Leak case spotlights an MIT divide

A defense research giant, with a long tradition of defiance

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / August 8, 2010

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It was once called the Pentagon on the Charles, a campus of imposing limestone structures connected by long corridors where some of the nation’s most significant military advancements were hatched.

Here, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists developed radar used to help track and direct fire at German cruise missiles during World War II. During the Cold War, university researchers designed the nation’s air defense and missile guidance systems. More recently, its professors and graduate students have been working with the Army on nanotechnologies to protect soldiers on the battlefield.

But MIT, which has received billions in military funding over the past six decades, has also been home to some of the Defense Department’s most notorious antagonists. Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine officer famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, spent a year there as a research fellow prior to the 1971 publication of the secret history of US involvement in Vietnam. Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist-turned-antiwar activist, landed on President Nixon’s enemies list. In 2000, physics professor Theodore Postol began a decade-long battle with the university, accusing MIT officials of covering up fraud in missile defense testing in order to maintain lucrative military contracts.

And just a week ago, the university’s name became intertwined with another act of Defense Department defiance when several MIT students and graduates were linked to an Army private accused of funneling thousands of pages of classified war records to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

The circumstances surrounding the MIT students’ alleged connection to the leaker, characterized by Ellsberg as the largest unauthorized disclosure since the Pentagon Papers, remain murky, but point to the dual nature of a university that has served as both one of the intellectual drivers of the defense industry and, at times, a particularly sharp thorn in its side.

The spirit of rebellion, Chomsky said, is a natural byproduct of the MIT culture, where students and professors are constantly testing out their theories and a strong premium is placed on the free flow of information.

“MIT is science-based. There tends to be a kind of questioning subculture, and things are challenged constantly,’’ said Chomsky, a controversial critic of US foreign and domestic policy. “It’s just the nature of the institution and its fields.’’

But others, including the university’s most prominent dissident, warned against reading too much into a few individual acts of defiance.

“MIT is far from being a cradle of dissent,’’ said Ellsberg in a phone interview from his California home. “It has been close to being a branch of the Defense Department, with some very notable exceptions.’’

MIT’s longstanding ties to the military — and its money — helped hone its reputation as one of the elite modern research universities. It was the single largest wartime research and development contractor during World War II and Department of Defense dollars made up more than 90 percent of its research funding during the Cold War.

To this day, MIT draws more than $750 million a year in Defense Department funding, including on-campus research as well as classified work on national security at its Lexington-based Lincoln Laboratory. That figure accounts for more than half of all MIT research and makes it one of the top five universities funded by the Department of Defense.

“Universities should not be in the offensive weapons business, but in terms of providing the kind of technologies that can help secure the nation, that’s something we should be doing,’’ said Claude Canizares, a physics professor and vice president who oversees MIT’s research activity and policy.

The institute’s academic enterprise and Defense Department backing have not always coexisted peacefully. As antiwar protests roiled college campuses across the nation in the late 1960s, faculty and student activists at MIT objected to the militarization of university research.

Students at the university stormed the president’s office with a battering ram. They bombed the bathroom at the Center for International Studies, which had accepted CIA funding since its founding during the Cold War. They took over the student center to provide sanctuary for an Army deserter, and organized a day for a campus-wide discussion on the problems surrounding science, technology, and society.

The uproar at MIT ignited a national debate on the military’s influence on universities and the social responsibility of scientists and engineers, ultimately prompting MIT to move all classified research off campus, said Chomsky, the leading faculty activist who sat on a committee to determine the future of MIT’s defense laboratories.

Ellsberg, a former Defense Department consultant and analyst at the RAND Corporation, arrived at MIT’s Center for International Studies in the fall of 1970 to work on a paper critical of the government’s handling of Vietnam. The previous fall, he had photocopied a 7,000-page, top secret report about US decision-making in Vietnam, later known as the Pentagon Papers, which he helped write during his time at RAND, and distributed it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said he came to MIT expecting to be arrested at any moment.

“I didn’t want to be arrested at RAND and embarrass them,’’ said Ellsberg, who also gave the documents to newspapers once he was in Cambridge. “To be frank about it, I didn’t care if it embarrassed MIT. They had tremendous contracts with the Defense Department and I figured they could take it. In those days, the MIT professors who were publicly critical of the war were only a handful.’’

Ellsberg turned himself in about two weeks after The New York Times began publishing the papers in June 1971. A federal judge, citing government misconduct, would later dismiss the case against him.

Ellsberg likened his role to that of Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who is suspected of disclosing more than 90,000 classified documents from the Afghan war to WikiLeaks with the possible help of Boston-area students, including some hackers affiliated with MIT. Those students have not been named and their roles have not been confirmed.

Ellsberg, the first person to be prosecuted for leaking classified information to the American public, said he supports the disclosures made on WikiLeaks.

“Despite all the ominous allegations by the Defense Department as to how dangerous this is, we haven’t actually seen anything yet that should not have been out,’’ Ellsberg said. “Everything we’ve seen deserves to be public at this point.’’

MIT professors and students say they are not shocked by the possible connection between MIT students and the leaks, given its students’ technological expertise and the university culture of exploring unorthodox directions of inquiry.

“MIT produces some eccentric people,’’ said Barry Posen, director of the university’s security studies program. “You should never be surprised what comes out of MIT given its tradition of hacking and the brilliance of its students.’’

A newly created Bradley Manning Support Network has drawn more than $22,000 from 400-plus donors, a couple dozen affiliated with MIT, said Jeff Paterson, the fund’s cofounder.

“The idea of standing up to authority, especially when that authority is misbehaving, is intriguing to many students,’’ said Steve Howland, an MIT senior majoring in aeronautics and astronautics. “There’s very much a watchdog feel to the culture here, making sure that we know what authority is doing and that we can actually trust it. Transparency and openness and the quick spread of information is what a lot of people are pulling for.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at