Hating Missile Defense

by John J. Miller on March 23, 2011

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

October 15, 2001

…and smearing it, too: The media’s favorite anti-SDIer


Around the time an antiballistic missile failed to intercept its target in a high-profile test last year, one could hardly look at newspapers or magazines without seeing a quote from America’s leading missile-defense critic. “The whole thing is a fraud,” Theodore A. Postol told Newsweek. The New York Times rewarded his loyal trashing of missile defense with a loving profile. (“As a scientist, he brings laserlike precision to his work,” cooed Elaine Sciolino.) Postol was simply everywhere, and liberals who have hated missile defense ever since Ronald Reagan first proposed it treated him like a prophet.

This year, however, things haven’t gone so well for the MIT physicist. First there’s the stubborn reality of President Bush and his strong support of missile defense. (“I’ve resisted saying this, but I’m basically a Democrat,” admits Postol. “I voted for Al Gore.”) Then there was the inconvenience of a successful missile-defense test on July 14–Postol went missing in action afterwards. What could he say? He isn’t the kind of guy who will volunteer that he was ever wrong.

It is possible, of course, to make responsible criticisms of missile defense; but Postol’s intellectual vanity renders him incapable of keeping within the bounds of responsibility. For example, he told me in an interview that he thinks Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who heads the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, may be a traitor: “I find it very disturbing that military officers at high levels–I mean Kadish and his people–clearly know they cannot provide the capabilities they’ve talked about. It is misconduct. There’s a disloyalty to the country here.”

This fanatical opposition to missile defense has colored much of Postol’s career, and it has compelled him to put his scientific expertise in the service of a political agenda. Postol first gained national attention following the Gulf War, when he showed that the Patriot missile had not performed as well as many people once thought. These efforts made him a kind of folk hero to an arms-control set worried that public perceptions of the Patriot’s success might translate into public support for missile defense. “Postol didn’t just try to debunk the Patriot,” says Peter Huessy, the head of a Maryland defense firm and a missile-defense advocate, “he tried to smear it.”

In reality, the amazing fact about the Patriot wasn’t its supposed lack of success, but that it didn’t flop completely. The Patriot had not been built to shoot down missiles; its targets were supposed to be planes, and it was hastily converted into an antimissile system during the Gulf crisis. Postol and his allies glossed over this history, and failed to point out that the Patriot almost certainly would have performed better against Iraqi Scuds had congressional Democrats not passed legislation in the early 1980s weakening its capabilities so as not to threaten the ABM Treaty. “Postol is responsible for ending the sentiment that had taken hold after the Gulf War that at least limited missile defenses are worthwhile,” says Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy.

In the 1990s, Postol devoted himself almost exclusively to the cause of opposing missile defense. He became deeply embroiled in dozens of battles with other scientists. He displayed a wounded pride whenever somebody criticized his work–and demonstrated an ugly willingness to shade the truth. In 1994, for example, Postol coauthored an article saying that a particular missile-defense program threatened to violate the ABM Treaty. The Pentagon countered with its own study suggesting that Postol’s analysis was not correct. Postol went ballistic. The Pentagon’s study contained “false and misleading information” that “impugns the reputation of myself and my colleagues,” he claimed in a letter to Lt. Gen. Malcolm R. O’Neill. He demanded a retraction and an apology. (He sent a copy of this letter to Alexei Arbatov of the Russian Duma, and later enlisted Arbatov to write a letter in his behalf.) Postol also phoned John R. Harvey, a deputy assistant defense secretary, to complain, and then sent a letter to Harvey characterizing their conversation in a way that made it look as if Harvey supported Postol’s contentions. When Harvey saw the letter, he told O’Neill in a memo that Postol had “misinterpreted much of what I said.”

Missile-defense opponents have made a habit of saying whatever they must to make missile defense look bad, even when this leads them into a hopeless spiral of contradictions. They claim, for example, that missile defense shouldn’t be funded for testing because it can’t possibly work, and in the next breath suggest it can’t possibly work because it hasn’t been properly tested. At other times they belittle missile defense by saying it wouldn’t take much for a foe to overwhelm it in real combat; but they also claim missile defense will destabilize international relations because Russia and China fear its potential to defeat them.

Yet Postol is one of the best when it comes to shifting the subject. His most prominent argument against missile defense involves countermeasures–decoys that try to trick interceptors into hitting the wrong target. Countermeasures are indeed a serious problem. One of the chief engineering challenges of a missile-defense system is to create interceptors that can discriminate between real warheads and fake ones while traveling at high speeds in outer space. Postol insists that effective countermeasures are so cheap and easy to produce that they represent a debilitating vulnerability for missile defense. But this is a matter of some dispute. Many missile-defense supporters believe countermeasures are in fact difficult to build–and can be defeated.

Henry Cooper, who ran SDI programs at the Pentagon during the first Bush administration, is actually sympathetic to Postol’s countermeasures critique–but not to Postol himself. “He’s not trying to be helpful,” says Cooper. “He’s trying to tear down missile defense.” Cooper is one of many defense experts who believe the Pentagon should focus more of its resources on boost-phase defenses–in other words, hitting targets before they can deploy any countermeasures, which is to say right after they’ve launched and before they’ve left the atmosphere. Postol, of course, doesn’t think much of this idea either. He recently noted that such intercepts could result in a destroyed booster rocket but an intact warhead–which might then fall on an allied country. In other words, the U.S. shouldn’t develop a system to defend New York City against an Iranian missile, because there’s a small chance a crippled warhead might land in Paris.

Lately, Postol hasn’t been talking about the science of missile defense at all; instead, he’s trying to reinvent himself as the victim of Pentagon security agents who send threatening letters to his employer and stifle his free speech. Last year, Postol sent a long letter to White House chief of staff John Podesta warning that the Pentagon’s missile-defense plans were hopelessly flawed. He attached material received from Nira Schwartz, a former TRW employee engaged in a whistle-blower lawsuit saying that TRW had misled the government about the capabilities of a missile component it had developed. (Within a few months, Schwartz’s claims about the TRW component were judged invalid by investigators at the Defense and Justice Departments as well as the FBI. Also, Postol failed to mention to Podesta that the Pentagon had already replaced this component with a different one, manufactured by Raytheon.)

Podesta sent Postol’s letter to the Pentagon, and reviewers there noticed that one of Postol’s supporting documents was still classified. Releasing it publicly–Postol admits to giving the letter to the New York Times and others–represented a security violation. Postol says he didn’t know the document was secret when he did this, even though its status ought to have been obvious to anybody who possesses even a vague understanding of what classified documents look like. The Pentagon reacted by following well-established procedures: It ruled Postol’s letter classified. “We asked him to stop distributing it,” says Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a Pentagon spokesman. But by then it was too late: The secret document was no longer a secret. Postol says he saw no reason to quit distributing the document, because anybody with access to the Internet could find it within minutes. “Why shouldn’t I distribute it when anybody can get it?” he says. That sort of makes sense, but it’s important to realize that Postol himself is the very reason anybody can get it. “I’m guilty of that,” he admits.

Yet it hasn’t stopped him from crying foul. He says the Pentagon is retaliating against him by putting pressure on MIT. The Defense Security Service’s letters to MIT, however, merely mention a desire “to discuss the steps required . . . to ensure that classified information has been retrieved and properly safeguarded.”

Some might see this as a prudent, if bureaucratic response; Postol calls it a despicable violation of his civil liberties. For the desperate foes of missile defense, it is just one more piece of evidence showing that they’re up against a powerful conspiracy determined to hoodwink the republic. The rest of us might be wise to wonder who’s hoodwinking whom.

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