MIT recently issued a statement about allegations by Professor Theodore Postol regarding the results of a June 1997 test above the Earth's atmosphere of a Boeing ballistic missile sensor and a TRW software program which are no longer part of the planned U.S. ballistic missile defense program.
The object was to test their "capability to distinguish the mock warhead from decoys," according to a February 2002 General Accounting Office report (GAO 02-125).
The National Missile Defense Joint Program Office asked an existing advisory group, known as the Phase One Engineeering Team (POET), to conduct an assessment. The POET organization, the GAO report said, was established in 1988 to provide the missile defense office "access to a continuous, independent and objective source of technical and engineering expertise" from the nation's federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs).
The director of POET determined there were three established FFRDCs best suited to analyze the results: MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Aerospace Research. Two scientists from Lincoln Lab, two from Livermore and one from Aerospace Research performed the study. Their study, which was classified, was submitted to the government in 1998.
In response to Postol's Dec. 5, 2002 letter to Congressman Howard Berman, D-Calif., alleging that MIT is attempting to conceal evidence of "criminal violations" in research work done at Lincoln Lab, MIT issued the following statement to news media:
"MIT asked a senior faculty member to conduct an inquiry into Professor Postol's allegations. This process is complete, and a report on the inquiry was delivered to the provost this week. After reviewing the report, the provost will determine what additional steps to take.
"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. MIT's longstanding policies on reviewing such allegations call for a two-step process: an inquiry, to see if an investigation is warranted; and if it is, the investigation itself.
"Professor Postol's letter to Congressman Berman claims that a letter to Professor Postol from MIT dated Nov. 25 shows that MIT is attempting to conceal evidence of supposedly criminal activity. Anyone who reads that Nov. 25 letter, which MIT understands Professor Postol has sent to the news media, can see that Professor Postol has misunderstood what the letter says. The letter simply reminds Professor Postol of the steps in MIT's inquiry and investigation process. The fact that the inquiry is now complete does not mean that the review is over, but only that a decision about the next phase, based on the inquiry report, will be made. That decision is the one that the provost, who received the inquiry report two days before Christmas, will make.
"Reviews of this nature are time consuming because of their thoroughness and their complexity. They are also confidential for the simple reason that the reputations of the individuals are at stake. Unless and until it is determined that the allegations are justified, it would be unfair to comment on any aspect of the review. Furthermore, public comments before the facts are known might damage the review itself.
"MIT will continue to honor the confidentiality of the inquiry because of our commitment to due process and fundamental fairness."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 8, 2003.