MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 5
May/June 2005
Provost Responds to
Professor Postol's Allegations
International Students and Scholars:
A Legacy for MIT and the U.S.
Lorna Gibson New Chair of the Faculty
Back to the Future
Academic Expectations
Strengthening TA Training
Faculty Mentor Program:
A Growing Success
Advising and Mentoring of Undergraduates
Mission to Banda Aceh:
Excerpts from a Journal
Summer Without Summering;
Slave Huts, Bonaire
The Purpose of Poetry
Survey Says:
Faculty Approve of Updated Lunch Program
Alumni Attitudes and Involvement
Tenure and Promotion
[from the 2004 Faculty Survey]
Have you ever considered leaving MIT? [from the 2004 Faculty Survey]
Printable Version

Provost Responds to Professor Postol's Allegations

Robert A. Brown

In articles published in the January/February and March/April 2005 issues of the Faculty Newsletter, Professor Theodore A. Postol described his criticisms of MIT's review of allegations he made of scientific fraud involving research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I am writing to inform the faculty about some of these issues and to correct some of the most important errors or misunderstandings in those articles.

First, it is important to understand that MIT has not put a stop to the investigation of the allegations. To the contrary, in early December 2004, Dr. Vest issued a statement, reported in The Tech, citing the reasons for the delay in the investigation stage of MIT's review and noting that we continue to seek the approval needed so that we may carry out the investigation.

MIT has until now responded publicly to news reports about the review only by confirming that it is underway, warning that the existence of a review does not mean that it has been determined that scientific misconduct occurred, emphasizing that decisions can only be made once the facts are determined, and explaining why confidentiality is necessary for the process. (Click to see footnote.)

Because Professor Postol has already spoken publicly about these matters on several occasions, here I am providing this information in order to correct statements that have been made about these issues.

Professor Postol's Allegations

Professor Postol's allegations arise in the context of a technical review of software designed by TRW associated with an early (June 1997) test of sensors manufactured by Boeing that were being considered for use in a planned national missile defense system. A former TRW engineer had brought a False Claims Act lawsuit against TRW alleging that TRW had produced a fraudulent analysis of the performance of its software. The federal government was considering joining the claims against TRW.

As part of that consideration, in 1998 the National Missile Defense Joint Program Office asked an existing advisory group known as the Phase One Engineering Team – or POET – to review the lawsuit's claims against TRW. Two members of the POET group were from Lincoln Laboratory. The analysis resulted in a classified report, POET STUDY 1998-5, issued on January 25, 1999. Because the POET report was and remains classified, it is not available for MIT's use in conducting an investigation of Professor Postol's allegations.

Professor Postol alleges that Lincoln Laboratory staff interfered with the federal investigation of the claims against TRW, and that the POET report was fraudulent. Those are the issues that have been, and are being, reviewed under MIT's established procedures for handling allegations of scientific misconduct, which are set out in MIT's Policies and Procedures (Section 10.1). (Click to see footnote.)

I have been overseeing the review of Professor Postol's allegations because, at the time they were brought, MIT's vice president for research (who ordinarily supervises such reviews) was a Canadian citizen and therefore was ineligible for the security clearance necessary to oversee the allegations that involved the classified POET Report.

None of the reports or letters from federal agents or agencies of which we are aware conclude that staff of the Lincoln Laboratory withheld information or failed to cooperate in any way with federal agents, or that any findings in the POET report were fraudulent. Professor Postol's articles refer to reports of the General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office ). Those reports, which contain the GAO's actual findings about the POET report, can be found at (enter February 28, 2002, and scroll to National Defense, Reports GAO-02-124 and GAO-02-125).

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Steps MIT has taken to Review the Allegations

I will explain in this article the steps that MIT has taken to review Professor Postol's allegations, which include the completion of a preliminary inquiry to determine whether an investigation is warranted. Professor Postol's two articles in the Faculty Newsletter incorrectly report that MIT has called a halt to the investigation of the allegations he has made. This is not true; we continue in our efforts to obtain the materials necessary for the investigation.

The planned investigation has not yet occurred because the Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has classified the materials required in order to examine the allegations (including the POET report and our own inquiry report) and has denied our investigation committee access to those materials. Professor Postol has asserted that he believes MIT could proceed with the investigation without access to classified material. However, without those materials, an investigation can neither identify the questions posed in the inquiry report nor answer them.

An inquiry into Professor Postol's allegations was launched in March 2002. Professor Edward Crawley of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics spent nine months conducting that inquiry. At one point during summer 2002, a first draft of the inquiry report was sent to the Lincoln Laboratory researchers and Professor Postol for verification of technical matters. In violation of the policy of confidentiality that applies to the review of allegations of scientific misconduct, Professor Postol made information in that report available to others outside the inquiry.

The final inquiry report concluded that Professor Postol's allegations could not be resolved within the scope of an inquiry, and that an investigation was therefore warranted into certain specific questions framed in the inquiry report. Such a conclusion does not mean that there was any determination that scientific misconduct had occurred, but only that a further investigation into the facts was needed to determine whether or not there was misconduct.

As required by the federal Policy on Research Misconduct, in February 2003 I advised the sponsoring agency, the MDA, of the finding that an investigation was warranted. I informed the MDA that I intended to appoint a committee composed of expert individuals holding the requisite security clearances to conduct an investigation into the issues identified in the inquiry report. Three highly qualified and experienced individuals agreed at that time to serve on the investigation committee.

The MDA advised us in April 2003 that the inquiry report itself contained classified information, and that the report, and all drafts and comments on it, must be classified and moved to a secure location. Access to these classified documents requires both the appropriate level of security clearance and a "need to know," and the MDA denied the latter status to the outside investigators.

In my February 2003 letter to the MDA I had noted that we would be seeking permission from the MDA for the investigation committee to have access to classified information regarding the POET report in order to conduct their work. In early May 2003, the MDA advised us that it would not permit the investigation committee to have access to classified information, including not only the POET report itself, but also the MIT inquiry report, on the grounds of national security.

I wrote back to the MDA's general counsel to explain that without access to the classified information (including the inquiry report itself, which contains the questions that the investigation should address), no meaningful investigation of the issues described in the inquiry report could take place, and asked the MDA to reconsider its position. President Vest wrote the MDA with the same request in June of 2003, and the following month a meeting occurred between officials at MIT and the MDA at which we requested reconsideration of the decision to deny the committee access to the necessary information.

At the end of October 2003, the MDA advised us in a formal letter that they found no compelling basis to permit highly sensitive classified information to be provided for MIT's investigation, again citing risks to national security.

In our correspondence and discussions with the MDA over the next five months, we explained that scientific integrity is the bedrock principle for all research done at MIT and that it is imperative that we be able to assure the accurate and unbiased nature of such research by carefully and thoroughly investigating any allegation of scientific misconduct. In those discussions we assured the MDA that the relevant classified information would not be compromised by the proposed investigation.

Professor Postol has asserted that an investigation can be done without access to the classified materials. Professor Postol was offered the opportunity to read the final version of the inquiry report, but was told by my office that he would not be given a copy because of his repeated violations of the confidentiality policy. He declined to read the report unless he was allowed to keep a copy of it. Because he has not read the inquiry report, he does not know what issues that report framed for investigation.

I believe that the inquiry report and the POET report, as well as other classified and unclassified materials, are needed to conduct the investigation and therefore resolve fully the issues raised in the inquiry report. MIT continues to work to resolve this matter through the establishment of an investigation committee with access to the documents needed for their work.

Despite our arguments and assurances, the MDA has continued to refuse access to these materials. We are continuing our efforts to obtain permission to allow the investigation committee to have access to the classified materials, in the hope that when all of these considerations are weighed by senior officials of our government, we will be able to find a way for MIT to conduct the investigation, while assuring protection of classified information.

Scientific integrity is the essential standard for all research done at MIT. Any allegation that there has been a deviation from that basic tenet must be taken seriously, and that is what MIT has done and will continue to do in this case.

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