Sunday, February 20, 2011

NYT article on Dennis Montgomery's software career

Today's New York Times features a front-page investigative article titled Hiding Details of Dubious Deal, U.S. Invokes National Security. The article, together with an accompanying interactive timeline, provide evidence and make the assertion 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.

During the heyday of the anti-terrorist hysteria, Montgomery realized that he could capitalize on the activity:

the company won the attention of intelligence officials in Washington. It did so with a remarkable claim: Mr. Montgomery had found coded messages hidden in broadcasts by Al Jazeera, and his technology would decipher them to identify specific threats.

I remember the media reporting on such "messages", and it indeed had just enough plausibility that I can see how people were willing to believe it. There was, according to the article, just one problem: there were no messages; there was no such technology; Montgomery had simply made it all up.

Much more significant than the wasted money, which in truth is minute in the long litany of Homeland Security waste over the last decade, is the truly shocking realization that, based just on this, foolish, even tragic actions were almost taken:

In December 2003, Mr. Montgomery reported alarming news: hidden in the crawl bars broadcast by Al Jazeera, someone had planted information about specific American-bound flights from Britain, France and Mexico that were hijacking targets.

C.I.A. officials rushed the information to Mr. Bush, who ordered those flights to be turned around or grounded before they could enter American airspace.

Senior administration officials even talked about shooting down planes identified as targets because they feared that supposed hijackers would use the planes to attack the United States.

You should read the entire article: it's chilling and infuriating.

UPDATE As several people have pointed out, you should also read the excellent article by Aram Roston, written 18 months ago: The Man Who Conned The Pentagon, published in (yes) Playboy Magazine. Separately, Mike Masnick points out that not only did the government spend millions of taxpayer dollars on this non-existent software, they also allowed Montgomery to patent it!

Sadly, this last decade has been one tragic story after another along these lines. The gigantic money trough that is the Homeland Security Administration has resulted in all too many fraudsters and con-men showing up to siphon off what they could. Just last month we learned that what appeared to be a respectable security consulting company was in fact headed by a CEO who faked his evidence and manufactured claims that he knew would excite interest and therefore lucrative contracts. Wired's Threat Level blog, together with Ars Technica, another well-respected technology site, did a wonderful job of reporting on the scandal in a pair of articles:

Of course, charlatans are nothing new in the security field -- there's a reason that Bruce Schneier never seems to lack for material to fill the "Doghouse" section of his monthly security newsletter.

But it's certainly dispiriting to have it once again confirmed that even the people who really truly ought to know better, such as the CIA and the Air Force, fall victim to these scams again and again. Here's a big "thank you" to the New York Times, to Ars Technica, to Wired, to people like Brian Krebs and Bruce Schneier, and to all those hard-working and dedicated journalists who refuse to be bluffed by the schemers and fakers and work to educate us about what is real and what is not.

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