More "interesting news":
Tiff between White house, MIT professor gets personal
By David Abel, Boston Globe Correspondent, 8/9/2000
It's the most contentious national security debate since the Cold War: whether or not to build a $60 billion missile defense system involving technologies so sophisticated that some haven't even been invented.
For two key players in the debate - outspoken Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ted Postol and White House Chief of Staff John Podesta - it's also an exercise that has degenerated into name-calling.
"I must say that the overall impression you leave from your correspondence," said Podesta in a handwritten response last week to Postol's drubbing of the administration's antimissile plan, "is that your brilliance is only exceeded by your arrogance."
Insulted, Postol fired right back with sarcasm:
"I do not rule out that I could be wrong - I am not so arrogant as to deny that possibility - and that there is some subtle point of basic science ... known only to you and your advisors, but not to Nobel laureates."
With that, what started as a dry, substantive scientific analysis completed its descent into shallow sniping.
The war of words has been brewing since May when Postol, a physicist who is one of the leading critics of pricey Pentagon programs, sent the White House a detailed critique explaining why its antimissile plan won't work.
The 54-year-old professor was a scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the 1980s and helped develop the Trident 2 missile. He believes the antimissile system's technology is unable to distinguish between a potential enemy's decoys and real nuclear warheads. A few balloons, he says, might be sufficient to fool the antimissiles.
For nearly three months, Postol waited for a reply to his pointed criticism, only to receive what he considered to be a form letter from the White House: three paragraphs thanking him for his interest in the issue and reiterating the president's mantra on missile defense.
The lack of any appreciation of his critique rankled him, so the scientist fired off a missive to Podesta:
"The almost comically unresponsive letter you sent to me more than two months after being informed about these serious matters adds to my concern that you and others on the White House staff have not taken your responsibilities seriously."
To date, neither the Pentagon nor the White House has provided Postol with a detailed response. The administration's reticence has also angered other scientists around the country, who have rallied behind Postol's criticism.
Those calling for a halt in the move to deploy an antiballistic missile force include major scientific groups such as the Federation of American Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Physical Society, and 50 Nobel Prize-winning scientists who have called the planned system "premature, wasteful, and dangerous."
Before the White House responded with its "form letter" in July, Postol says the administration's only response had been to try to silence him. Shortly after the scientist's initial letter arrived at the White House, the Pentagon classified it a secret, making a public response impossible.
A few weeks later, the Pentagon dispatched agents from the Defense Security Service to admonish Postol to keep quiet about sensitive data.
But Ted Postol is not a man who treads lightly over billion-dollar programs that might not work. Nearly a decade ago, the missile specialist gained acclaim in scientific circles and disdain in the Pentagon after debunking the "success" of Raytheon Corp.'s Patriot missile during the Gulf War. His analysis prompted the Army and Raytheon to reduce Patriot's claimed success rate by half. [Note: which is, in fact, the true assessment, observed by all who followed this closely at the time.]
And the bearded, no-frills physicist doesn't take kindly to personal attacks. He calls Podesta's note "out of line" and "insulting."
According to Postol's analysis, the Pentagon has rigged missile tests to ensure success. After a 1997 test of the antimissile revealed it couldn't effectively distinguish decoys from warheads, he says, the Pentagon stopped using decoys that would seriously challenge the defensive weapon.
The physicist also accuses the Pentagon of significantly reducing the difficulty of the next 14 tests planned before the antimissile system would be deployed in 2005.
The Pentagon has so far dismissed Postol's criticism as based on old data and plans still in the making.
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 8/9/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
[This story is no longer available on the Boston Globe site.]