The Physicist Gunning for Star Wars


Theodore A. Postol is a 56-year-old missile scientist who has worked for the military Establishment throughout most of his career. He's also one of its prickliest critics. A tenured physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Postol has accused his employer of a coverup regarding the effectiveness of a missile system being designed to protect the U.S. from attack. The accusations are being taken quite seriously and have made Postol unpopular in many quarters.

He's used to controversy, however. So much so that he jokes about being uneasy in the calm surroundings of Stanford University, where he's on sabbatical. "It's too quiet here," grumbles Postol. "I had to call one of my friends at MIT and ask him to curse me out."

Postol, who studies the physics of missile systems, has often been skeptical of Pentagon claims. But he became famous for publicly questioning the dazzling success attributed to Patriot missiles used during the first Gulf War. In 1991, he and a colleague sifted through hours of videotape and produced evidence that most Patriots missed the Scuds fired from Iraq. For years, critics called them everything from uninformed to un-American. But their contention was accepted as fact in the late 1990s by no less than William S. Cohen, then Defense Secretary.

FIGHT TO THE FINISH. Today, Postol is going after the Pentagon's national missile-defense program, a complex system of rockets and sensors designed to shoot down missiles before they can reach U.S. soil. While lambasting the plan as a pipe dream, he also claims to have evidence that MIT's Lincoln Laboratory issued a fraudulent report in 1998, concluding that an initial test of the system was a success.

Nearly two years ago, Postol called for an independent investigation of the lab, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in funding each year from the Defense Dept. "Whether you're for missile defense or against it, the public should have the facts," he says. Edward F. Crawley, the head of MIT's eronautics and astronautics department, led an inquiry and initially found no wrongdoing. But after Postol challenged this, Crawley recommended a full investigation.

That hasn't happened yet. MIT declines to comment, citing its confidentiality policy. "I'm pursuing this to the end," Postol says with typical bravado. "Either they get rid of me, or I get rid of them."

EASILY CIRCUMVENTED? Postol's battle is likely to get tougher. The upgraded Patriot missiles seemed to perform better during Gulf War II, despite at least two "friendly fire" incidents. The military's success should allow President George W. Bush to pursue his goal: a limited deployment of the missile-defense system by 2004. "It will be very difficult to slow down the momentum," concedes George N. Lewis, associate director of the MIT security studies program and Postol's cohort in researching the Patriot's performance after Desert Storm.

Not that Postol will be deterred. Colleagues and critics say the burly six-footer is brilliant, tenacious, and extremely confident. And the last time he took on the Pentagon, he won. Now, he's convinced that Defense is wasting tens of billions of taxpayer dollars. Postol argues that the shield could be circumvented by any attacker launching decoys along with a warhead. So far, no system can reliably differentiate between the two -- a flaw he insists would allow missiles to get through.

Even advocates for the shield admit that flaw. But they insist the technology will soon catch up. "It's a problem scientists have to address, and I believe they are doing so," says Baker Spring, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"WAR PROFITEER." Just as distressing for Postol is the support his employer and alma mater has given the defense system. A report by Lincoln Laboratory validated results of a preliminary test of sensors built by defense contractor TRW in which the system's ability to distinguish a warhead from a decoy was deemed a success. An investigation by the General Accounting Office completed in 2002, however, discovered that the sensor had overheated during the test and provided erroneous readings.

Postol claims MIT merely rubber-stamped TRW's results. "We're acting as a war profiteer, propagating technology we know won't work," he says. And although the controversial TRW sensor has been replaced, Postol argues that MIT's top brass are involved in a coverup.

Not surprisingly, MIT is none too pleased with this kind of attention. Postol fears that officials could try to remove him on the grounds that he's violating MIT's confidentiality rules by sharing his correspondence and reports about his allegations with the press.

QUESTIONING AUTHORITY. He also says the university threatened to triple the overhead expenses it charges him on a $2 million grant he received. MIT officials deny this but wouldn't comment on Postol's job security or his claims against the lab, citing a confidentiality policy. The university did release a statement in January that read: "The bedrock principle for all research done at MIT is scientific integrity. Any allegation that there has been any deviation from that principle must be taken seriously, and that is what MIT has done in this case."

Postol is no stranger to angering authority figures. He grew up amid strife and says his late father, a welder at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, frequently beat him and his brother and sister. His father's aspirations for Postol didn't reach beyond the shipyard. But his mother, who Postol says was "uneducated, yet brilliant," encouraged him to go to college. Postol attended MIT and stayed on to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering.

Even at the beginning of his professional life, Postol questioned the authorities around him. In 1979, while working as an assistant physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory, he joined a legal fight to thwart the U.S. government in its efforts to suppress a magazine article about the hydrogen bomb. Thanks in part to Postol's affidavit, the government dropped the case. That gives him a pretty strong record of fighting the government. Now, however, the stakes are higher than ever. By Ben Elgin in San Mateo, Calif.


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