Blowing the Whistle on Bad Science
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It's the biggest comeback of the millennium to date: nuclear weapons.
Only this isn't your parents' nuclear winter. It's a whole new one, as is made clear in a classified Pentagon report leaked last week detailing the Bush administration's willingness to significantly lower the threshold for going nuclear. Apparently the bar has now been set at "in the event of surprising military developments." But as recent events in the Shah-i-Kot Valley proved, there are rarely any other kind. So this pretty much means "at the will of the president."
Last week also saw the release of a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) that details how the Pentagon, two major military contractors, TRW and Boeing, and a team of high-powered MIT scientists fabricated the success of the nation's first missile defense test -- turning an embarrassing failure into a phony triumph.
As attention grabbing as this sounds, the report is not really news to anyone who has been following the case of Dr. Nira Schwartz and the United States Government vs. TRW and Boeing.
Schwartz, a scientist and computer expert, was hired in 1995 by TRW to test the key component of the missile defense system: the ability of our missiles (charmingly known as "kill vehicles") to discriminate between incoming enemy warheads and harmless decoys. She soon discovered that the technology being used was fatally flawed.
Alarmed by her findings, she approached her boss, Robert Hughes, and insisted that TRW reveal the problem to the Pentagon. When she was rebuffed, Schwartz sent a letter to the company warning: "If you will not notify the U.S. government, then I will." She was fired the next day.
Two months later, Schwartz sued TRW on behalf of the U.S. government under the False Claims Act, asserting that the defense contractor had knowingly defrauded the American people. In the six years it has taken the case to work its way through a legal maze, on-going tests, including the $100 million debacle highlighted in the GAO report, have only confirmed Schwartz's findings.
By any yardstick, this is a shocking story, affecting both our national security and the nation's fiscal health. According to a recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the price tag for a missile defense system would be over $230 billion. Worse, by sacrificing the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty on the altar of a missile defense shield that has been proven not to work, we are ushering in a new era of nuclear proliferation that will make the world a far more dangerous place.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who requested the GAO report on TRW, makes it clear that he has no "theological problem" with a missile defense shield. "If you can prove to me," he told me, "that we can build a system capable of intercepting missiles from rogue nations, and that it will not bring with it the consequence of restarting an arms race, then I'm open to it. But the report raises way too many questions about concealment and fundamental flaws in the technology."
It's not like the information about test failures and fraud has been flying under the radar. After a judge finally unsealed Schwartz's suit, the story ended up on the front page of the New York Times in March 2000, followed by a Dan Rather interview with Schwartz on CBS.
So the question becomes: Why is the national missile shield as seemingly unstoppable as the missiles it purports to destroy? And what will it take for this story to penetrate Washington's defenses against critical information affecting national policy?
"The government's system of checks and balances has badly failed at every level throughout this process," missile defense expert and MIT professor Ted Postol told me. "What it's going to take now is stirring the public imagination and outrage." Perhaps it will take dramatizing Nira Schwartz's story and turning her into the Erin Brockovich of the nuclear arms debate.
When I first talked with Dr. Schwartz on the phone, it was hard to picture her as the heroine in a David vs. Goliath struggle against the military-industrial complex. She speaks haltingly in a soft, thickly accented voice (she emigrated from Israel in 1984). But as she continued to tell her story, her words filled with passion, patriotism and integrity, it became clear that this is a woman on a moral mission.
"As an adopted citizen of this beautiful country," she told me, "I would do anything to be able to protect what I love so dearly. But we've wasted a decade, and billions of dollars, in a quest for a missile defense shield based on a technology that will never work."
Her commitment to exposing the truth has come at a high price. A gifted scientist with a Ph.D. in physics and engineering, and the holder of 24 United States patents, Schwartz has found herself effectively blackballed since filing her suit -- unable to land a job in her field despite having sent out over 300 resumes.
It's a disturbing precedent -- especially given the Bush administration's obsession with secrecy, and our elected representatives' unwillingness to take on a popular wartime president, lest they be branded traitors. In this kind of political climate, we need courageous whistle blowers like Nira Schwartz more than ever.
"She is definitely a hero," Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who has requested a Congressional hearing on this issue, told me. "She's like a 21st Century Paul Revere who is warning that this fundamentally flawed technology will not protect the American people, and at the same time it's being used to destroy the ABM treaty."
When Gary Hart and Warren Rudman released their prophetic report warning of America's vulnerability to terrorist attacks, no one paid attention, and thousands died on 9/11. Will untold millions have to die before we start paying attention to Nira Schwartz?