THE debate over how well the Patriot missile defense system performed during the Gulf war of 1991 shows no sign of ending soon.
Last week, the General Accounting Office (GAO), a branch of Congress, released a negative assessment of the Patriot. The GAO report concluded that the United States Army's estimate that the Patriot destroyed 70 percent of its Scud missile targets in Saudi Arabia and 40 percent of them in Israel was overblown.
The GAO concluded that only 9 percent of the Patriot firings were "high confidence" kills.
But the GAO also released a report calling into question the video evidence that Theodore Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used to demonstrate that the Patriot system didn't work.
The GAO concluded that commercial videotape could not conclusively demonstrate the system's failure. Dr. Postol does not disagree, but he says the videotape is the best evidence available.
A draft report prepared by the staff of the House Government Operations Committee has further muddied the waters. The Monitor first reported that the House study, based in part on Postol's work, concluded that the Patriot missed its Scud targets almost every time it was fired.
On Oct. 1, the Government Operations Committee met to decide whether to officially adopt the staff report.
Committee Republicans, upset that news of the draft report had appeared in the press, mobilized against the Patriot study. Rep. Frank Horton (R) of New York, the ranking minority member, told colleagues in a letter: "I am very troubled by this report and by the entire `investigation' that supposedly supports its findings and recommendations."
Raytheon Company, the Lexington, Mass.-based manufacturer of the Patriot, also mounted a lobbying campaign to convince committee members not to back the report.
In the face of opposition from committee Republicans, and even from some Democrats, chairman John Conyers Jr. (D) of Michigan postponed consideration of the staff report. The report may be released without the committee's endorsement or may be reconsidered by the committee next year.
Advocates of the Patriot claimed the committee action was a victory for their side. The report was withdrawn, said a Raytheon statement, "presumably because a majority of the members found it biased and not representative of the facts, and had indicated their intention to vote it down."
"That's not true," Representative Conyers replied. "Raytheon mounted a ferocious lobbying campaign against a report they had never read. We offered to brief them. They refused. The report was based on GAO assessments that the Patriot may have hit only 9 percent of the Scuds targeted."