Posted by Brad @ 12:56 pm on December 21st 2009

The Man Who Conned the Pentagon

One of the things that most amazed me during the Bush years was the fact that Republicans and conservatives, who tend to believe (rightly) that government is inefficient, wasteful, and a poor mechanism for change, had no problem whatever holding that view for all things domestic, but for some reason without a second thought embraced the idea in all things abroad or relating to national security. The sheer exuberance with which they totally internalized the liberal ideal as it pertained to a police state or democratizing foreign barely-states was somewhat breathtaking. Apparently, Washington couldn’t be trusted to manage, say, energy policy, or deal with national parks, but when it turned its attention to terrorists, it was omnicompetent. This led to the strange juxtaposition of Republicans decrying the inability of government to act responsibly with old people’s government pensions, but could, somehow, Westernize Afghanistan and efficiently and responsibly maintain a domestic spying program analyzing all communications in the United States. One would think the lesson of conservatism would generalize for conservatives—indeed, that that’s what would make the conservatives!—but no.

Case in point, this article from Playboy, about a man who convinced the Pentagon that he had a secret code that allowed him to receive terrorist messages. Specifically, through a process he couldn’t replicate or even explain, he nevertheless asserted that he could find “terrorist bar codes” in Al Jazeera broadcasts that gave coordinates and flight numbers that Al Queda was using to all the terrorists out there watching with their decoder rings.

Now, if a guy at a bus stop were telling you this, you would slowly step away and awkwardly try to cut off conversation. If you’re the Pentagon though? Start throwing this guy no-bid contracts (he claims totaling about 130 million, but we really have no idea), start canceling flights, and raise the terror alert level to Orange (high) in December 2003, with Tom Ridge warning of “near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experience on September 11.”

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 fucking people money?’”

He has also developed software that he claims can perfectly recognize faces and weapons from Predator Drone video files, and a filter that can take satellite imagery and tell you which parts of the oceans have submarines in them (an employee says that the guy actually did this “by eye”). Neither of which, apparently, worked or were even actually developed. Nobody is quite sure how much money the national security apparatus of America has actually thrown at this guy.

Best part? Even after all that, this year the same guy got $3 million from the Air Force so they could “look at some software of his to see if there was anything there.” He used the money to pay off gambling debts and promptly declared bankruptcy.

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