MIT’s Missile Defense Cover-Up

Over the past seven years, the MIT Corporation has been actively concealing evidence of scientific fraud at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, relating to the effectiveness of a national missile defense system. During that time, the U.S. has mis-spent nearly $70 billion of national treasure on a flawed system, and MIT’s name has been used to lull the nation’s decision makers into believing that the defense might work. My aim in writing this article is to provide the MIT community with facts so powerful that anyone who reads them will understand that the actions of the MIT Corporation in this case have ignored the nation’s best interests.

The outrage is twofold. First, that fraud and misconduct happened on such an expensive and consequential project — and second, that MIT’s administration covered it up. Between 2001 and 2008 the MIT Corporation impeded a federally mandated investigation by falsely claiming that information was classified when it was not. The administration also repeatedly told the faculty and the MIT community about barriers to an investigation that did not exist.

Documents obtained this past year through the Freedom of Information Act, including reports from MIT’s internal investigation [3], the Department of Defense’s “independent” investigation [4], the initial POET study from Lincoln Laboratory itself [2], and communications between MIT’s administration and Congress [5], provide detailed insights into how the MIT Corporation concealed information from the Congress that indicated possible scientific fraud at Lincoln Laboratory.

Among the findings:

1. The POET report was “silent on the issue of calibration and functional status of the eye or sensors [on the missile] ... in contrast, the GAO report raises serious issues about the functionality of the sensor.”

MIT Lincoln Laboratory and managers misrepresented a critical proof-of-concept missile defense experiment, the IFT-1A, as a success to federal agents and to the Senate Armed Services Committee when the experiment had in fact failed. The “silence” of the MIT POET report about the “calibration and functional status of the eye” refers to the fact that Lincoln Laboratory did not report that the sensor in the “successful” experiment had failed to take any usable scientific data.

The MIT inquiry found that the claims made about the success of the IFT-1A could not possibly be true as the sensor provided no data that could be used to reach the asserted conclusions.

2. The POET report analyzed only a subset of the scientifically unusable sensor data from the experiment and removed data that indicated different conclusions from what they presented as proven scientific findings.

3. The POET report claimed to have identified a mock warhead by analyzing certain characteristics of the signals from the warhead and surrounding decoys. The MIT report four years later found that “independent analysis by Professor Postol suggests ... [this could] ... not be the case.” Without going into the technical details, this observation by the MIT inquiry report also indicates false reporting of experimental and analytic results.

Lincoln Laboratory managers, in addition to staff, were substantially involved in the production of the original POET study’s “independent” investigation, which had been commissioned by the Missile Defense Agency in response to a DCIS [Defense Criminal Investigative Office] request. Their involvement in the study unambiguously meets the definition of scientific fraud and misconduct (see definition below [1]). The involvement of these managers also suggests that they may have knowingly misled federal agents who were investigating possible fraud in the missile defense program.

Where the POET study had concluded that “overall, the [Baseline Algorithms] are well designed and work properly with only some refinements or redesign required to increase the robustness of the overall discrimination function.” (page 28), the DoD report counters that this “overly generous” conclusion would have been disproved had Lincoln Laboratory made its own analysis of the test data rather than accepting the contractors’ information. Yet DoD investigators astonishingly argued that because the study was “not a scientific journal article, and ... was meant only for about ten people, that the sensor problems were known to those involved… ” (page 8).

Meanwhile, MIT’s central administration played its own part in the cover-up. In March 2004, Senator Carl Levin, now Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked for a copy of the MIT internal report which contained findings clearly indicating evidence of scientific fraud at Lincoln. Levin also asked why the federally mandated follow-on investigation, required by the then unreleased findings of the inquiry, had not yet started after nearly two years.

MIT’s then-President Charles M. Vest responded by letter saying that MIT could not start the mandated investigation because of barriers created by the Missile Defense Agency’s classification of the MIT internal inquiry. He told Levin that the inquiry could not be released to him because it contained substantial amounts of “highly sensitive classified information.” Although Vest made some vague statements about the inquiry’s findings, he did not tell Levin that the findings were unclassified, nor did he tell Levin that the findings included evidence of likely scientific fraud at Lincoln Laboratory. Vest concluded by saying that “MIT has not ... been able to devise a process that would permit a meaningful determination of the issues and at the same time be acceptable to the sponsor [Missile Defence Agency] of the research.” Thus MIT forfeited its responsibilities for an independent investigation.

A renewed interest in the Congress on this matter will inevitably lead to new insights about how and why the MIT Corporation chose to work against the nation’s interest on behalf of the Missile Defense Agency, a major “sponsor” of research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. A recent University of Massachusetts study ranks the MIT Corporation as the fourth largest defense contractor in Massachusetts with a budget of $600+ million. MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s budget is $600+ million.

In the next year, I expect we will learn many additional details about the MIT Corporation’s role in this matter. Now that unclassified accounts are finally publicly available, the issues they raise can finally be reviewed and discussed within the MIT community.

Theodore A. Postol is an MIT professor of science technology and national security policy.

Notes and references:

1. The definition of Scientific Misconduct can be found in the Federal Register, Vol. 65, No. 235, Dec. 6, 2000, page 76262 Federal Regulations on Scientific Misconduct: “Research misconduct is defined as fabrication … [or] … falsification … in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them. Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.”

2. “Phase One Engineering Team” (POET) study, 1998. Two MIT Lincoln Laboratory staff were part of the team.

3. MIT Internal Inquiry Report, October 2002

4. Department of Defense (DoD) report: “Inquiry into the Allegations of Research Misconduct in Connection with [the MIT Lincoln Laboratory] POET Study 1998-5, “ released on Jan. 29, 2007. Appendix C of the DoD report contains an unclassified version of the MIT internal inquiry report, that reveals substantial evidence of research misconduct and fraud by both management and staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory

5. Correspondence between Senator Carl Levin and former MIT President Charles M. Vest, obtained this past year through the Freedom of Information Act.