Nature 432, 789 (16 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432789a
Pentagon blocks MIT inquiry into missile data fraud claims
Results of missile defence tests kept under wraps.
[BOSTON] The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been forced to abandon a fraud inquiry at one of its laboratories after the Pentagon denied it access to the suspect data.
The university wanted to investigate contentious missile defence tests that took place at its Lincoln Laboratory six years ago. "Without access, the investigation cannot be conducted," Charles Vest, MIT's outgoing president, said in a statement on 1 December. Vest left his position on 5 December.
Pentagon officials say that the test data are classified and cannot be released to an investigatory panel on the grounds of national security. But critics see the Department of Defense stance as a political attempt to block further inquiry into the research.
Some government watchdogs say that the Pentagon's approach threatens to undermine the integrity of academic institutions that, like MIT, conduct classified research. "It's an extraordinary situation," says Steven Aftergood, who oversees a project aimed at reducing government secrecy, at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington DC. "It should prompt a rethink of universities' policies on the subject."
At the heart of the debate is a long-disputed series of tests of a sensor designed to detect incoming missiles. Shortly after the tests were conducted in 1997 and 1998, a former engineer from the US defence contractor responsible for the sensor came forward with documents that she claimed proved the contractor had tampered with data to hide the sensor's failure.
An investigation carried out by the General Accounting Office backed the engineer, but a subsequent investigation by the Lincoln Laboratory itself, for the federal government, found that no data had been tampered with.
That led Ted Postol, an MIT physicist and established critic of missile defence, to demand that university officials investigate whether the laboratory had acted improperly. "Lincoln Laboratory knew that the sensor had failed," he contends. "And they failed to tell federal agents."
Postol wrote to Vest in 2001 asking for a separate university-led inquiry. That inquiry was launched in spring 2002 by Edward Crawley, an aerospace engineer at the university, and by the end of that year, Crawley had found enough evidence to justify a full investigation. The plan was for a review to be conducted by a select group of academics from outside MIT who had the security clearance needed to view the classified data.
But the investigation was never begun because it was opposed by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. Agency officials declined to comment, but said in a statement that the agency had already been exonerated by earlier inquiries, and that a new investigation only risked leaking classified information about the missile defence system. "The extreme sensitivity of the information at issue precluded granting MIT's request," the statement says.
"The implications of this are very serious," says Sheila Widnall, another MIT aerospace engineer and former secretary of the US Air Force. Widnall chaired a panel to review the university's policy for managing classified research. For such research to be worth the trouble, the panel concluded in 2002, it must be conducted with the highest standards of integrity and in a way that is independent of the funder. "What's happening now does not meet that standard," she says.