by Jim Mannion
Washington (AFP) May 18, 2000 - A prominent scientist has charged that developers of the US National Missile Defense system tampered with test results to hide evidence that sensors on the missile interceptor could not distinguish between a warhead and a simple balloon decoy.
Theodore Postol, an MIT professor and NMD critic, called on the White House to appoint a board of independent scientists to review the test data before President Bill Clinton decides whether to order deployment of the anti-missile system.
"This highly organized and systematic pattern of actions has the appearance of an elaborate scientific and technical blunder, which urgently needs to be investigated by a team of scientists who are recognized for their scientific accomplishments and independence from the Pentagon," Postol wrote.
He made the charges in a May 11 letter to White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, obtained Thursday by AFP.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said such an inquiry would be "premature," saying that the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization was preparing a "line by line analysis" of Postol's charges.
Bacon said the professor's criticism focused on data from a flight test involving an interceptor that no longer is being used.
"We believe that the current interceptor is doing a good job in discriminating between warheads and decoys," he said.
Bacon, meanwhile, said the next flight test, scheduled for June 26, will be delayed until early July because of a minor wiring problem in the interceptor.
The test is considered crucial because the Pentagon has made two successful intercepts its minimum requirement for recommending deployment of the system. It scored a successful intercept in October, followed by a miss in January.
Postol's analysis deals with a flight test in June, 1997 that only tested the ability of sensors on the interceptor to distinguish between a mock warhead and decoys.
The sensors are supposed to tell them apart by registering differences in the patterns of light each object emits.
But the mock warhead and a semi inflated balloon decoy emitted light signals that were varied and unpredictable as they traveled through space, according to Postol.
As a result, he wrote, "there was no fluctuating feature in the signals from decoys and warheads that could be used to distinguish one object from the other."
Data showed that two other decoys were brighter than the warhead and were therefore judged to be more likely to be the warhead, Postol said.
Faced with this adverse outcome, the program's analysts responded by "simply removing the balloon from the data."
With the other two objects, they rejected data from time periods when they were brighter and instead used data from a time period when the warhead happened to be brighter because of its position.
"This elaborate hoax was then screened by describing this tampering with the data and analysis in terms of misleading, confusing and self contradictory language -- to create the false impression that the results were supported by well established scientific methods," Postol said.
"In truth, the procedures followed by the BMDO were like rolling a pair of dice and throwing away all outcomes that did not give snake eyes, and then fraudulently making a claim that they have scientific evidence to show that they could reliably predict when a roll of the dice becomes snake eyes," he said.
Postol charges that BMDO then reconfigured its future flight tests, dropping plans for launching 10 decoys with each dummy warhead.
Only a single decoy has been used in the two intercepts attempted so far, which Postol contends were carefully set up so that the sun would be illuminating the mock warhead and the balloon, making them easier to distinguish.
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