MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 3
January / February 2005
Initial Impressions
Food for Thought:
Issues for the Next 10 Years
An Open Letter to the MIT Faculty: Maintaining Integrity at MIT
Themes On Love; Like This;
Within Another Life
Some Further Thoughts on the FPC Suggestions on Faculty Governance
Aimee Smith Found Not Guilty
Quality of Life Issues at MIT
What's All This About Export Controls?
In It But Not Of It:
Nine Years in the MIT Administration
Nuclear Engineering Department
Changes Its Name
An Update on the Cambridge-MIT Institute
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Research Expenditures By Primary Sponsor, 1997-2004
"Please rate the following dimensions of your program" [from the Graduate Student Survey 2004]
Printable Version

An Open Letter to the MIT Faculty:
Maintaining Integrity at MIT

Theodore A. Postol

Just five days before stepping down as MIT's president, Charles M. Vest announced that MIT has decided to not pursue an internal investigation of evidence of possible obstruction of a federal investigation and scientific fraud at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. President Vest's explanation was that the Pentagon had classified everything about the investigation, including MIT's internal final inquiry report.

In other words, MIT has decided to accept an assertion by the U.S. government that it has the right and authority to promulgate potentially fraudulent science in MIT's name by simply declaring an unclassified internal investigation to be classified. Furthermore, MIT's decision to acquiesce on this matter has implications for all university-based research in this country. And if the allegations of obstruction and fraud have merit and I can show that they do it would mean that MIT has willfully involved itself in a cover-up of critical information about fundamental flaws in a missile defense that is supposed to defend millions of Americans.

The Test

The allegations of fraud involve a critically important test, known as the IFT-1A (Integrated Flight Test 1A) that was conducted in June 1997.

This test, and a second test, the IFT-2, were to determine if the currently deployed National Missile Defense (NMD) could tell the difference between warheads flying through space and simple balloon decoys designed to look like warheads. If the IFT-1A and 2 experiments could not demonstrate that the NMD could perform this critical task, NMD could never have a realistic chance of working in combat.

After the IFT-2 experiment, the Missile Defense Agency removed all of the credible decoys used in both the IFT-1A and 2 from all subsequent flight tests. This almost certainly occurred because the data from the IFT-2 confirmed pre-experiment planning calculations done prior to the IFT-1A. These pre-flight calculations showed that the NMD was incapable of discriminating between mock warheads and very simple spherical balloons and cone-shaped decoys. The evidence also shows that MIT's Lincoln Laboratory produced a fraudulent scientific report in support of the false claims of success in the IFT-1A.

The Lincoln Laboratory report was written in 1998 for federal agents from the Departments of Justice and Defense. The agents were sent by the Ballistic Missile Defense Agency (now the Missile Defense Agency) to MIT for help in evaluating evidence they had collected that indicated researchers at TRW, which was analyzing the data, 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 had special status as a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC), it was in a unique position to evaluate all the evidence uncovered by the federal agents.

incremental cost over budget
IFT-1A on launch pad (click on image to enlarge)

We know from publicly available unclassified documents that the infrared sensor in the IFT-1A was designed to work at 1K, but because of a problem with the cooling system it only reached 14.K for the first 30 seconds of its data collection period. In the second 30 seconds of the roughly one minute data collection period, the flow of hydrogen gas in the sensor's malfunctioning cooling system changed, and the sensor cooled slightly to between 13.2 and 13.K. At 14.5°K the sensor dark current was 400 times larger than that planned for the sensor's operation, and at 13.K it was still 100 times larger than intended. Data from the experiment shows that at the planned acquisition range the signal-to-noise ratio for the main targets to be studied was well below one. Yet the experimenters reported that the targets had been acquired at a range seven percent larger than that expected with the sensor operating at the intended temperature of 1K. One result of this cooling malfunction was that the sensor completely lost calibration, and no valid data was collected for any time period. In other words, the experiment totally failed.

Other publicly available documents, such as letters from the lead federal investigator to Lincoln Laboratory, show that Lincoln Laboratory failed to cooperate with the federal agents, and withheld critical information not known to the agents. Information that Lincoln did not disclose included the fact that the sensor in the IFT-1A did not perform as designed; that the first 30 seconds of data was so swamped with noise that even with tampering, the data could not be disguised to look like it was valid; and that even when there was tampering with data and signal- analysis techniques, it was not possible to make it look like the warhead could be identified relative to decoys. Further unclassified documentation, created in 1997 after the IFT-1A flight test, and in the General Accountability Office reports published in March of 2002, show that Lincoln Laboratory was fully aware of the sensor's performance failure.

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Alerting the Administration

In April 2001, I began a process of alerting President Vest and Provost Robert Brown that MIT Lincoln Laboratory had failed to cooperate with the federal agents and had withheld from the agents critical information not known to them.

After nine months with no substantive response to my allegations, I filed a complaint in January, 2002, against Brown and Vest with the then Chair of the Corporation, Alex D'Arbeloff.

Initially I received no response to my letter of complaint, but in February, 2002, after the Boston Globe published an article about MIT's lack of progress in investigating the publicly available evidence of possible fraud, MIT finally started two simultaneous "inquiries" into the matter. One inquiry dealt with my allegations of fraud, and the other dealt with my complaint against Brown and Vest for not acting on my allegations.

The Inquiry

For the inquiry into my complaint against Brown and Vest, D'Arbeloff appointed Frank Press as the fact finder. Press was described by D'Arbeloff as a former "Science Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, a former President of the National Academy of Sciences, former head of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and is a Life Member Emeritus of the MIT Corporation." Press was asked to investigate my allegation that Brown and Vest had failed to comply with MIT's (and federal) policies and procedures and to report his findings to MIT's Executive Committee.

In May 2002, more than 12 months after my initial letter of complaint to Vest, MIT's Executive Committee unanimously accepted Press' inquiry report. Press found that in spite of Brown's and Vest's failure to act on my allegations of scientific fraud that "the Provost (Brown) satisfied the promptness requirement of MIT's Policies and Procedures."

Press explained that the delays were acceptable, because Vest had been involved in secret negotiations with the government on my behalf. Press concluded that since no actions had been taken against me by the government "we assume President Vest's efforts were successful." (Note that at no time had I requested that MIT try to protect me from government action. I was asking MIT to investigate its own failure to take action.) Press also reported that "Because of the sensitive nature of his activities, and President Vest's desire for confidentiality, we did not ask President Vest to tell us exactly who he had spoken to and what he had said."

Additional "understandable" reasons that contributed to the then nearly one year of delays were the complexity in determining how to conduct the inquiry, the difficulty in identifying an appropriate fact finder, and the intervening Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The Chair of the Corporation also informed me on behalf of the Executive Committee that "MIT's policy [is] that complaints are to be handled confidentially" and in accordance with these policies you must "maintain the confidentiality of the complaint handling process and of this decision."

Even before Provost Brown had been found by MIT's Executive Committee to be not guilty of failing to respond to the charges of scientific fraud, D'Arbeloff put Brown in charge of the second inquiry into whether obstruction and fraud had occurred at Lincoln Laboratory. Brown appointed Professor Ed Crawley, the then chair of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, as the single individual fact finder.

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The Response

In July 2002, roughly 15 months after my initial letter of complaint to Vest, Professor Crawley presented me with his "interim" inquiry report after it had first been reviewed by MIT's lawyers - presumably to check it for content and accuracy. The report praised Lincoln's work 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."

The report's conclusions were based on assertions of fact that directly contradicted those in letters from the federal agents to Lincoln. In addition, the MIT interim report contradicted the unclassified technical reports that were produced immediately after the IFT-1A and two General Accountability Office reports issued in March 2002.

I immediately called to Crawley's attention the contradictions in his interim inquiry report. After four more months of delays, he completely reversed the findings of his interim report. Thus, 20 months after I presented my initial allegations to the MIT administration, Crawley found that there was sufficient evidence to justify proceeding with a full investigation. Although the final inquiry report found that my allegations merited a full-scale investigation, I was not allowed to see the report.

This is the investigation that MIT now says it cannot pursue because material is classified.

Moving Forward

MIT should promptly take two steps to address its ongoing failure to investigate evidence of obstruction of a federal investigation and of scientific fraud.

First, MIT should appoint a panel to review the available unclassified information. Its members should be independent of MIT, have no conflicts of interest with the Pentagon, and possess the appropriate technical skills to evaluate the information. The report of this group, including the technical analyses underlying its findings, should be made public. Legitimate concerns about privacy and confidentiality can be dealt with by removing names from the public report.

Second, MIT should assemble a small group of lawyers, judges, and teachers of law with impeccable reputations for independence and integrity to report directly to MIT's new president, Susan Hockfield, and to the faculty. This group would provide a legal analysis of the following issues:

1.   Whether there is sufficient public evidence to indicate that fraud and obstruction of a federal investigation may have occurred at Lincoln Laboratory. If so, to whom should MIT report?

2.    Whether MIT complied with federal regulations and its own internal policies and procedures in its handling of the allegations.

3.    Whether MIT's contract with the Department of Defense allows the Missile Defense Agency to bar MIT from investigating its own work at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

MIT's more than three-and-a-half years of foot-dragging and mishandling of this affair poses threats to the integrity and credibility of all university-based research in this country. If the faculty does not address this problem, it will reflect adversely on the credibility of each of us as scientists, engineers, and scholars. Perhaps of greatest significance, we will properly be remembered as a group of scholars who looked the other way when we saw evidence of wrong-doing in a matter that directly affects the defense of our country.

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