan
by William J. Broad
The Pentagon has classified as secret an antimissile critic's letter to the White House, and the censored expert is crying foul.

The critic, Theodore A. Postol, professor of science and national security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first wrote the White House on May 11 to report what he described as a major flaw in the Pentagon's antimissile plan and efforts to cover it up.

Yesterday, Dr. Postol wrote the White House again, this time to say that the Pentagon had classified his letter secret and to condemn what he said was probably a bid to curb the high-stakes dispute. The antimissile system under consideration is estimated to cost as much as $60 billion.

In his latest letter, Dr. Postol said the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which ordered the imposition of secrecy, "is most likely attempting to illegally use the security and classification system to hide waste, fraud, and abuse."

If secrets were inadvertantly released in his earlier letter, he added, it was because his analysis was based on Pentagon documents that the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization had improperly declassified.

In his letter, which he made available to The New York Times, Dr. Postol asked John D. Podesta, the White House chief of staff, to alert his colleagues of the "claimed status" of the May 11 letter and to "refer this matter to the Department of Defense inspector general for immediate investigation."

Yesterday, the White House referred requests for comment to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

Lt. Col. Richard Lehner of the Air Force, a spokesman for the organization, said that no one was accusing Dr. Postol of releasing secrets but that the antimissile office was taking steps to classify the letter and its appended reports.

Colonel Lehner said that one of the reports Dr. Postol had sent to the White House apparently contained three or four charts of secret data that declassification officers had failed to delete.

"If even one word is classified, then the whole thing is classified until the secret part is removed," the colonel said, describing the usual federal policy concerning secret documents.

Still, the Pentagon's move to classify is unlikely to have much practical effect because the letter has circulated widely throughout the administration, Congress and the world, with hundreds, if not thousands, of electronic copies speeding across the Internet.

It even appears on the Web site of the Institute of Physics and Technology in Moscow.

Dr. Postol's May 11 letter was three pages long and had four reports attached to it that were meant to back up his technical claims.

His criticism of the proposed antimissile system centers on the most technically difficult part of the system's goal -- enabling a speeding interceptor to distinguish incoming weapons from clouds of decoys.

Dr. Postol contended that a pivotal flight test in June 1997 showed that the objective was impossible to achieve, and that the Pentagon then conspired to hide this surprising discovery.

His accusations are based partly on antimissile criticism by Nira Schwartz, a former senior engineer at the TRW Corporation, a top military contractor.

In a lawsuit against the company, Dr. Schwartz said that TRW had faked results of antimissile tests and evaluations of computer programs for the interceptor's sensor and fired her when she protested. The company has denied her accusations.

Through her litigation with TRW as well as an inquiry by the Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Dr. Schwartz obtained many antimissile reports and data, some of which she shared with Dr. Postol.

Such documents and data from them presumably lie at the heart of any Pentagon concerns about leaked secrets.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company