Going Ballistic


Last year, Theodore Postol began distributing a report critical of a missile-defense system made by aerospace giant TRW. Postol, an MIT professor of technology and security policy, argued that Pentagon scientists had doctored TRW’s data to conceal the fact that cheap, low-tech decoys can easily fool the $60 billion-plus system. A nuclear warhead could be encased in a Mylar balloon, for example, and released with a flurry of identical balloons; the defensive missiles would be unable to detect which one carried the lethal payload.

According to Postol’s calculations, flipping a coin would give the system better odds than relying on its sensors.

Pentagon officials soon classified the document retroactively, a strange move considering Postol had relied on data from a report explicitly stamped “Unclassified Draft.” Copies continued to circulate on the Internet, and Postol requested that the General Accounting Office investigate the matter. Unable to squelch the report, the Pentagon began leaning on MIT. In July, the Defense Security Service (DSS) asked the university to confiscate all hard copies of the report and launch an administrative inquiry into Postol’s behavior.

“I don’t understand how these guys can in any way think they have the ability to tell me that I can’t download a piece of information that’s been released on the Web,” says Postol. “My security clearance with the government does not include me giving up my First Amendment rights.”

The Defense Department refuses to discuss the case, but its distaste for military debunkers—and for Postol in particular—is nothing new. Having learned the perils of home-front discord during Vietnam, the government has mastered the art of marginalizing those who might point out the emperor’s nudity. During Desert Storm, for example, the ingenious “Support Our Troops” slogan helped color war skeptics as disloyal ogres—and protected several overblown weapons from close scrutiny. Now, with the war on terrorism in full swing, lawmakers could start tightening the screws even more.

Silencing the cantankerous Postol would be quite an achievement. His bluntness once inspired John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff, to send Postol a mocking note that read in part: “[Y]our brilliance is only exceeded by your arrogance.” That ornery streak was on full display last month, when Postol attended a NATO security summit in Ottawa. On the meeting’s first day, several Europeans criticized President Bush’s proposed “peace shield” as divisive and outmoded; as one French delegate put it, “How can we spend billions and billions of dollars on a system that does not address the real threat?” Postol chimed in on the Europeans’ side, calling the system a scientific boondoggle.

That’s when Representative Douglas Bereuter, a Nebraska Republican and the American delegation’s hawkish head, implied Postol was playing right into the enemy’s hands.

Postol tries to keep his cool in public, but he couldn’t check his temper. “What he basically suggested was that people like me are somehow making it difficult for the country to do what it needs to defend itself,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m merely pointing out to people that [the current plan] is not safe, that it will not work. And I’m offended that you would say this somehow says something about loyalty.’ . . . I took it as an attack on my integrity.”

Though taken aback by Bereuter’s rebuke, Postol couldn’t have been entirely shocked. The professor has been anathema to military types since 1979, when the then wunderkind weapons researcher filed an affidavit in support of The Progressive‘s right to publish an H-bomb’s technical details. In 1992, at the request of Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, he analyzed the performance of the celebrated Patriot air-defense missile, which had reportedly destroyed 96 percent of its targets. But after reviewing hundreds of videos, he concluded there was “no convincing evidence . . . that any Scud warhead was destroyed by a Patriot.” Most Patriots had exploded hundreds of meters off target, leaving behind debris mistaken as Scud remnants. The army eventually revised the Patriot’s success rate down to 60 percent, but Postol believes the real figure was close to zero.

Army officials attempted to revoke Postol’s security clearance after the Patriot report, but Conyers shielded his charge. That humiliation was still fresh in the military’s mind last year, when Postol released his damning report on the doctored TRW data. Playing hardball with MIT was an innovative step on the Pentagon’s part, but the tactic failed—the reports have yet to be seized, and no inquiry has commenced.

Postol has nevertheless been disappointed with MIT’s response, which he deems feeble. The university’s president, Charles Vest, did issue a statement supporting “the right of our faculty to serve as responsible critics within the limits of the law.” But Vest also sent Postol an e-mail on July 23, conceding that “the Institute may be contractually obligated to move forward with at least the initial steps that we have been ordered to take by the DSS.” Vest’s note further chilled a relationship that was already subzero; Postol calls his president “not very intelligent, not very courageous, and not very visionary,” and notes dryly, “I’ll be here well after Mr. Vest is gone.”

Whether he’ll still be free to continue his technological muckraking remains a question. In recent years, several top Pentagon officials have pressured Congress to enact an anti-leak law, similar in spirit to Great Britain’s stringent Official Secrets Act. According to the most recent draft of the measure, sponsored by Republican senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, whistle-blowers such as Postol could be subject to criminal penalties if they disseminate classified information. “It would make it much more difficult for anybody inside of the establishment with a conscience to come on out and say something,” says Preston J. Truman, director of Downwinders, an organization that works to expose the fallout from American nuclear tests in Nevada. “Even if we just hear something, and then say we heard it, we could be prosecuted.” Shelby was recently forced to table the bill because of Bush administration objections, but he vowed that “it’s not an issue that’s going to go away.”

The military also seems to have learned from its past embarrassments. When he critiqued the Patriot, Postol had ready access to videos taken by news organizations, the military, and even the defense contractor, Raytheon. Such documentation will be in short supply should anyone wish to analyze the technological stars of the Afghanistan campaign—”smart” bombs. Government officials claim that laser-guided bombs are accurate to within 10 feet, and that satellite-guided ordnance can maintain precision even under smoky or cloudy conditions. But Postol doubts independent researchers can ever obtain enough information to verify those claims. “The data is going to be held very closely,” he says. “It’s going to be very tough to do.” After all, there is no better way to silence criticism than to prevent it altogether.

Brendan I. Koerner is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation.