US regretting dubious deal with computer programmer
Is now suspected of selling phony antiterror software
WASHINGTON — 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 Montgomery bamboozled federal officials.
A onetime biomedical technician with a penchant for gambling, 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 Montgomery and his associates received more than $20 million in government contracts by asserting that software he developed could help stop Al Qaeda’s next attack on the United States.
However, the technology appears to have been a hoax, and a series of government agencies, including the CIA and the Air Force, repeatedly missed warning signs, records and interviews show.
Montgomery’s former lawyer, Michael Flynn — who now describes Montgomery as a “con man’’ — says he believes that the administration has been shutting off scrutiny of Montgomery’s business for fear of revealing that the government has been duped.
“The Justice Department is trying to cover this up,’’ 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.’’
Justice Department officials declined to discuss the government’s dealings with Montgomery, 57, who is in bankruptcy and living outside Palm Springs, Calif. Montgomery is about to go on trial in Las Vegas on unrelated charges of trying to pass $1.8 million in bad checks at casinos, but he has not been charged with wrongdoing in the federal contracts, nor has the government tried to get back any of the money it paid. He and his current lawyer declined to comment.
The computer codes he patented — codes that he claimed, among other things, could find terrorist plots hidden in broadcasts of the Arab network Al Jazeera, identify terrorists from Predator drone videos, and detect noise from hostile submarines — prompted an international false alarm that led President George W. Bush to order airliners to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean in 2003.
The codes also led to dead ends in connection with a 2006 terrorism plot in Britain. And they were used by counterterrorism officials to respond to a bogus Somali terrorism plot on the day of President Obama’s inauguration, according to previously undisclosed documents.
“Dennis would always say, ‘My technology is real, and it’s worth a fortune,’ ’’ recounted Steve Crisman, a filmmaker who oversaw business operations for Montgomery and a partner until a few years ago. “In the end, I’m convinced it wasn’t real.’’
Government officials, with billions of dollars in new counterterrorism financing after Sept. 11, eagerly embraced the promise of new tools against militants.
CIA officials, though, came to believe that Montgomery’s technology was fake in 2003, but their conclusions apparently were not relayed to the military’s Special Operations Command, which had contracted with his firm. In 2006, FBI investigators were told by co-workers of Montgomery that he had repeatedly doctored test results at presentations for government officials. But Montgomery still landed more business.
In 2009, the Air Force approved a $3 million deal for his technology, even though a contracting officer acknowledged that other agencies were skeptical about the software, according to e-mails obtained by The New York Times.