Theodore A. Postol is professor emeritus of Science, Technology, and International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is widely known as an expert on nuclear weapons and missile technology.
Educated in physics and nuclear engineering at MIT, he was a researcher at Argonne National Lab, worked at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and was scientific advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations.
After leaving the Pentagon, Postol helped to build a program at Stanford University to train mid-career scientists to study weapons technology in relation to defense and arms control policy.
He has received numerous awards, including the Leo Szilard Prize from the American Physical Society for "incisive technical analysis of national security issues that [have] been vital for informing the public policy debate", the Norbert Wiener Award from Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility for "uncovering numerous and important false claims about missile defenses", and the Richard L. Garwin Award "that recognizes an individual who, through exceptional achievement in science and technology, has made an outstanding contribution toward the benefit of mankind."
2:02 Early life in Brooklyn, education at MIT, work at the Pentagon
20:27 Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense plan
28:26 U.S. influence on Russia and China’s second-strike capabilities
54:41 Missile defense: vs nuclear weapons, scuds, anti-ship missiles (aircraft carriers), hypersonics
1:11:42 Nuclear escalation and the status of mutually assured destruction
1:32:24 Analysis of claims the Syrian government used chemical agents against their own people
1:44:45 Media skepticism
Theodore Postol at MIT
A Flawed and Dangerous US Missile Defense Plan, G. Lewis and T. Postol, Arms Control Today
Review Cites Flaws in US antimissile Program, NY Times May 17 2010
Improving US Ballistic Missile Defense Policy, G. Lewis and F. von Hippel, Arms Control Today, May 2018
“Whose Sarin?” by Seymour Hersh (2013)
Music used with permission from Blade Runner Blues Livestream improvisation by State Azure.
What is Manifold?
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold today. My guest is Theodore A. Postol. He is professor emeritus of science technology and international security at MIT. He is widely known as an expert on nuclear weapons and missile technology.
Educated in physics and nuclear engineering at MIT. He was a researcher at Argonne National Lab. He worked at the congressional office of technology assessment and was scientific advisor to the Chief of Naval operations. After leaving the Pentagon, Postol helped to build a program at Stanford to train mid-career scientists to study weapons technology in relation to defense and arms control policy.
He has received numerous awards, including the Leo Szilard Prize from the American Physical Society for incisive technical analysis of national security issues that have been vital for informing the public debate. The Norbert Wiener Award from Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, for uncovering numerous and important false claims about missile defenses. And also, the Richard Garwin Award that recognizes an individual who through exceptional achievement in science and technology has made an outstanding contribution toward the benefit of mankind.
Ted Postol: Well, thank you very much. Nice introduction. I don't know if it's true, but we'll, we'll do the best we can.
Steve Hsu: Well, Wikipedia says it's true. So, if you don't disagree about that, we'll just let it stand. How's that?
Ted Postol: Yeah. We'll just talk, and people can decide whether or not they're listening to a fool. That's all right.
Steve Hsu: So, before we get into the meat, the technical discussion, which I anticipate, I would love to learn more about your early life, your education, how you got into defense-related issues because it seemed like maybe earlier in your career, you were more sort of doing pure science. So, feel free to tell, say anything you want about your childhood, how you ended up at MIT, anything like that, how you ended up in physics.
Ted Postol: Well, I would say that my life has absolutely been one series of completely unexpected events that have led me in different directions. So, my life has really been totally unpredictable and unpredictable. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Neither of my parents had any education, neither my father nor mother beyond high school.
I'm not even sure that they actually completed high school though. I think they probably did. My mother was an extremely brilliant and an exceptionally kind person, but I say that it's not because I'm her son, but because I saw her doing lots of things around her with other people. And I know her history as a younger person, just as an exceptionally thinking and kind person who was always trying to do the right thing. And she was also very smart. And so, she was effective at what she was doing.
My father was a rather disinterested person who was against education. And I guess I would describe the marriage as a product of a, of a lower class, immigrant environment where people get matched up where there really isn't much basis for a good relationship and, tragically, at that time, there was no ability for people to separate. So of course, that may have had consequences for me that I can't predict, but it certainly had consequences for me that I know happened.
I had a peculiar experience in school, which I hated in high school. I thought that many of the people who thought of themselves as, shall we call them, quote intellectuals in high school were arrogant snobs. And I didn't really feel comfortable with them. but, by a pure accident of schedule, I was at one point I had to decide whether I wanted to join the math team or the football team. The football team was scheduled to practice at the same time, the math team was practicing, and I made a totally uninformed decision as many I've made that work out for me have been, and I joined a football team and, and it was a great decision for me it turned out. I mean, there was no predicting it.
What I found so satisfying about playing football when I was in high school was you were among people who were very different from you. You know, some of the athletes were themselves reasonably good scholars and others were not at all. And everybody respected each other. Everybody appreciated the individual contributions of each team member. And I really valued that tremendously. I must say I got, I, I just can't describe how much value that had for me.
Ted Postol: And I really didn't have a sense that I was very smart as a complicated set of reasons for that, that we need not, you know, there's no point. But I, I really didn't think I was very smart. But I did know I wanted to be a scientist. So, I initially went to a small college in Worcester, Massachusetts called Worcester Polytechnic Institute. And I ran into the same problems as I did in high school. People were clique-ish, merit didn't matter. It was really not a very pleasant environment. So, I transferred to MIT after my freshman year. And it was like a magical experience. I finally felt happy and accepted for who I was, and I never looked back.
So, I had a kind of a very unpredictable and unpredicted, I should say, as well as unpredictable, path to MIT. And it was very good for me. And, I hope, you know, that I still have great friends from my time as a student at MIT. In fact, I'm very much looking forward to going to a reunion with friends from my class this May. And so, my educational experience was quite good once I was at MIT.
But before that, I would say, I largely hated it. I really did. Although I did know I wanted to be a scientist.
Steve Hsu: You know, I went to Caltech, and I know a lot of MIT kids as well. And so, it's a common experience for people to feel somewhat out of place until they step onto the MIT or Caltech campus. And then they are there among people like them and like that suddenly they were like a fish in water.
Ted Postol: Yeah, even today I'm occasionally asked to talk with young people who are feeling alienated. And I often talk to them about this, that, you know, you're different from the world. You just have to accept that. It doesn't mean you're better. I'm very much against the snobbery I live in, in particular, in academia. Academics are the worst snobs I've ever dealt with. I mean, I was in the Pentagon and worked with military officers. I find them as a group of people, not necessarily, I don't necessarily agree with many of their beliefs, but as a group of people, I find them much, much more hospitable, and reliable than academics. And I used to have this joke that I told in class, when I was, while I was teaching, that came from my experience at the Pentagon. I'd pick a time during a lecture. And I just say, well, you know, the difference between academics and soldiers, because of course, people look down on soldiers in academia. The difference between academics and soldiers is that a soldier would never abandon a wounded colleague when they had to retreat. And it was used to get a big laugh in class, but it was exactly the way I felt about these people.
If I had a problem, whether or not they thought I was the same as them or not, the soldiers I worked with, they were there. It was just part of their culture. And their beliefs were often something I didn't agree with, but they were always respectful, unlike in academia, incidentally. Always very, very respectful. And in my case, I could always have talks with them. So, it may have been the accident of the people I was working with that's quite possible, but I have a very, very, favorable view of the personalities of the military officers I worked with.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think individually there's a lot to be said for people like that. They have to learn to work with others from very different backgrounds and work together as an effective team. So, you know, academics sometimes can get away with never working well as a team.
Ted Postol: Well, you know, there are certainly people you hear about. Fortunately for me, I'd never worked with one. But they certainly exist. People you hear about who are totally immoral and should never be allowed to be an officer anywhere. No question about it. I'm not suggesting that doesn't occur. I'm just saying my personal experience was quite different from that.
And of course, I was lucky. I was never in combat with any of these people. So, I never had to worry about whether I was going to disobey an order to shoot a prisoner, for example. I've talked to people about that. And, you know, you know, my uncle was in World War II, and I asked them about that. And, you know, he said, well, you know, the way we worked it out is. People knew how I felt. And so, I was never asked to shoot a prisoner. So, they always ask somebody else. So, it goes on, it's awful, it's inexcusable. But, you know, I never had to deal with that in the environment I worked in with the military. And so, I have a rather positive view of them.
But I am aware there are many big problems they have just as there are problems everywhere.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. And also, I guess your time at the Pentagon coincided with, you know, the cold war, which really was, could be considered an existential threat to the United States. Right? So, in a way, you know, at least certain aspects of the mission were things you could really believe in, I guess.
Ted Postol: Well, at the time that I was in the Pentagon, I personally had grave concerns about the way the Russians were characterized by many of the people around me. And I often had discussions with officers and other civilians who I knew well about what I thought was a de-humanized characterization of, of our adversary.
At the same time, I have often said to these colleagues that you may think you're afraid of the Russians. But you may be surprised to know that I'm probably more afraid of them than you are. And the reason I'm more afraid of them than you are because they live in a society. It's not necessarily them as individuals, but they live in a society where they can go out and murder millions of their own people. And nobody is able to do anything about it. In other words, the structure of the society has no guide rails and no guard rails. And that's a reason to really be afraid of an adversary. Not because the people are evil, although they may be, but because a society that has no guardrails is capable of doing anything.
And of course, we've seen it in the United States, not on the scale, of course, that happened in Russia and other parts of the world. Except of course, if you want to include the American, natives, Native Americans, but, but, you know, societies are really, can be really dangerous. And I come from a Jewish background, so I couldn't help but learn about, World War II and the Nazis.
And my best friends, many of my very best friends, love going to Germany today. I think it's a wonderful society. I think it's highly moral. People are very respectful of each other. There are always exceptions again. But, you know, you look at a society like Germany today, and you can't believe what happened in World War II. It's not believable. You can't imagine how it could have happened.
And so, I'm very, very, very nervous about social structures and social expectations. It really makes me nervous because people can believe the average person can believe almost anything. There are always individuals who don't follow the rule, but they're generally few and far between. And it's more than intellect. It takes courage as well. It takes some kind of emotional character, I think, in addition to the intellect to understand what's happening in front of you. And they're just not many people who can do that.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I sometimes characterize it as the pressure to conform being quite enormous and the number of people who can resist it being relatively few. And I've always perceived you, I guess I sort of came to know you through your writings at first, your writings about, I think missile defense. And it must've taken a lot of courage to say that certain systems that perhaps the military really wanted were not going to work.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got to that point in your career? Did it require an active act of courage on your part?
Ted Postol: Well, it's a funny situation. When I was in the Pentagon, I was always candid with my colleagues about what I thought. And many of them disagreed with me. They always treated me with respect. And I always did my job. My job was to provide technical support so the chief of naval operations would know what the technical issues were and the policy implications that followed from the technical facts.
I underscore facts and I was absolutely judicious, and I still am today to not let my own views about what the right decision should be, to in any way influence my technical analysis. I'm absolutely deadly committed to looking into the details as much as possible. So, this was recognized by my colleagues in the Pentagon, and they treated me with great respect. You know, so it didn't take courage for me to do what I did there.
And I made it known very early. I made it known extremely early that you can expect me to do what's right for the country. And in cases where it mattered for the U.S. Navy, as an institution for the Navy's interest, as long as you didn't expect me to lie about anything. In other words, if I, if I had to lie or misrepresent facts count me out.
And I was struck by the statement my uncle made to me about World War II because they never came to me with anything that they wanted to win bureaucratically that couldn't be defended. But I won some really important things for them, bureaucratically. For example, there was a big question about whether the Trident II, which was at the time a paper missile, was the next generation of missiles in the 1980s. But the Trident II was going to get a limited amount of highly enriched uranium to increase the yield of its warhead relative to the MX missile. So, the question was, was the MX ICBM going to get it? Was it the Trident II?
And I believed, as I do now, that the Trident II was the right weapon to put it in because the Trident two was invulnerable. There was, it could not be preemptively attacked, whereas the ICBMs could be preemptively attacked and that, and the fact that they have larger yield warheads in a more threatening, means that they, it's very bad for the nation for additional firepower to go into the MX.
Now, what I did is I pulled a bureaucratic trick using the truth. I went up to Draper Laboratory and got a special exemption from the U.S. Air Force so they could talk to me about the MX development. And I learned officially, I knew it was through the grapevine that the MX was surpassing its accuracy goals. I don't remember the numbers; I think it was something like 450 meters. That can't be right. 450 feet or something. And it was getting closer to 300 and 300 feet or something. And, now of course these goals are written for a military contractor. The contractor never accepts a goal that they think they can achieve. They accept a goal that they're sure they can achieve. So, everybody who knew the science in detail knew that MX was going to have a 300-foot CEP.
But the contractor, their contract said 450 feet. So, what I did is I took the fact that they were getting 300 feet, and I wrote up a report for the chief of naval operations, that they were surpassing their accuracy goals. And Trident II, which I also knew was going to get 300 feet in the end, had a contract with Lockheed to get an accuracy of 500 feet or 530 feet I think the number was. So, I said we haven't yet built Trident II, so we don't know whether it's going to meet its accuracy goals and since the nation has a priority to be able to attack Russian hardened, nuclear-hardened installations, and accuracy is critical. The extra uranium of specialty enriched uranium should go to the Navy, you know, as a hedge for the country.
And as it turned out that the Navy used this trick using the truth. It was a trick, but it was using the truth. To get a whole, which is why we have 484 heavy warheads. That's a safe 475 kiloton warhead on our submarines. That was due to this bureaucratic trick that I pulled.
Steve Hsu: And just to clarify, just to clarify, at the end of the day, Trident is actually super accurate, right? So, you, you were using facts that existed at the moment, right, to justify Trident?
Ted Postol: Right. In fact, in fact, you could argue today, and I would argue today that this was not a good outcome. In other words, I do not think that this was a good outcome. It was the best I could do, given what I knew. But it's not necessarily a good outcome because Trident is by far the most accurate missile we have. And it's got high warheads. Even a lower yield, 100 kiloton warhead, is now capable of destroying very hard Russian nuclear facilities. Due to an innovation, we could talk about later. And because of that, we are in a more unstable, dangerous position than otherwise because the Russian early-warning system does not work very well against the submarine forces.
So, we're actually in a worse situation because of my little bit of cleverness, if you want to call it that, when I was in the Pentagon, the 1980s. So, I can't claim credit for having done us a great service. All I can claim is I did it sensibly at the time, but the future outcome was different from what was expected. That's all.
Steve Hsu: So, we'll come back to Trident and the extent to which Russian, you know, the Russian early warning system, the amount of time that it gives them to make decisions because I think that's an important point that you've made. But I don't want to get to that until a little bit later in the conversation.
I'm curious how things looked to you in the eighties when Reagan proposed Star Wars. I mean, what, how did it look to you? Did you just immediately say this is insane. I've got to do the correct tactical analysis on this and get the information out there. What, what, what, what did those years look like?
Ted Postol: Instantly it was clear to me it was insane. Instantly. I mean, it didn't, you know, as soon as the neurons could snap, they were, I knew it was nonsense. And I was really angry because I was watching on March 4th, I forgot it was in 1984. I think that's right. I was watching because I would watch the president's speeches whenever he made them because I wanted to know what the president was thinking as best as I could infer. And he comes out with the Star Wars thing. I said, holy mackerel, this is really something else. And I went into the Pentagon the next day. So, March 5, and I went into a, there was a big bay where a lot of the chief petty officers and officers who would, in our division, would be preparing things from the chief of naval operations. And this Navy captain, who was the most senior captain, was basically the deputy to the admiral who was in charge of our division, Linton Brooks.
Linton was dancing around this large room saying we're going to defend lives, not avenge them. And I was furious, and I stood across. Again, I was not, I was never known for my being discreet. I was saying, I remember the feeling and I remember seeing them across this expanse of soldiers in between me and him.
Remember, he's the commander from their point of view, I'm a, I'm a senior civilian. They think I'm smart, but you know, I'm not a commander. And I say to him, Linton, how do you think we're going to do this? I was really angry. How do you think we're going to do this? This is fiction and it's dangerous fiction.
And he collapsed, afraid of me. And that was my first encounter with Star Wars and the Pentagon. And it really reformulated my view of the Pentagon because when I went into the Pentagon, I was a child of the Vietnam War, and I expected to see a lot of stupidity and dangerous behavior. And I didn't when I first went in. And then I saw people dancing around the room to a fiction, and it was not only in that room, but it was also throughout the building. All these people who I thought previously were sensible people, were completely enthralled with this total nonsense that had been put forward by Reagan.
I didn't yet know all the details about how it happened now. I do. And...
Steve Hsu: Could they be. Sorry to interrupt you. Could they be forgiven for just having a lack of technical knowledge? Because obviously if, if one could defend lives instead of taking revenge or whatever it is that Linton said, you know, maybe, maybe just not knowing the science very well. They just thought, well, Reagan's not stupid, but this is what we're going to do.
Ted Postol: Well, Lincoln Linton was trained as a physicist, so he wasn't, you know, really, he wasn't really accomplished, but he knew enough to be afraid of me. And he knew enough to listen to me when I had physics input because he knew that I never shaded the analysis. So, he and I had, I would say a respectful, well, not necessarily friendly relationship because I never cared for his bureaucratic games.
The guy who I really worked very well with was a very, very, very powerful bureaucrat. Bernie Williams, they used to call him Bernie the bear. He was a civilian when I met him, but he was a Navy captain who had an outstanding career in the Navy and was, I didn't know it when I first was there, but later I found out about it. Bernie was respected as a first-class Navy officer, right up to the CNO who knew him, the chief of naval operations who knew his record professionally.
So, Bernie was kind of the real power above the ad, you know, bureaucracy, seventies guys sitting in it. And in the chart, they look like they're nobody. But in reality, they are. Bernie really talked to God directly. I mean, when he started talking, he, you know, and I had a wonderful relationship with Bernie because he was very tough, very tough, but very respectful of knowledge.
And he was extremely conservative but very thoughtful. And we essentially never disagreed on anything, even though he came from it, he came to these positions from the point of view of a very conservative, politically, politically, very conservative person. And I came from a more liberal, background, but we never disagreed on anything professional when we worked on it, because we always, through reasoning, arrived at sound positions. So, he was the guy who I really worked with and cared about, but I never cared about Linton. And he knew it.
Steve Hsu: So, during this era, this is from my own perspective. I was a college student in the eighties and then went to graduate school in the late eighties. You know, all of this was a lived experience for me because there were lots of debates in all of the physics departments that I was in about whether this could ever work. And, you know, I was offered a job to work on X-ray lasers, I think I told you after I graduated from Caltech. That was a summer job at the Institute for Defense Analysis. And I was skeptical that any of this was going to work. So, I turned the job down. But, I mean, ultimately lots of money was spent on this and you know, now it's like 30 years later and still, none of this is possible.
Ted Postol: It's more than money. I mean, people nations react to it. So, for example, today, we see China building a whole new set of ICBMs because of our activities with the current missile defense. China had no, absolutely no interest in expanding its nuclear arsenal. I know this personally because I've been in and out of China for well over 25 years, nearly 30 years in fact because I've worked with the Chinese very closely, I've had Chinese students and I've worked with the people in their nuclear establishment. The ninth engineering academy. These are the people that built China's nuclear weapons.
And I can tell you from my personal relationships with, with, really serious Chinese scholars in their ballistic missile establishment and in their nuclear weapons design establishment, that they were winding down their commitment to nuclear and ballistic missiles when I first started going to China. The understanding was China was going to work on its civilian economy. And now China is expanding its arsenal. Why would that be? Well, we've been building this missile defense system and the Chinese are nervous about it. So, you know, we caused the increase in, and I'm not speaking from reading journal articles. I'm speaking from personal direct knowledge that this is what happened, and this was caused by American foreign policy. So, it's not just money.
Steve Hsu: So, getting into that meat, getting into the meat of that, do they actually have reason to be nervous? So, you know, is there a sense in which their second-strike capability is threatened by existing or future U.S. systems?
Ted Postol: Well, let me just share my experience first with you about my view of the Moscow ABM system because I studied that in great detail because I was part of the planning process for the Trident II ballistic missile. And we wanted the Trident II to be capable of dealing with large-scale missile defense deployments into the indefinite future.
We didn't, we hoped there wouldn't be any, but we didn't know. And we wanted to make sure that we had the countermeasures to defeat anything. And so, I studied the Russian ABM system in great detail, and it was clear to me then, as it is now that this system was useless. There were so many ways to defeat it easily with ballistic missiles that it really had no utility.
So, I looked at it and I said to myself, after determining this to my satisfaction as a technical person, why are they doing this? Do they, this, the Politburo, the leadership of Russia, are they somehow misinformed as we see our own political establishment is often misinformed? Do they think that this thing can offer them any useful protection? Because there's a lot of national treasure going into that system. We could see it, the resources going into it. Would they possibly make some decisions if we had a crisis, some unexpected crisis where they, in one way or another thought they could depend on this system and then take some steps that lead to an unstoppable action-reaction cycle?
I was really worried about the system. In spite of the fact, I knew it was worthless because I wasn't sure that they understood it was worthless. So, when you listen to Putin talk about U.S. missile defenses, and he talks a lot about them if you follow his speeches. If you don't spend your time demonizing the guy. I mean, I, this is my little lecture for a moment that I don't want to offend some of you, your listeners, but this guy is an advert.
They can take it.
This guy is an adversary. There's no point in demonizing him. The important thing is to try to understand how he thinks, and why he thinks, and how he goes about making decisions. You know, it's just no different than looking at Adolf Hitler and saying, what did this guy think? Why did he think that? Yes. If he was out of his mind and he didn't know what he was doing, you want to understand that. And was he stupid? No. You want to understand that. And you have to look at him, look at him, dispassionately as an adversary. And not spend your time, you know, telling everyone what a terrible person he is. Most members of Congress, I would never be friends with. You know, I've met a lot. I would just not be personal friends with them. They're not the kind of people I would like to be friends with. I mean, I don't hate them, but you know, they're different kinds of people.
So, the issue is what makes them tick, and what kinds of decisions they make. So, you've got to listen to Putin's voice dispassionately. And when you listen to him, he makes it clear numerous times, numerous times that he doesn't think American missile defense is a worth anything, but he also is worried about an American president who might believe otherwise, and who might take steps against Russia, that would then lead to an action-reaction cycle that would get us, get us all killed.
In other words, he's not just worried about the system, whether it can work, he's worried about American political leadership and what they think, or if they think, or if they know. And that was, you know, I was very receptive to understanding that because that's exactly what I went through, you know, 30 years earlier when I was at the Pentagon, looking at this dog of a missile defense.
And so, the Chinese look at this, they know the Americans are lying to them all the time. I could give you a good story about South Korea and the way we lied to the South Koreans and lied to the Chinese. I was really furious with that. That was under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And my view is... What? THAAD right. THAAD, THAAD in South Korea.
And my view is if you're lying to an ally and you're lying, you know, I have very good friends. I'm very, very proud to say I have some very good friends who are high-level diplomats, and I've asked every one of them, would you lie in a negotiation? And every one of them has said, no. In other words, your credibility depends on your honesty.
You might not say something that, you know, could be relevant to a negotiation relevant to your adversary's thinking, but you would never lie because your credibility will, you'll never be believed again. That's their view of this. And here we were under Hillary Clinton lying to an ally and lying to the Chinese, who I knew through my personal contacts, understood that we were lying to them. I know from personal contacts with the Chinese. Okay. Not just.
So, how do you expect people to treat you when they know you're a liar? To me, it's just simple human relations. And, and I now understand that because I have friends who are both diplomats and soldiers, and I know, if you have to lie to make a point there's something wrong and you're, you're jeopardizing your credibility with other professionals if, if you do that.
So, we should not be surprised that the Chinese are increasing their forces. And when Putin marched out this horrifying Poseidon underwater torpedo, could potentially carry a hundred megaton warhead. It's nuclear-powered. It can travel at some very high speed, 50, 60 knots or more, and then it can go quiet, sneak into a Harbor, know coastal Harbor and detonate underwater, and destroy out to 30 or 40 kilometers, a complete area, urban area. And he has this weapon. He made it obvious that he had it. He showed plans for it.
Ted Postol: Well, what he was doing is he was saying to an American president who knows nothing. All right, assuming that the president knows nothing, that your missile defenses will not do anything about this weapon. That's what he did it for. He was an insurance policy toward bad decision-making by American political leadership. That's why he built that weapon. That's why he ordered that weapon built. So not because, I mean, he may be a monster. That's another issue, but it's not because he was a monster, it's because he made a strategic calculation that that kind of weapon would cause any person, even if they were totally without knowledge and thought of how missile defense could work, to understand that you will not escape retribution if you attack Russia. That's why that weapon was built.
And so instead of sitting around talking about what an immoral monster this guy is, which he is, right. So what? What's new in international politics? But, but, but you understand why he did it.
Steve Hsu: So, coming back to the Chinese, I think the most rational interpretation of what they're doing is that perhaps they don't believe that U.S. missile defense can, prevent their second-strike capability, but because our leaders are non-technical, they just need to have more missiles available to them, so they'll be taken seriously. The threat will be taken more seriously. Is that fair …
Ted Postol: I think it's, it's more complicated. It's part of what you say. But it's also because our leaders are worried about their political adversaries. So, Obama was skeptical of missile defense. I'm not saying he knew [unclear], I'm not saying he understood why. I don't know why he was skeptical, but he was. But then he was told once he was president that you can't not do missile defense because the Republicans will tear you to pieces.
So, he came up with this terrible idea, this terrible idea that the Navy Egypt spaced, mobile ship-based missile defense. He violated the INF treaty by putting this system into Europe called Aegis Ashore, ashore meaning on land. These units in Romania are an unambiguous violation of the INF treaty, right from the beginning. And the systems on the ships are worthless as missile defenses, they're worthless. Yet they look like a mobile missile defense, which he should have known. He should have had advisors, the Obama advisers were illiterate, and I mean, illiterate, because I mean to be unkind, illiterate as experts in security.
The ABM treaty, which was no longer being enforced when Obama made this decision, says that you cannot have mobile ABM systems. Now, the reason who cares about the ABM treaty is saying this. The question is why. Well, the concern when the ABM treaty was negotiated was that people would take systems that were not really full, capable ABM systems and surreptitiously upgrade them so they could do something locally and then just like air defenses and then use them to blunt the retaliation because these lesser capable systems might be able to do something locally, you know, something in a small area.
So, they said you can't have any air defense, and you cannot have any capability that looks like it might be usable against a ballistic missile. So mobile ABM systems were banned. Nobody in the White House apparently knew this, including Hillary Clinton and her crowd or crowd of geniuses. All of these kids, these 30-year-old punks, they just come from the right families. And so, they're friends of the Democrats and they make them national security people and they don't have any history. They don't have any knowledge. They don't have any real training and they're experts on national security. So, they made a critical decision, so, when they made this decision to go ahead with this system, they set up all the conditions that the Russians would be worried about, even though the system was worthless, and they violated the INF treaty.
That's what the Russians got with this 2009 reset. The reset that was supposed to change our relationship with the Russians. Well, why did you think it failed? You think it was because of Vladimir Putin? Or do you think it was because of what we did? Yeah, Vladimir Putin's a terrible guy, blah, blah, blah, blah. No, it's what we did. That's what I did. It's what we did. Not Vladimir Putin.
That's what's so worrisome about the situation we have today. There's no reflection on what we did that has aggravated a bad situation, and I'm not apologizing for the Russians here. I want to be clear. But if you have an adversary and you're trying to manage the relationship, you've got to understand what the adversary is concerned about and whether or not you can make decisions that mitigate those concerns so you can get agreements. And we don't care if we don't listen to them. We don't, we don't have analysts who are serious in the Pentagon. We don't have analysts who are serious in the state department. We just have a group of yahoos who just went to prestigious schools, came from privileged families, and now are experts in national security.
That's what we have.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So, circling back to China, I think...
Ted Postol: Otherwise, I have no problems with them.
Steve Hsu: Well, my, my, these are similar to yours, having met a number of these people in the last 10 years.
Ted Postol: It's a real displeasure. I know.
Steve Hsu: But I think you were going to elaborate on how it looks from Beijing and so why their expansion of their missile arsenal...
Ted Postol: Well, in Beijing, first of all, I can tell you that they're technical people. They're technical people. Because I have talked with them directly. I have even had a situation where they actually brought me into a group of people who would not talk to me but wanted to listen to my technical stuff who were obviously an intelligence analysis group. And since I was not saying anything that I didn't say in public, I thought it was good for them to hear what I had to say. So, the technical people I worked with in China were superb. They have an absolutely first-class technical sort of post. They're in a very science establishment is sort of the American scientific establishment post-atomic bomb. In other words, we had the best people in government science and government scientists in government after the atomic bomb was built and after World War II. Because our survival, our survival depended on it. And it wasn't just little bureaucrats who could claim that they're scientists, but really have no knowledge or accomplishments or capabilities.
If these were real giants, you know, kiss the accounts, get, you know, people like that. And,
Steve Hsu: You had John von Neumann, on the Atomic Energy Commission, for example.
Ted Postol: Yeah, Vannevar Bush, you know, and, you know, these were real giants and, today, what do you have? I don't know, John Holdren, I mean, anyway.
So, you have these people who are today, you have politicians. Their main interest is being political and getting into power. And that's the American establishment. But the Chinese establishment has not yet degraded to that state because China, you know, developed from nothing in the last 20 years, say, into a giant scientific and economic establishment.
Ted Postol: I don't know what your field looks like, but I can tell you reading technical articles out of China, which I do a lot. I mean, it's like night and day. You like reading first-class technical articles from China. First-class is absolutely first-class.
So, they have
Steve Hsu: yes. There's. I often say the first derivative is enormous over the last 10 years or 20 years. It's just enormous in every field that I can see.
Ted Postol: So, the people they have that are working on this, they're working on their national security problems, are first-class and they're not ideologues. I mean, I can say this from the, they are not ideologues. They are really merit-oriented people. Every one of these people, many of whom I have met now, some of them were my students at MIT because they were sent over as visitors, is off the scale in terms of their capabilities as scientists and incidentally off-scale as human beings. Every one of these people I would trust my life with. They are people of great dignity. Again, I'm not saying it's the Chinese, I'm just saying, these are the people I knew, I've met. And this is what they have advising their government now. And they know that this missile defense system doesn't work, and they know why, and I've discussed it with them in detail.
I've had several of them over at MIT on post-doctoral fellowships and they've published papers. I mean, published papers on questions that I had suggested that they look at and they didn't just keep it to themselves. They publish them in journals. And so, they know what they're doing, and they know that these systems don't work.
But the question is what is the American mindset? Do Americans think these things are going to work? Why would you lie about a THAAD, a dog of a THAAD radar in South Korea? And screw the South Korean government and its own domestic problems, by just shoving it in before the government can adequately prepare the political groundwork for it.
Why would you do that? Because for some reason, rather you think it's big stuff. Now they don't know that the United States is filled with mindless idiots who just do what they're told. You know, I know these characters, you know, they don't know what they're doing. They don't care.
Steve Hsu: Well, you know, a degree from Yale law school doesn't suddenly make you understand missile physics.
Ted Postol: Nor does it make you understand international relations. I mean, this is not just missile physics. This
Steve Hsu: yeah.
Ted Postol: You know, this Ellen Tauscher who was the love of all the left-wing arms controllers, I'm out with them too, as it turns out, she had this idea to put a missile defense system on Aegis cruises. A dumber technical idea you cannot imagine. But she thought it was great, you know, because she was one of these people who you never want as a friend. I met Ellen Tauscher. She was nasty to me. I didn't, I was open to being friendly with her. The first time I met her, she insulted me. The first words out of her mouth were aggressive and insulting.
And the reason was because I had a proposal that would eclipse old, an alternative missile defense proposal for the Russians that would eclipse Aegis, the Aegis idea that she had, that she was pushing because she wanted to be a political big shot. And she saw that as a threat. So, her only interest was to push this idea, even though it had no technical merit, she didn't even want to know about it. I wanted to talk with her in a friendly way as a, in an advisory role. She didn't even want to talk to me. She just snubbed me from the first words out of her mouth. And then she became this emissary to Russia under the Obama administration. Another great example of good choices. And I sat with her at a seminar in Moscow. I think it was 2007. I happened to remember the day. I don't usually remember dates. We're looking at an audience of wide-eyed Russians and Europeans, because it was a mixed audience of Russians and Europeans listening to this woman tell them, don't worry about American missile defenses. I'll protect you from them. Who does this woman think she is? She's just a bureaucrat in the American system. Everybody knows that any bureaucrat, no matter how powerful they are, is gone at some other time, presidents come and go. What are you telling them? You know, you could see the look of disbelief on what this woman thinks of herself to be? You know, it was just, so this is what was being presented to the Russians at this time.
And I might add, so was Mike McFaul, who was then the ambassador to Russia, a guy who has no idea what he's doing. None at all. All he's interested in is promoting himself. He's a big promoter of democracy. There's no democracy. You can't, you can't say anything. I no longer go to Stanford because you can't say anything that doesn't follow Mike McFalls prejudices. There's no scholarly independence there at all. This is this big democratic person. So, this is what the United States projects to the Russians and the Russians understand this. They're not stupid. And the moderate Russians, many of whom I know who are patriots of Russia, but not patriots in the sense they want to see Russia dominate the world. Patriots because they want to see a democratic functioning society in Russia. These people are overwhelmed. They're run over by the right-wing extremists because what can, what can they talk point to, they're going to point to Mike McFaul or Ellen Tauscher as a person to negotiate with. So, if we deal with the Americans in a civil way, we'll be okay. So, the right-wingers take over and that's what happened. So, it's a little more complicated.
Steve Hsu: Okay. But to paraphrase for the audience, we have a missile defense system that isn't going to stop the Russians or the Chinese.
Ted Postol: It's not going to stop anything.
However, they have good reasons to think that our leadership actually thinks it works.
Ted Postol: Well, they have good reason to question the motives and knowledge of our leadership. The more sophisticated ones among them. I think under, certainly the Chinese scholars that I have worked with who are scientists but spent time in the United States, working with us at MIT. They not only learned a lot of science in this area, in our group, but they were avidly interested in American politics. So, I would be sitting in my office and one of them would come in and he'd sit down and say, Ted, why did the Congress just do this? It seems so silly. You know, because they'd be watching the news. And I'd say, well, you know, here's the politics of it, you know, this guy has Lockheed in his district and there's a lot of money that's going to go here. And this guy really believes that this is going to work. This other guy doesn't know it's not going to work, but it's good for his constituents. The president is doing it because he doesn't want criticism, you know. So, they, and so they understood when they, and they were very smart and open, you know, they didn't know all the answers, like all these people around Biden and Obama, they, they, they were open and intelligent. And so, they got a very sophisticated understanding of the American political establishment, these, these scientists.
And when I go back to China, well, I haven't gone back to China since, Xi Jinping has clamped down, but, but you know, I know that these people will continue to learn from, you know, cause they're very smart and they already got the baseline. They understand the baseline, dynamics. So, there are scientists in China who understand this and I'm sure there are political people though I don't happen to know those people. I don't work with them.
Steve Hsu: So the, just to take a specific case, the scientists that you know, that either that you trained at MIT or that you've met in China, would they say something like, sure, I know we could spend these resources to better effect somewhere else, but we do gain from having some new ICBM fields of a hundred silos because it will just force the Americans to take us more seriously.
Ted Postol: I'm not sure they would say that. I don't know. They would say that they might, but they might also say it's a waste of time and resources, but the political decision-makers have overwritten us. That's what they might say. In other words, we told the political decision-makers, we're fine. There's nothing they can do about what we have. But Xi Jinping doesn't live in a vacuum. He may seem like a dictator, but he's got all kinds of political adversaries. We don't understand who they are and how they work, but he's worried about looking like he's soft. You don't want to ever be soft on defense. It doesn't matter whether you're Vladimir Putin or Biden or a, you know, a Trump or, you know, a Johnson or Merkel or whatever. You know, it's very hard to be soft on defense.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think every leader has local political factors they have to deal with.
Ted Postol: I would guess. This is a guess, though, because I don't know, they might've changed their minds because some of my Russian friends have changed their minds. Because some of my Russian friends who were, were, and I think still would be if things were different, real advocates for working with the United States have reached a conclusion that you can't work with the United States. In other words, it's not that they're hostile to the United States. They reached a conclusion and we've talked about it. Because we're friends. We're friends. Real friends. I don't think we don't talk politics like adversaries. We talk politics like friends. And they say, look, you know, the Americans tell us, one friend of mine says, don't sell a nuclear reactor to this country because it's a proliferation problem.
And then the Russians don't do it. Then we sell a reactor to the country and the Russians, the Russians are angry. Then they say, we lost this sale. He says you can't believe anything the Americans tell you, their motives are unclear. If you find a motive that's in their interest and not in yours, it's probably the right motive. That's really relative to what they were saying. So, he says we can't trust them. We can't work with them. And that's the general view among many of these people who are not fundamentally hostile to having a very good relationship with the United States, but you know, the American...
Steve Hsu: I don't want to divert us too far in this direction. I actually agree with you that it appears to me that we're in a kind of late-stage imperial decline and we are not in agreement, well, for many reasons. I actually agree with you on these.
So maybe we talk a little bit about not the problem of missile defense against strategic nuclear weapons, but missile defense against conventional attack, maybe by hyper hypersonic missiles or maybe by anti-ship ballistic missiles? Because it seems there to me as an American, that our aircraft carriers are very vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.
And then to me, it seems like the Navy doesn't realize this. But maybe I misunderstand the effectiveness of things like SM-6 or our ability to shoot down these kinds of conventional missiles. Could you maybe tell us a little bit about that?
Ted Postol: Well, first of all, I do think the navy is very concerned about it. They may not state it publicly, but they're very concerned about it. They're always worried about the carriers. I wouldn't say it's internal, but within the circles that, you know, they talk publicly. But, you know, not in the general public. They're very, very worried about the vulnerability of carriers to a ballistic missile attack.
In fact, in my view, they're too worried about it because it takes time for a ballistic missile to reach a carrier. And a carrier is not exactly a nat, but it does have pretty reasonable maneuverability given it's got 20 minutes to do something. And now the problem is if the missile is homing, you know, cause you, you must have homing on a missile. And if it's homing, it's subject to electronic countermeasures of various kinds. So, now some of these electronic countermeasures are difficult to implement and some are not, but one cannot assume that a carrier is an easy target for a ballistic missile that's being launched from land.
Now, as I joke with all of the soldiers I work with, and I always do this, I always say, well, of course, I've got out there on the ship with you, so I can be less nervous about it than you would be. And I understand that I respect that. But shooting down a missile of this kind is not the way to go because you can have some minimal capability. You can try to build some, but if it can maneuver, it can always outmaneuver you, relative to an interceptor. It's because an interceptor just doesn't have the body lift. You know, the interceptor changes its angle of attack. It's got some fins on it. Sometimes the fins can help. But basically, it's lifted on the body of the missile. And it changes this angle of attack to get some lateral acceleration.
Well, if you're going against the target, that's coming in and it's faster than you are. And it's also configured like a missile and it's in the atmosphere. its lateral lift goes all the lateral lift goes as the velocity squared. So, if it's traveling faster than you, when it pulls a given angle of attack, it's going to be able to pull a higher lateral acceleration than you can. So right there it can outmaneuver you. In addition, when it maneuvers, you don't know it's maneuvering until maybe a fraction of a second before, you know, after it starts maneuvering.
So, imagine you're on a football field and you have a runner coming at you and you want to do an open-field tackle. The runner takes a step to the left. You can take a step to the left and get in front of them and tackle them. So that's doable, no problem. But if the runner can take a step to the left and you don't know, they're taking a step to the left for, let's say half a second, then you, when you take your step to the left, you have to out-accelerate them to, to get to them, to make, to make the tackle. So, if I can delay your decision-making time, which is a good head fake. If, if, if, if you're going against the skilled runner, or in the case of a ballistic missile coming in, your radar and sensing systems cannot tell the lateral maneuver has begun. You can always outmaneuver your target. So, a hit on a, on a target that can maneuver like this, has a near-zero chance of succeeding.
It might succeed if you happen to run into the front of it, you know, by accident. But the probability of that happening in a given engagement is near zero. So, you're not going to be able to shoot these things down with anything that, that, that, that follows the laws of physics. So, you're going to have to counter them with countermeasures.
Steve Hsu: So, I think that's a very, the football, you know, chasing down a runner on the football field is a, is a great analogy that sometimes I actually use when I'm trying to explain this to somebody who's not a physicist. I think, correct me if I'm wrong, but in the Patriot versus scud situation that you analyzed many years ago.
Ted Postol: That's exactly what happened.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. Although the scuds are kind of primitive missiles, they do have built-in a kind of jitter as they follow their ballistic trajectory.
Ted Postol: Well, they wobbled,
Steve Hsu: They wobbled.
Ted Postol: They, you know, they lightened, they wanted to get a 600-kilometer range missile, but they only had a scud vehicle to work with. You know, they were clever, but they didn't have the technology, so they didn't know how to build anything, but a scud. In fact, they didn't know how to build this good. They only had scuds, which they were modifying.
So, they could not build scud rocket motors, even, as we learned when we got in there. So, what they did is they had scuds that they had purchased from, I think, Russia and the Iraqis, and they lightened the warhead so they could get more range. And they also extended the length of the scud a little, so it could carry a little bit more propellant. And doing that they were able to get 600-kilometer range rather than 300-kilometer range. So that was the Iraqi scud. Now the problem with the Iraqi scud was the warhead was very light. And so, the, what's called a static margin. I'll translate that to English very quickly. The static margin was very small.
So, for example, if you take a hammer and you throw it off a building, it will fall head first because the aerodynamic forces on the handle will cause it to be oriented so that the handle is behind the head. If you make the head lighter and lighter and lighter, eventually you'll get to a point where the, where the handle will just tumble end over end and, and, and the war and the, and, and the hammerhead will, will, will not be heavy enough to, to keep it from tumbling.
And this missile was just at the limit of what they could do, with a 300-kilogram warhead. And if they made the warhead heavier, it would go a shorter range. And if they made it lighter to get more range, the missile would be literally unstable and would tumble when they tried to launch it. So, this was, you know, intelligent, but primitive. I mean, you know, intelligent people who had limited technology available to them modifying this missile to get 600 kilometers range. So, it wobbled.
They didn't care if it wobbled. The warhead went to the ground. The scuds were breaking up at 10 kilometers altitude because of the lateral gyrations, when it hit 10 kilometers, the speed and, and the lateral density of the air and lateral gyrations were strong enough to cause them to break up. They always broke up. We didn't find any evidence of a scud that survived to the ground. But it didn't matter because the warhead went onto the ground and exploded.
So, they got what they wanted. You know, people at one point were saying, oh, they're stupid. They weren't stupid people who were stupid were the ones who didn't understand what these guys were up to.
You know, these third-world countries are not filled with stupid people. They are filled with people who are, who can be quite clever but have limited access to advanced technology. So, you know, when you're at Lockheed and you need some peace, like a friend of mine who was an engineer there, he said, I draw a diagram. And the next day there would be the piece on my desk. I have no idea how they manufactured it. He would say to me, you know, because they had all this advanced equipment for machining. You know, it's a product of a, of an advanced, a technical base and people are not stupid. They just have what they have.
Steve Hsu: But in this case, the, you know, as a consequence of this wobbling, it made it extremely hard for the interceptor.
Ted Postol: They would have missed anyway, it turned out. They would have failed a fuse anyway. But they might've hit something more instead of hitting nothing, they might've hit something.
Steve Hsu: Right. But I think, okay. I'm not an expert in this field, but I got interested in it. So, I've been thinking about it a little bit, but my conclusion is it's quite hard to intercept hypersonic or fast missiles. That's, it's difficult. It's tougher for the defender than for the offense. And so, then counter electronic countermeasures, which you briefly mentioned might be the way to go.
However, two factors I think are working on behalf of the offense here. One is that now the Chinese have actively electronically scanned radar rays, even in their air-to-air missiles now, so increasing sophistication there is on this final seeker. And secondly, they might even have continuous satellite coverage on the carrier while the ballistic missile, the anti-ship missile, is on a trajectory. So, they, they can, they can actually see perhaps the use of synthetic aperture radar. They can maybe even see the carrier from a satellite and just give the coordinates and the velocity vector to the …
Ted Postol: Or they don't need synthetic aperture radar to get a very precise location. So that's, yeah, that's not a problem. They can, there's cloud cover. A lot of the time, something like 65% of the earth is covered with clouds, but it's not always cloud cover. You know, the carrier only has to be vulnerable at a time when they choose to launch against it.
Steve Hsu: Yes, they could wait until there's no cloud cover. Or even now there are commercial companies putting up in low earth orbit, very small satellites that have SAR coverage. So, it seems to me that in the future surface ships are going to be very vulnerable to long-range missile attacks.
Ted Postol: It depends on how much damage the ship can take. If you hit a carrier on the deck with a conventional explosive, you will do significant damage, but you won't sink the carrier. The carrier has got a lot of, I mean, unless it's badly managed, I mean, the Moskva got hit by something it looks like, and they didn't have any damage control.
You know, damage control is a big issue with naval vessels and all the navies that I'm aware of, you know, the General Belgrano to the surprise of the British when they hit the General Belgrano, this Argentine cruiser with a torpedo. They did not expect it to sink. They expected it to be out of commission because they hit it in the rear where it lost propulsion and rudder, but it sank because the damage control was so poor.
And that's probably what happened with the Moskva. I don't know. I'm just guessing. The maintenance, so the ship was so poor, and the damage control skills of the crew were so poor that they couldn't keep the ship from sinking. That's my guess. And of course, once you show up, I'm just guessing this is, I, I want to be clear. I have no idea, but we'll, we'll learn about this sooner or later, we'll find out, and I'll bet you a nickel that, that it was damage control.
Steve Hsu: But in this hypothetical here in this hypothetical near-peer, or it even could be, say, U.S. versus Iran in the Persian Gulf. A situation where I can throw up a $10 or $50 million missile and get, maybe I don't sink your carrier, but I get a mission kill. Or I, you know, degrade your capability significantly. Your $10 billion carrier. It seems like a very strong asymmetry that's kind of against us.
Ted Postol: Well, I agree with you. It's a real problem and that, but, you know, these carriers can take a hit on the deck. There'll be a hole in the deck. There might be fires if they were unlucky enough to have planes nearby that were fueled and it could be a real mess or not. If it's just a mess of some kind of because you know, missiles coming on the way you can clear your decks and move things around. So, I'm not a big advocate for carriers, incidentally, I'm just trying to be non-standard [unclear].
You'd have a hole in the deck. You'd have, you know, damage, no question about it. But you know, there's a lot of repair capability on these carriers. You know you can bring out sheets of metal, weld things. You know, one of the things I've studied over my weird time being an analyst on military things is shutting down airfields. You know you shut down an airfield by putting holes in the runway. And then you learn that there is plastic cement. They can go over to the runway, and they pour plastic cement into it and bulldoze it closed and put some cement on top and they get this thing up and running in a few hours.
Now, if you can close down the airport long enough that you can come in and just level the place, which is what you really want to do. You know, that's why you try to do that. But if you just close it down and let them sit there and repair it, it'll be up and running.
Steve Hsu: I think you make a great point with regard to runway repair. I'm curious though, like, so in the next iteration, when the weapons are more precise than the sensors are better if you have 10 meters CEP. You know, why hit the runway? Why not hit the radar system and the power system?
Or if you're, or if you're trying to attack a stationary airbase on land, why not hit the power systems and the, and the, and the radar systems and...
Ted Postol: Absolutely. I think the homing capabilities of missiles is the big revolution that we're going to see next. I mean, it's already here. We see it in Ukraine.
But I think you're absolutely on the right, you know, question with regard to how it's going to affect future warfare. I'm not sure how far it will be able to go, but it's going to be able to go much further than we've already seen. And that's pretty good. I mean, the offense-defense balance in Ukraine has been completely shifted by these extremely capable homing missiles. The javelin has an imaging array on it, and it's got a mercury cadmium Telluride, 64 by 64 uniform array on it. And it's going to look at the target.
And, you know, since you're a sophisticated person that your cell phone has extraordinarily more processing power than you would need on that javelin to keep track of what's going on, you know that it has a gyroscopic, a laser gyroscopic, system that, you know, can keep track of where it is relative to the target. This is killer technology, and the next generation is going to be a lot tougher to deal with than what you're already dealing with.
The question I have, and I'm not sure I know the answer incidentally, is, is this the end of mass armored warfare? You know, are we looking at the end of mass armored warfare? I'm not sure that's true yet, because I can imagine tanks that are built with targets that have housings that have spaced armor in them, you know, on top of the tank. But certainly, the T-72 tank. You don't want to be in a T-72 tank in Ukraine. It's a death trap.
You're not only going to get hit, but the whole thing is going to blow up. You know, it's got a ring of munitions sitting below in the tanks, chassis for automatic loading. And after that, when that javelin hits the top tar top of the turret, it sets that ring off. That's why you see all these T-72s without targets because it set off the internal explosives in that ring of munitions and blew, you know, God knows what the bodies look like in this thing. It must be horrifying to see your compatriots after this has happened.
So, you know, we're, we're talking about a new, a new era in warfare and there'll be actions and reactions and we'll see innovations on both sides. But I think the homing missile is really going to be king in the end, I think.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think so too. I mean, I think if you just take existing technologies, but just integrate them better.
Ted Postol: Yeah. Existing technologies will do the job, but they'll be able to advance them considerably.
Steve Hsu: Yes.
So let me turn to, I think a topic which is, you know, maybe the most important topic and one which you've been very public about, which has to do with the dangers of nuclear escalation, and the status of mutually assured destruction. The fact that the Russians early warning systems give them, perhaps I think I, you said something like no more than seven to 10 minutes maybe to make a decision.
Ted Postol: Well, that's what they will think they have. In fact, it could be less but go ahead.
Steve Hsu: Yes. So maybe you can walk us through this. I'm pretty sure our audience is not very familiar with this. Although I heard you give a talk on this some time ago and it was very impressive. So maybe you could just elaborate a little bit on that for our audience.
Ted Postol: Yeah, the Russian early warning system has, for reasons I'll be honest with you I'm still not sure. In fact, I'm sure I don't understand why. It's this problem. We discovered it. I say we because some colleagues and I were working on this when we discovered that the satellite-based system worked and I'll, I'll get to that shortly. But they have a severe limitation in their space-based satellite systems.
The satellite systems we have have focal plane arrays. That is to say, just for some of your audience, they have been raised like a camera, like an electronic camera has. And the elements and those arrays work in the infrared. That they're not invisible. They work in the infrared.
And we look directly down at the earth for evidence of rockets in powered flight. Now, it's not as easy as it seems off the top of your head, to see a rocket in powered flight because there's a background that's very bright. Imagine trying to see a lit match on a bright day when it's held up against the sun. The background is very bright. The infrared background is very bright and you're trying to see this dim signal. It's a bright signal, but the bright signal behind it, the background is also bright. So, you need to have a sophisticated way of separating it out. I won't go into details. You probably know how you would do that anyway, but you know, people are interested. I could do that at some time.
Steve Hsu: Quick question, Ted. So, this is geosynchronous and it's the ability to detect a launch of a missile.
Ted Postol: Right. A ballistic missile, a ballistic missile.
Steve Hsu: Right. And for some inexplicable reasons, the Russians never really solved this problem, right? The U.S. has solved this problem. Have the Chinese solved this problem?
Ted Postol: I don't know, I've been curious about it, but I can't get any of my Chinese colleagues to talk about it.
Steve Hsu: Because I think they recently just in a few years put up some interesting geosynchronous satellites. So, yeah, it makes me wonder whether they've solved this problem.
Ted Postol: The technology for building the sensors is very hard to develop because mercury and cadmium are chemically nearly identical. And, and so if you imagine you have this, these two materials that you mix in the ratio of mercury to cadmium drastically shifts the active wavelength of the sensor. So, a very small change in the ratio of mercury to cadmium results in a local sensitivity to a different wavelength. So, when you lay this material down on a macroscopic scale, some parts of it are sensitive to one wavelength, others to another. So, the fabrication of this is a very, is a gigantically complicated art, and they, they finally learned how to do this by literally laying down, mercury and cadmium atoms on surfaces, like silicon surface, atomic layer by atomic layer so they can control the ratio of cadmium to mercury very, very, very closely. And then they anneal the resulting crystal, and then they do whatever else they have to do to fabricate it into a device.
I sometimes joke, I say, this is chicken bone science. You know, you can do it a zillion different ways, but finding a way that actually works that you can actually implement is, you know, it's like rattling the chicken bones in a cup and throwing them on the table and this way and that way. And so on. And after gigantic amounts of effort, we only got this technology down in the early to mid-1990s. That's late. That's late. We knew about mercury cadmium Telluride as the right material for a long time before that decades and decades before that. So, I don't know if, and this is a very carefully controlled material by the United States. The Europeans have figured out how to do it on a smaller scale.
So, they're able to build these sensors. I don't know what the Chinese can do. I just don't know, but that's the key technology.
Steve Hsu: So, lacking this technology, your early warning system is weak, or you're not able to detect the launches, right away?
Ted Postol: You can't look for things against the background. You just don't have the stability, and control over your pixelated eyes.
So, what the Russians do, and it's a clever idea, you know, again, it's your technology base won't support something. What else can you do? And they came up with this, I think, a very clever idea. At least for me, it is. If you look at the earth, imagine that you look at the edge of the earth. Let's think of looking at the earth and you look at the edge of the earth, just above the earth's surface. That's just for language purposes, we'll call it the earth limb. Those of your listeners who are astrophysicists, they'll know immediately, but it's the, it's the region of sky immediately above the surface of the earth, on the disk of the earth. When you're looking at it from, let's say, a geosynchronous orbit.
So, what you do is you look in that series of altitudes, where the rocket, when it's in powered flight, if it happens to be in front of you, you'll see the rocket plume against the black background of space or space black.
So, you know, the problem is you will also be at the edge of the earth, there are reflections from high clouds and things like that. That's a potential problem. And in fact, we know that there were false alarms on the Russian side that could have resulted in World War III, because of that.
There's a famous story that usually gets screwed up, but there was a right way to tell it.
And, the Russians were having a lot of trouble with the ERC land viewing system because of cloud reflections from the sun. But they put one up. And the first one, and there are two systems that they had, the first system was named Molniya ammonia. Molniya, it's after a particular orbital inclination. It's an inclination that has a six-hour time from apogee to perigee.
So, it's a 12-hour orbit. So, every two orbits it takes 24 hours to go around the earth twice. The orbit is inclined relative to the equator at 63 degrees. So, it's a high inclination and I forget what the perigee is. It's maybe 150 kilometers or maybe two or 300. And so, it's very low. And the apogee is geosynchronous and is at roughly 40,000 kilometers.
And what the satellite does is it looks at a slanting angle at the northern part of the United States where U.S. ICBMs can be seen. Now, keep in mind that there's only a band, that's a band of the earth's surface that is in the earth's limb. Because if you, if you launched from, let's say, if you launched from the Southern part of the United States, the curvature of the earth would not allow you to see the plume against the black background in space. You'd finish the powered flight before it could be seen. So, there's only a band in which you can see the powered flight of missiles. So, it's a very, very small area that you can take. Well, the Russians had a consequence,
Steve Hsu: Yeah. And can they see Trident launches? I mean, if you launch from a submarine, there must be a lot of places where you can escape detection by the system?
Ted Postol: They can't see any part of the earth. They can only see the northern tier of the United States. And this is a satellite system of nine satellites. So, every two and a half hours or so, one of these nine satellites is in a position to view the northern tier of the United States where ICBMs can be launched, and the other eight satellites are in their various positions in orbit waiting every two and a half hours to take the place of the one that's going to move out of the viewing location. So, it's a nine-satellite system just to see a small area of earth that happens to have the U.S. ICBMs clustered in it.
Now they have a second system they built, although it's probably no longer working. Probably no longer in existence. Although there's one, this is called Prognoz, P R O G N O Z. I think it means eyes. And Prognoz is in a geosynchronous orbit. So, there's always a Prognoz satellite over the mid-Atlantic. That satellite is not looking down. It is looking at a slanting angle at the northern tier of the United States so they can have two satellites simultaneously viewing the northern tier of the United States.
So, if they get a sun reflection, only one satellite will probably be confused and think there's a launch relative to the other. So that's their concept of dual, dual phenomenology is what they're called.
Then there's a Prognoz satellite known as the Prognoz two. It's up around Europe, a little bit above Europe. Remember these are equatorial positions. There's a Prognoz three satellite, a little further to the east. And then there's a Prognoz four satellite, that is, it's over the Indian ocean.
The Prognoz four satellite, if it is, there's no satellite in that location now, but there were in the early days of the system, that satellite looked across the Indian ocean or the earth into Europe. So, the prognosis for satellite is looking into Europe and that satellite was launched around the time we were putting pershings into Europe, a short rain or shorter range, a ballistic missile that the Russians were absolutely concerned about it being a short warning attack for it to Russia. And eventually, we got the Russians to negotiate a treaty to keep the Pershing out of Europe. But the Russians had that, that location Prognoz four populated.
The Prognoz two and three locations, which are between Prognoz four and one, are looking the other way into China. The two look at the western part of China where the ICBM fields are. And the Prognoz three looks at the eastern part of China where there are missiles, but not necessarily the new ICM ICBM fields. And they only ever had four of those satellites up.
They had four more locations that they registered with the international space agency because you have to register the locations of your geosynchronous satellites because God forbid you interrupt somebody's television. So, the satellite locations need to be registered. And so, we know where they were supposed to be put.
And those satellites would have looked at the Gulf of Alaska, the western part of the Gulf of Alaska, the eastern part of the Gulf of Alaska, the western part of the United States, and the middle of the United States. So, they were looking at the United States from two different directions with this constellation of eight satellites.
But it turns out, I know this from a private conversation with an individual who I can't be, but an individual who's absolutely unambiguous knew what was going on. I mean, in the system. Who told me privately at a meeting, it wasn't real, it wasn't really a breach because they stopped launching them. So, he was just confirming why, and basically, he said we couldn't make these things reliable enough in the earth limb viewing node mode. We just found that there were too many false alarms from sun reflections and things. So, we finally decided it was not worth doing.
So, in the Prognoz system, there is a Prognoz one satellite, always in orbit, even now. But the Prognoz others, two through eight, don't see it. There's a Prognoz to up, which if it's working would be looking at the Chinese ICBM fields. So, last I looked, but I'm not even sure that's an operating satellite, to be honest with you. And there's nothing else. So, they cannot see below the horizon if something's coming at them from the north Atlantic. So, they have to wait until a Trident missile rises above the earth's horizon so it can be seen by an early warning radar.
Because the radar basically travels in a straight direction, linear, slight refraction effects, but not dramatic. And so, you can put together scenarios, which if I were Russian, I would take them very seriously, where a Trident submarine operates maybe a little bit west of the UK or worse yet off Norway, or in the north, North Sea, and pops one in Moscow on a slightly depressed trajectory and takes out Moscow with essentially less than seven minutes of radar warning and no satellite early warning at all. Seven minutes is not enough time for any political system to be able to make a decision whether or not to end the world in retaliation.
So, the Russians have to have a system where there's pre-delegated launch authority under certain conditions. It doesn't mean they're all drunk on vodka, ready to launch. Like some people were saying in the early 1990s. That's ridiculous. But their hand is certainly closer to the trigger, and they certainly have a large amount of planning to pre-delegate launch of air missile systems under certain specified conditions. We don't know what they are. And in fact, the specified conditions probably change from time to time as their analytical groups reassess the situation.
This is not a good situation, not when you're thinking sudden war could occur where nuclear weapons are being used between Russia and the United States. This is very dangerous.
Steve Hsu: So, would you say this is the most dangerous time for, in terms of the risk of nuclear war that we've been in for quite a while?
you know, it's hard to know it's hard to quantify something like this cause it's so, I would say it's certainly, it's certainly as dangerous or more, probably more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis. Now let me say why I think that.
Ted Postol: In the Cuban missile crisis, both sides were scared to death of each other, but they had some idea what they were dealing with. They were really nervous about things escalating. You had relatively responsible leadership, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev, whatever one thinks of him, was a very experienced guy with war. You know, he, he fought in the, in the Ukraine against the Nazis, you know, he knew what he was doing. And they understood what they were up against and the danger of escalation.
Now, you have many, many, many more weapons on both sides. So, both sides have more weapons. You also have inexperienced political leadership. Putin is not inexperienced. I generally tell people who are shocked to hear this, that he had more confidence in his judgment about what you can do with nuclear weapons and then our political leadership. But I no longer have that because Putin has made a strategic mistake. If you look at his strategic actions over the time, he has been a leader in Russia. He has jujitsu in every situation, even though we had the upper hand in terms of resources and capabilities. He's very clever when it comes to strategic thinking, but he made the strategic mistake of his life by going into Ukraine. And he knows it. You know, he knows that, you know, this guy knows exactly what's going on. And his back is up against the wall. And his survival as a leader of Russia is at stake. And he knows that too. So, he's a desperate man. So, I don't know what he's willing to do. Even though I think he's very smart, again, this is not a statement. I like him and I think he's a wonderful person. But he's very smart. But he's desperate. And that worries me.
And then you have Biden. Biden looked to me like he knew what he was doing. For example, he stopped, we stopped ICBM tests, from Vandenberg air force base because we didn't want the Russians to misunderstand, you know, a test launch. That was the right thing to do. So, Biden, he got high marks from me, probably because the air force or, or his joint chiefs told him this is a good idea.
But unfortunately, the punks aren't giving him good advice. Because if you want to negotiate with a man who's a war criminal, and you're the president of the United States, you shouldn't be calling him a war criminal in public. I can say he's a war criminal. You can say he's a war criminal, Putin. But if you're president and you want to pick up the phone and talk to this guy, you should not be saying he's a war criminal. I mean, I sympathize with his feelings. I feel the same way. But if you're trying a diplomatic solution, if you're trying to be a diplomat, everyone's talking about diplomacy, but nobody's practicing it.
And now we have backed ourselves into a corner and he's in a corner and this is really dangerous. Notice that this is not a technical statement I'm making, but it may be even more dangerous. It may be more dangerous than the fact that we have two blind mice, you know because our system is good, but no system is good enough if you only have 30 minutes of warning at best.
So, we have these two systems: one gives you 30 minutes, one gives you five to seven minutes, the other. And both hands could be very close to the button. That's not good. But when both groups are up against the wall, that's not technical, but that's really important. So, I think we're in a lot more dangerous situations. But I want your audience to understand why I think so, because they may have a different judgment after listening to my concerns.
Steve Hsu: Well, I agree with you on that. This seems to be a very dangerous time for the world.
Now I've, I've taken up a huge amount of your time. So, there was one other topic that we were going to discuss. So maybe we can try to cover it in a relatively concise way.
Ted Postol: That's all right. You can just keep the sections where I drool.
Steve Hsu: You analyzed claims by, I guess, U.S. or western intelligence that the Syrian government had used nerve gas against its own people.
Ted Postol: Yes.
Steve Hsu: And you came to the conclusion and obviously there's a lot of technical detail. I've looked at some of your presentations that you were kind enough to share with me on this that suggests that this whole thing might've been a Western intelligence fabrication.
Ted Postol: Or failure. Or failure.
Well, let me deal with the simplest, the simplest situation. The attack on a place called Khan Shaykhun is more complex and I can deal with it, but I'd rather… I think it's better to deal with it. It's the same issue of things being misstated as the case that's very simple.
The case that's very simple is the nerve agent attack against a place called Ghouta, which is a suburb of Damascus on August 21st, 2013. There was a massive nerve agent attack. Some people, the U.S. government official estimate is 1400 people were killed. I don't know the answer to that, but everything that I look at that's done more carefully suggests to me that as many as a few hundred people might've been killed. And that's enough.
You know, a large number of people are killed by a nerve agent. Hundreds versus 1400 doesn't matter in the end. It's a moral outrage. So, there's no question about that.
So, what supposedly happened according to the U.S. government, the White House, in fact, there's a White House report on this was, the Syrian government launched from well inside its own territory, according to the White House and then Secretary of State John Kerry. And this is a very disturbing set of facts, now. According to these people, the sarin was launched by rockets from maybe 20 kilometers or 15 kilometers distance into Ghouta where so many of these people were murdered by this horrifying agent.
Now, it turns out that when you apply the kind of simple physics that you could use in your undergraduate classroom to do an analysis, you need to give the students parameters because they wouldn't be sophisticated enough to know where to find this specific impulse of the rocket motor or the drag coefficients on a vehicle with a flat head. They wouldn't have that data, but if you gave them that data as a school problem, as a classroom problem, they could solve the problem. And they could show that this rocket could only have traveled two kilometers, not 20, but two. Now it turns out when you look at the map published by the White House, the only place that rockets could have been launched from had to be in rebel-controlled areas of Damascus. The areas that were controlled by rebels, according to the White House, were the only areas where you could have launched these rockets into Ghouta.
So, you don't need 10 years of college to know there's a problem here with the White House statement. Now there are lots of other outrageous problems. Incidentally, we now know that another privileged college graduate, Ben Rhodes, who was bragging about the fact he wrote this report that was issued by the White House supposedly under the oversight of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper. So, he wrote this report because they asked him to do it and he was reviewed, it was reviewed by the director of national intel. We have this from his, you know, his description of his elevated role in this.
And the report, to use the joke that's sometimes used among physicists, was not even wrong. I mean, nothing in it was correct. And, of course, I was looking at it and I have a lot of experience with physics, and I have worked in intelligence areas as well when I was in the Pentagon. I could instantly see this was amateurish nonsense. And so, I started looking into it and, it turned out that Obama was being told by the director of national intelligence initially that this was probably, I think the words he was told a few days after the attack, was probably the Syrian government. He could not have known that. Clapper could not possibly have known that.
And I believe that. I mean, first of all, I have known people in intelligence. I still know people who've been in the intelligence community. And, you know, some of them are very smart. We're lucky to have some very good people. But it's a politicized establishment. And it's politicized not only at the working level because there's no feedback mechanism. What can you do if you, if your boss is not transmitting an accurate analysis you've done, even if you're good at what you do? And, and it's politicized at the working level, and it's politicized at, at the political level, because you have a director of national intelligence whose main job is to serve the administration, not to serve the national interest in the wider sense.
So, this guy Clapper is telling the president, well, we think it's the Syrian government. Now, if he had any idea what he was doing, and if he had a first-class intelligence team informing him, and I assume he had, I assume there must have been an intelligence team that worked and reported directly to him. There almost certainly would have been a soldier or two on that team who once seeing this munition without any technical knowledge at all, would have said something like, oh, we saw this kind of thing in Vietnam. They only had a range of one or two kilometers. Because the Vietnamese were launching explosive munitions, where they put barrels of explosives on, on scavenge rocket motors from artillery rockets.
I talked to two intelligence officers. One of them is my very smart brother-in-law who was in army intelligence. And he looked at it and said, oh yeah, of course. He's an understated guy. Yeah, of course. You, you took, you took weeks of calculations to figure this out. Yeah, I would have told you right away.
So, so, so it's hard to believe there was nobody on the intelligence team that didn't understand that these rockets could not have been launched from tens of kilometers range. And yet, on a Friday, a few days after the attack on the president. And then, on a Monday, he apparently told the president, it's not a slam dunk. That's the words that have been used to protect the president. But at the same time the president was being, he wasn't, as far as I can tell, he wasn't told that this was not correct, which of course he should have been told.
But meanwhile, secretary of state Kerry was screaming on the same day that they knew without a doubt that the munitions had come from the Syrian-controlled government areas. And that was a Monday, I think on Tuesday, he, then it might've been Wednesday. It might've been a Wednesday after that. He testified before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and told them the same thing. Well, either he had no idea what he was talking about, or quite honestly, when I read a totally different account that I had nothing to do with, by Seymour Hersh, who's looking into this from a journalistic perspective. Or he was knowingly lying.
And I think the possibility that Kerry was knowingly lying is extremely disturbing to me because if I read an article for those of your people who are interested, it's an article called Whose Sarin? Whose Sarin? It's in the London Review of Books because Hersh resigned from the New Yorker when he was writing because they wouldn't publish this article.
So, the London Review of Books published it instead. You can find it online because it's no longer under a paid wall because it's an older article. And read it carefully and you'll see that the president was informed that the sarin had been tested, according to Hersh. Now it's not me. I don't know anything about sarin. I only could tell you what I told you. That the sarin was found to be not to be the sarin that was used by the Syrians. There were different agents in it for there are various preservatives in sarin. It's not a very strong molecule, so you've got to put things in it to keep it from degrading quickly.
So, the president was told off record while his secretary of state was screaming the opposite. I don't know what Obama was thinking. In any case, he was being told that the sarin did not match the Syrian government's sarin. He was also told earlier, according to Hersh, not me, that the Russians had warned the U.S. government that some of these rebel organizations had developed the capability to make large quantities of what's called kitchen sarin. And the Russians had actually sent a message to the UN in March of 2013 saying that this was the case and providing the UN with their intelligence on this.
So, none of this has been treated properly by the mainstream press. And, as it turns out, I talked to Sy Hersh, he's a friend of mine and the way Hersh has been treated is extraordinary.
Here's a guy who got you, who found Abu Ghraib and reported it. You know, the My Lai massacre, he reported it. He's got a string of fantastic, you know, unbelievable, findings and he's been attacked in the mainstream media like he was some punk who doesn't know what he's doing. And let me tell you everything that I did as a physicist, looking at this with no knowledge, tracks perfectly with the analysis that, that with a journalistic account that, Hersh wrote. Now, I don't know if it's correct. But it looks as clear to the truth as I can imagine.
So, this is a failure of the mainstream media and it's incidentally, it's also a failure of the scientific community because the scientific community is mostly Democrats. This is where you hear the right-wing extremists, who I am not. I'm a Democrat. Okay. I want to be clear, I'm a Democrat. But all these Democrats who are scientists who could play a constructive role, they say to you, and I had this happening all through the Clinton administration, to me, where people would call me up and say, Ted, we know you're right. But, you know, you're, you, you, you're creating pressure on Clinton. You know, he's a good guy. He's our guy.
And my reaction was, well, I work for the interest of the country. If I think the president is doing something wrong and he's a Republican, I'll say it. And if he's a Democrat, I'll also say it. You know, if I have data, if it's my opinion, who cares about my, my, I, you know, no one should accept my opinion, because I'm a scientist, they should accept my opinion because I have data and analysis to support it. And, you know, that's, that's why. Just because you're a scientist doesn't mean, you know, so much more than other people. But this is a problem we have in our scientific community. And the people think they know so much more than everyone else.
Steve Hsu: Well, I think that was a very good summary, I think of your conclusions. And what I was hoping to do, and, I don't want to push you too far, but I, yeah, I just want you to generalize a little bit. So, I think the problem is that most people who don't have a depth of experience with government, with intelligence service, with claims by defense contractors about their missile defense systems. Average people are relying on the media, even average academics or, or engineers are relying on the media. And so, the question is what is the appropriate level of skepticism about events, whether they have to do with China or the Ukraine or Russia that some, an intelligent educated person should exercise?
And I think you're in an especially good place to advise people on, you know, what is the level of reliability of things that we read in the media now?
Ted Postol: I would say, and I, and I want incidentally, I have over my career been a tremendous advocate for the press. And I have tried judiciously over my career because part of my job, as I say to my students, part of your job is to discover something of interest, of real interest. Not just scientific interest. Because we're public policy science of real interest to the public decision-making process. That's the priority one.
The next priority is to make it understandable and available to the public. Now you can't do that unless you have a relationship with the press. And you, you try to develop relations with good reporters, and you develop a level of trust because a good reporter doesn't want to be manipulated.
So, in the, you know what I used to call up, let's say Bill Broad, I'll use his name. Bill Broad, an excellent science writer at the New York Times. And he's broken a lot of very good stories. And he'd start laughing the moment I started talking, because we knew each other well enough that he knew I had the goods on somebody. And it was all a bunch of front-page articles that ran on stuff that I gave him over the years. Now, when I call Broad, he doesn't even return my phone call. He won't return my phone call. I don't know why. He won't return my phone call. I'm just a bad guy.
Steve Hsu: Is it that something has changed about you or is there just a stronger political level of editorial control on these reporters now?
Ted Postol: I don't know, because he would never talk to me about it while we were going through this strange period. But what I think happened, I don't know. I want to, I want to be very clear. I do not know. I think that the editors on the paper did not like hearing from this guy Ted Postol because they thought he was an apologist for criminals in the world. Because I say, well, you know, Assad is a, you know, I'm not saying Assad isn't, isn't a criminal. I'm just saying he didn't do this. I didn't say he didn't do a lot of other things that are clearly criminal. I just said he didn't do this. And by the way, the guys who did this actually want you to go after Assad. So, use your head a little because they want to manipulate you into attacking Assad.
So, if we, if Obama had followed his initial reaction, which is understandable, horrifying thing to have done to people. So, if he had followed his initial reaction and gone to war and destroyed a significant part of the Syrian government's military capability, Damascus would have probably fallen into the arms of ISIS because they were on the edge of losing to ISIS at that point in the war.
Could that have been an outcome that would have been good for American interests? So, you might've been smart enough to ask yourself, here's the data. Maybe it was a false flag attack. Just maybe. Well, by the way, the munition only goes two kilometers. That looks very suspicious for a false flag attack since they would have had to be launched inside rebel-controlled areas. And by the way, you know, these people are not, they don't mind cutting the heads off journalists and they don't mind killing their own people just because it's convenient. So maybe it is a false flag attack. So maybe you shouldn't assume it was the Assad government.
But, you know, nobody asked that question as far as I can see. James Clapper didn't ask the question and that was his job. And they're still lying about it. And why are they lying about it? I'll tell you why they're lying about it. Because they don't want to be accused of being incompetent by their Republican adversaries. Go read this article in the Atlantic monthly by this guy, Ben Rhodes. All he's talking about is the Republican reaction to them not attacking Syria. He is supposed to be an advisor to the president on national security issues. And his concern is the Republicans, not the possibility that this was a false flag attack that was going to draw the United States into a war that was not in our interest. But the Republicans were more of a concern to him.
This is the kind of government leadership we have. This is really serious. Now, you know, you live in a political world. I understand the president is in a very politicized environment. I sympathize with Biden. I think he's very; I think he's a wonderfully decent man. Anything I can do to help him succeed; I will do. But come on, give him good advice, you know. Don't call Putin a war criminal if you're trying to negotiate with the guy. It's just not good form. It's not constructive. You know. So, I do have a problem with the whole system from the ground, you know, from the bottom up.
Steve Hsu: Well, I'm not as old as you, Ted, but it seems like I'm old enough.
Ted Postol: You're smarter than I am.
Steve Hsu: Well, I don't know about that either, but I think I've observed the system long enough to see in my lifetime, in my adult lifetime, a substantial decline. And it worries me quite a bit.
Ted Postol: Yeah. Well, keep in mind that the contractors have a lot to gain, and they'll do everything they can to stoke the system. So, they're a problem. But also keep in mind that there's a lot of incompetence in the system and that's stoking the system. And then of course, even very good people can make mistakes. I mean, my accomplishment, which I thought was a great thing at the time, to get this old, special nuclear materials for Trident II, rather than MX, backfired. It's not a good thing for the overall security of the United States. If the Russians are more nervous now than they would otherwise be, that's not good.
So, what I thought was that I was doing that was right, given what I knew, you know, I did the best I could, but I was wrong. So, you know, when my, when the war crimes trials start, maybe I should be brought up for that. But I don't know.
But in any case, people, people try to do the best they can, but there's no excuse. No excuse at all for not having competent people in these jobs. And the intelligence community does have competent people, but they're suppressed by the bureaucracy in the system. They also are being used by political leadership to protect themselves. So, if James Clapper were more committed to the defense of the country, rather than his own self-aggrandizement, he would speak the truth on this because he has to know the truth at this point. There is no way he doesn't know the truth. So, he's a liar, he's a liar. He was caught lying to Congress about eavesdropping on the American people, incidentally, so the president lied. And so, your liberal, political people are liars to the American public. And your conservatives.
So why should you believe the New York Times when they publish a front-page article and refuse to publish a responsible story that corrects it? Why should you believe the Washington Post? So, the way you get a better feel for the truth, what, what, what the truth might be is you read the foreign press. Der Spiegel, you know. Russian Television, you know, RT. They're not always lying. The argument is they're trying to manipulate you. That's true. I agree with that. But the people in the New York Times are one of the most manipulative organizations I've ever seen at this. I would never have said that about the New York Times 25 years ago.
I just happened to have a conversation with Sy Hersh just the other day. And he's been, he always jokes with me because he says I'm a geek and a, you know, and he's a real-world reporter. And so Sy says to me, he says, you know, when I worked for the, he worked for the New York Times. He says when I worked for the New York Times, if any of these stories had been incorrect, they would have been corrected on the front page of the paper.
So, the New York Times was different when he worked there. And he's very clear on that. I don't know that, but he knows, you know, but I assume he knows it. But he knows it. This is what he says to me. Now, he says, they don't even try to publish a correction. They just publish whatever they feel like they don't even carefully review it. And that's the truth. That's what they do. That's his view. I don't speak for him, but just sharing that little discussion we had.
And I, it's what I, it's what my experience is, too. The mass media in the United States has just gone to hell. And there are serious people involved, but they're not in the major newspapers. That you have to go to the internet and look at sources like The Grayzone. That's a good source. You know, other places I could put together a list and send it to you.
And they won't always be right. And they tend to be suspicious and they'll, you know, they'll, they'll get it wrong. But let me tell you a straight reading of the press that we used to consider reliable, and mainstream will almost always get you the wrong answer. Almost always. It's that bad. It's not a good situation. And it's a threat to our democracy.
Steve Hsu: Well, I hate to end our conversation on such a negative note, but I agree with your conclusions. I want to thank you Ted for a lifetime of service to our country and for having the integrity to pursue unpleasant or inconvenient truths throughout your career.
Ted Postol: Well, I want to thank you for taking an interest in this. Very few people do.
Steve Hsu: Thanks.