Dec 22, 2009

Where's An Ariens Snow Thrower When You Need One?

Remember the SMC maxim: "Any time a U.S. official publicly refers to chatter, you can be sure that some variety of bullshittery is afoot."

The SMC maxim cited here has only a slight direct relevance to the overall story (the part where DHS issued the upgraded threat level based on "chatter"), but it is an indication that the dude's program was a stinker and that people knew all along that it was crap.

The weeks before Christmas brought no hint of terror. But by the afternoon of December 21, 2003, police stood guard in heavy assault gear on the streets of Manhattan. Fighter jets patrolled the skies. When a gift box was left on Fifth Avenue, it was labeled a suspicious package and 5,000 people in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were herded into the cold.

It was Code Orange. Americans first heard of it at a Sunday press conference in
Washington, D.C. Weekend assignment editors sent their crews up Nebraska Avenue to the new Homeland Security offices, where DHS secretary Tom Ridge announced the terror alert. “There’s continued discussion,” he told reporters, “these are from credible sources—about near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11.” The New York Times reported that intelligence sources warned “about some unspecified but spectacular attack.”

The financial markets trembled. By Tuesday the panic had ratcheted up as the Associated Press reported threats to “power plants, dams and even oil facilities in Alaska.” The feds forced the cancellation of dozens of French, British and Mexican commercial “flights of interest” and pushed foreign governments to put armed air marshals on certain flights. Air France flight 68 was canceled, as was Air France flight 70. By Christmas the headline in the Los Angeles Times was "Six Flights Canceled as Signs of Terror Plot Point to L.A." Journalists speculated over the basis for these terror alerts. “Credible sources,” Ridge said. “Intelligence chatter,” said CNN.

But there were no real intercepts, no new informants, no increase in chatter. And the suspicious package turned out to contain a stuffed snowman. This was, instead, the beginning of a bizarre scam. Behind that terror alert, and a string of contracts and intrigue that continues to this date, there is one unlikely character.

The man’s name is Dennis Montgomery, a self-proclaimed scientist who said he could predict terrorist attacks. Operating with a small software development company, he apparently convinced the Bush White House, the CIA, the Air Force and other agencies that Al Jazeera—the Qatari-owned TV network—was unwittingly transmitting target data to Al Qaeda sleepers.

An unusual team arrived in Reno, Nevada in 2003 from the Central Intelligence Agency. They drove up Trademark Drive, well south of the casinos, past new desert warehouses. Then they turned into an almost empty parking lot, where a sign read "eTreppid Technologies." It was an attractively designed building of stone tile and mirrored windows that had once been a sprinklerhead factory.

ETreppid Technologies was a four-year-old firm trying to find its way. Some of its employees had been hired to design video games. One game under construction was Roadhouse, based on the 1989 movie in which Patrick Swayze plays a bouncer in a dive bar.
Other programmers worked on streaming video for security cameras.


He is an unusual man. In court papers filed in Los Angeles, a former lawyer for Montgomery calls the software designer a “habitual liar engaged in fraud.” Last June Montgomery was charged in Las Vegas with bouncing nine checks (totaling $1 million) in September 2008 and was arrested on a felony warrant in Rancho Mirage, California. That million is only a portion of what he lost to five casinos in Nevada and California in just one year. That’s according to his federal bankruptcy filing, where he reported personal debts of $12 million. The FBI has investigated him, and some of his own co-workers say he staged phony demonstrations of military technology for the U.S. government.

Montgomery has no formal scientific education, but over the past six years he seems to have convinced top people in the national security establishment that he had developed secret tools to save the world from terror and had decoded Al Qaeda transmissions. But the communications Montgomery said he was decrypting apparently didn’t exist.

Since 1996 the Al Jazeera news network had been operating in the nation of Qatar, a U.S. ally in the war on terror. Montgomery claimed he had found something sinister disguised in Al Jazeera’s broadcast signal that had nothing to do with what was being said on the air: Hidden in the signal were secret bar codes that told terrorists the terms of their next mission, laying out the latitudes and longitudes of targets, sometimes even flight numbers and dates. And he was the only man who had the technology to decrypt this code.

As strange as his technology appeared to be, it was nevertheless an attractive concept.
Montgomery was as persuasive as some within the intelligence community were receptive. Al Jazeera was an inspired target since its pan-Arabic mission had been viewed with suspicion by those who saw an anti-American bias in the network’s coverage. In 2004 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Al Jazeera of “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” reporting. Will Stebbins, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief, told The Washington Post, “There was clearly an attempt to delegitimize Al Jazeera that came during a period of a lot of national hysteria and paranoia about the Arabic world.” (“It is unfortunate,” an Al Jazeera spokesperson told Playboy when asked for comment, “that a select few people continue to drag up these completely false conspiracy theories about Al Jazeera, which were generated by the previous U.S. administration.”)

Over the years Montgomery’s intelligence found its way to the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, Special Forces Command, the Navy, the Air Force, the Senate Intelligence Committee and even to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Back in 2003, just before the terror alert caused by Montgomery’s technology, eTreppid held a Christmas party in a ballroom at the Atlantis Casino in Reno. Employees gathered at round tables to dine and drink. Even a CIA man showed up, a lanky fellow wearing a button-down shirt with an oxford collar. By the end of the night, employees noticed Montgomery and eTreppid chief executive Warren Trepp talking closely. A photo snapped by an employee shows Montgomery with his jacket off and a Christmas ribbon wrapped around his head like a turban with a rose tucked into it. He was hugging Trepp, who sobbed into his shoulder. The festivities were a rare break for Montgomery, who had been busy churning out terrorist target coordinates for the CIA.On Sunday, January 4, 2004 a British Airways flight out of Heathrow was delayed for hours for security reasons, and FBI agents demanded that hotels in Vegas turn over their guest lists. It was also the day a top CIA official flew to the eTreppid office in Reno. There, on eTreppid letterhead, the CIA official promised the company’s name would not be revealed and that the government would not “unilaterally use or otherwise take” Montgomery’s Al Jazeera technology.

Back in
Washington, few insiders in government knew where the intelligence was coming from. Aside from Tenet and a select few, no one was told about eTreppid’s Al Jazeera finds. Even veteran intelligence operatives within the CIA could only wonder. “These guys were trying to hide it like it was some little treasure,” one former counterterrorist official told me.

The reason the whole thing worked was because Montgomery’s CIA contact was with the agency’s Directorate of Science and Technology. That’s the whiz-bang branch of the intelligence service, where employees make and break codes, design disguises and figure out the latest gadgets. S&T was eventually ordered by CIA brass to reveal its source to small groups from other parts of the agency. And when some experienced officers heard about it, they couldn’t believe it. One former counterterrorism official remembers the briefing: “They found encoded location data for previous and future threat locations on these Al Jazeera tapes,” he says. “It got so emotional. We were fucking livid. I was told to shut up. I was saying, ‘This is crazy. This is embarrassing.’ They claimed they were breaking the code, getting latitude and longitude, and Al Qaeda operatives were decoding it. They were coming up with airports and everything, and we were just saying, ‘You know, this is horseshit!’” Another former officer, who has decades of experience, says, “We were told that, like magic, these guys were able to exploit this Al Jazeera stuff and come up with bar codes, and these bar codes translated to numbers and letters that gave them target locations. I thought it was total bullshit.”

The federal government was acting on the Al Jazeera claims without even understanding how
Montgomery found his coordinates. “I said, ‘Give us the algorithms that allowed you to come up with this stuff.’ They wouldn’t even do that,” says the first officer. “And I was screaming, ‘You gave these people fucking money?’”

Despite such skepticism, the information found its way to the top of the U.S. government. Frances Townsend, a Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush, chaired daily meetings to address the crisis. She now admits that the bar codes sounded far-fetched. And, she says, even though it all proved to be false, they had no choice but to pursue the claim. “It didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility,” she says. “We were relying on technical people to tell us whether or not it was feasible. I don’t regret having acted on it.” The feds, after all, had a responsibility to look into the technology. “There were lots of meetings going on during the time of this threat,” says Townsend. “What were we going to do and how would we screen people? If we weren’t comfortable we wouldn’t let a flight take off.” Eventually, though Montgomery continued to crank out his figures, cooler heads prevailed. The threat was ultimately deemed “not credible,” as Townsend puts it.

A former CIA official went through the scenario with me and explained why sanity finally won out. First,
Montgomery never explained how he was finding and interpreting the bar codes. How could one scientist find the codes when no one else could? More implausibly, the scheme required Al Jazeera’s complicity. At the very least, a technician at the network would have to inject the codes into video broadcasts, and every terrorist operative would need some sort of decoding device. What would be the advantage of this method of transmission?

A branch of the French intelligence services helped convince the Americans that the bar codes were fake. The CIA and the French commissioned a technology company to locate or re-create codes in the Al Jazeera transmission. They found definitively that what
Montgomery claimed was there was not. Quietly, as far as the CIA was concerned, the case was closed. The agency turned the matter over to the counterintelligence side to see where it had gone wrong.

Read more over at Playboy (PNSfW)

Dec 6, 2009

Our Game - Diplo-Blowback at Pearl Harbor

SIXTY-EIGHT years ago tomorrow, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. In the brutal Pacific war that would follow, millions of soldiers and civilians were killed. My father — one of the famous flag raisers on Iwo Jima — was among the young men who went off to the Pacific to fight for his country. So the war naturally fascinated me. But I always wondered, why did we fight in the Pacific? Yes, there was Pearl Harbor, but why did the Japanese attack us in the first place?

In search of an answer, I read deeply into the diplomatic history of the 1930s, about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy on Asia, and his preparation — or lack thereof — for a major conflict there. But I discovered that I was studying the wrong President Roosevelt. The one who had the greater effect on Japan’s behavior was Theodore Roosevelt — whose efforts to end the war between Japan and Russia earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Theodore Roosevelt was president, three decades before World War II, the world was focused on the bloody Russo-Japanese War, a contest for control of North Asia. President Roosevelt was no fan of the Russians: “No human beings, black, yellow or white, could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant — in short, as untrustworthy in every way — as the Russians,” he wrote in August 1905, near the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese, on the other hand, were “a wonderful and civilized people,” Roosevelt wrote, “entitled to stand on an absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world.”

Roosevelt knew that Japan coveted the Korean Peninsula as a springboard to its Asian expansion. Back in 1900, when he was still vice president, Roosevelt had written, “I should like to see Japan have Korea.” When, in February 1904, Japan broke off relations with Russia, President Roosevelt said publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality,” but privately he wrote, “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.”

In June 1905, Roosevelt made world headlines when — apparently on his own initiative — he invited the two nations to negotiate an end to their war. Roosevelt’s private letter to his son told another story: “I have of course concealed from everyone — literally everyone — the fact that I acted in the first place on Japan’s suggestion ... . Remember that you are to let no one know that in this matter of the peace negotiations I have acted at the request of Japan and that each step has been taken with Japan’s foreknowledge, and not merely with her approval but with her expressed desire.”

Years later, a Japanese emissary to Roosevelt paraphrased the president’s comments to him: “All the Asiatic nations are now faced with the urgent necessity of adjusting themselves to the present age. Japan should be their natural leader in that process, and their protector during the transition stage, much as the United States assumed the leadership of the American continent many years ago, and by means of the Monroe Doctrine, preserved the Latin American nations from European interference. The future policy of Japan towards Asiatic countries should be similar to that of the United States towards their neighbors on the American continent.”

In a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, in July 1905, Roosevelt approved the Japanese annexation of Korea and agreed to an “understanding or alliance” among Japan, the United States and Britain “as if the United States were under treaty obligations.” The “as if” was key: Congress was much less interested in North Asia than Roosevelt was, so he came to his agreement with Japan in secret, an unconstitutional act.


Roosevelt had assumed that the Japanese would stop at Korea and leave the rest of North Asia to the Americans and the British. But such a wish clashed with his notion that the Japanese should base their foreign policy on the American model of expansion across North America and, with the taking of Hawaii and the Philippines, into the Pacific. It did not take long for the Japanese to tire of the territorial restrictions placed upon them by their Anglo-American partners.

Japan’s declaration of war, in December 1941, explained its position quite clearly: “It is a fact of history that the countries of East Asia for the past hundred years or more have been compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation and to sacrifice themselves to the prosperity of the two nations. The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of such a situation.”

In planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was specifically thinking of how, 37 years earlier, the Japanese had surprised the Russian Navy at Port Arthur in Manchuria and, as he wrote, “favorable opportunities were gained by opening the war with a sudden attack on the main enemy fleet.” At the time, the indignant Russians called it a violation of international law. But Theodore Roosevelt, confident that he could influence events in North Asia from afar, wrote to his son, “I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game.”

It was for his efforts to broker the peace deal between Russia and Japan that a year and a half later Roosevelt became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize — and one of only three presidents to do so while in office (the other two are Woodrow Wilson and President Obama, who will accept his prize this week). No one in Oslo, or in the United States Congress, knew the truth then.

But the Japanese did. And the American president’s support emboldened them to increase their military might — and their imperial ambitions. In December 1941, the consequence of Theodore Roosevelt’s recklessness would become clear to those few who knew of the secret dealings. No one else — including my dad on Iwo Jima — realized just how well Japan had indeed played “our game.”