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Geek cons US out of US$20m with bogus software to stop al-Qaeda

None | Feb. 22, 2011

The software so excited CIA officials that, for a few months at least, it was considered "the most important, most sensitive" intelligence tool the agency had, according to a former agency official, who like several others would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the technology was classified. ETreppid was soon awarded almost $US10 million in contracts with the military's Special Operations Command and the Air Force, which were interested in software that Montgomery promised could identify human and other targets from videos on Predator drones.

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

CIA officials rushed the information to Bush, who ordered those flights to be turned around or grounded before they could enter US airspace.

"The intelligence people were telling us this was real and credible, and we had to do something to act on it," recalled Asa Hutchinson, who oversaw federal aviation safety at the time. 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, according to a former senior intelligence official who was at a meeting where the idea was discussed. The official later called the idea of firing on the planes "crazy".

French officials, upset that their planes were being grounded, commissioned a secret study concluding that the technology was a fabrication. Presented with the findings soon after the 2003 episode, Bush administration officials began to suspect that "we got played", a former counterterrorism official said.

The CIA never did an assessment to determine how a ruse had turned into a full-blown international incident, officials said, nor was anyone held accountable. In fact, agency officials who oversaw the technology directorate — including Donald Kerr, who helped persuade George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, that the software was credible — were promoted, former officials said. "Nobody was blamed," a former CIA official said. "They acted like it never happened."

After a bitter falling out between Montgomery and Trepp in 2006 led to a series of lawsuits, the FBI and the Air Force sent investigators to eTreppid to look into accusations that Montgomery had stolen digital data from the company's systems. In interviews, several employees claimed that Montgomery had manipulated tests in demonstrations with military officials to make it appear that his video recognition software had worked, according to government memorandums. The investigation collapsed, though, when a judge ruled that the FBI had conducted an improper search of his home.

Software and secrets


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