No Comment — February 21, 2011, 4:24 pm

State Stupidities, State Secrets

In the years after 9/11, national security agencies in the United States found themselves with a lot of money to lavish on contractors. They spent tens of billions, and there is little evidence so far that all this money did much to enhance national security. On several occasions, they were just plain fleeced. One such case involves Dennis Montgomery, a California-based computer programer first revealed in an exposé in Playboy, who played off the imbecilities of the Bush-era national security establishment, convincing senior figures that he could decrypt terrorist communications contained in Al Jazeera broadcasts, for instance. Relying on Montgomery’s predictions, the Bush Administration shut down museums and raised terrorist warnings across the country, tenaciously resisting suggestions that they were being scammed. Indeed, even after they figured that out, they undertook no serious criminal probe and brought no criminal charges against Montgomery, who is now facing trial in Las Vegas over a completely unrelated charge of trying to pass $1.8 million in bad checks at casinos. In picking upon Uncle Sam and his massive national security apparatus, it seems, Montgomery identified the perfect patsy.

Now Eric Lichtblau and James Risen report for the New York Times on how the Justice Department is managing the case against Montgomery and his associates:

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials and business associates and a review of documents show 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.

Mr. Montgomery’s former lawyer, Michael Flynn — who now describes Mr. Montgomery as a “con man” — says he believes that the administration has been shutting off scrutiny of Mr. Montgomery’s business for fear of revealing that the government has been duped. “The Justice Department is trying to cover this up,” Mr. 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.”

The scam didn’t begin to unravel until French officials, highly suspicious about the claims about the new “technology,” commissioned their own review and concluded, quickly and unambiguously, that their American counterparts were being duped. So how does the Justice Department propose to keep all the embarrassing details of how Bush officials got suckered out of the public gaze in court proceedings? The answer is simple: claim “state secrecy.”

The litigation worried intelligence officials. The Bush administration declared that some classified details about the use of Mr. Montgomery’s software were a “state secret” that could cause grave harm if disclosed in court. In 2008, the government spent three days “scrubbing” the home computers of Mr. Montgomery’s lawyer of all references to the technology. And this past fall, federal judges in Montana and Nevada who are overseeing several of the lawsuits issued protective orders shielding certain classified material.

It’s not surprising that the Justice Department would attempt this maneuver. Back in 1918, for instance, Max Weber wrote a famous study in which he concluded that it would be second nature for bureaucrats who had made some embarrassing mistake to claim state secrecy to cover it up. And in this case, there is no shortage of high-ranking officials, many of them still in office, who have much to be embarrassed about. By invoking state secrecy, the Justice Department is enabling them to commit similar stupidities in the future. It is also breaching President Obama’s public pronouncements about the use of the state secrets doctrine. But the ultimate stupidity is the pretense that this makes the country safer. The Montgomery case is just one more example of how state secrets makes us less smart and less safe.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated cost of the environmental damage caused each year by the world’s 3,000 largest companies:

$2,200,000,000,000

Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.

Beekeepers began extracting 1 million honeybees living beneath the siding of a house in New York State.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today