Monday, February 21, 2011

U.S. duped by computer "con" in war against terrorists?

By Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, New York Times, February 19, 2011
For eight years, government officials turned to Dennis Montgomery, a California computer programmer, for eye-popping technology that he said could catch terrorists. Now, federal officials want nothing to do with him and are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his dealings with Washington stay secret
The Justice Department, which in the last few months has gotten protective orders from two federal judges keeping details of the technology out of court, says it is guarding state secrets that would threaten national security if disclosed. But others involved in the case say that what the government is trying to avoid is public embarrassment over evidence that Mr. Montgomery bamboozled federal officials.

A onetime biomedical technician with a penchant for gambling, Mr. Montgomery is at the center of a tale that features terrorism scares, secret White House briefings, backing from prominent Republicans, backdoor deal-making and fantastic-sounding computer technology.
Interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials and business associates and a review of documents show that Mr. Montgomery and his associates received more than $20 million in government contracts by claiming that software he had developed could help stop Al Qaeda’s next attack on the United States. But the technology appears to have been a hoax, and a series of government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force, repeatedly missed the warning signs, the records and interviews show.
Mr. Montgomery’s former lawyer, Michael Flynn — who now describes Mr. Montgomery as a “con man” — says he believes that the administration has been shutting off scrutiny of Mr. Montgomery’s business for fear of revealing that the government has been duped.
“The Justice Department is trying to cover this up,” Mr. Flynn said. “If this unravels, all of the evidence, all of the phony terror alerts and all the embarrassment comes up publicly, too. The government knew this technology was bogus, but these guys got paid millions for it.”
If this story continues in this direction, the hoodwinking of top government officials by another snake-oil salesman, another magic bullet against the potential ravages of terrorism, will only demonstrate the degree to which the U.S. (and potentially other countries as well) has become consumed, even obsessive and paranoid to the point of losing touch with healthy engagement processes at the spectre of terrorist-generated violence.
Repeatedly missing the warning signs (of this latest con artist) is a theme running through the U.S. government that apparently was (and is?) looking for the most secret and most effective thwarting of the AlQaeda ambitions to destroy the U.S.
And yet, after a few opening shots, there is a history of the mosquito scratching itself to death, from the fears generated by the prospect of losing face to some band of thugs in the mountains of Waziristan. And the terrorists did not even have to develop an insecticide that would lodge in the veins of those mosquito wings, as those who make insecticides for campers had to do.
There is a tragic aspect to this story; there is also a somewhat humorous side...you know, the irony of the David and Goliath story, with the U.S. being Goliath in this case and Osama ben "David" on the other side.
Short-term fixes, while initially appealing to the most frightened usually do not have long-term benefits. And, let's hope this story does not reveal too many manipulative hoaxes having been imposed on the American people, thereby undermining the credibility of the "state" even further.
If this mosquito does scratch itself to death, a lot of people will be undone with it.

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