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…”
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.
Aram’s report meticulously unravels the whole scam, in the process revealing how the gullible Bushies desperately wanted to believe Montgomery’s mumbo-jumbo and how his scam was effectively advanced by the security classifications they breathlessly attached to his every word—enabling him to nail down further contracts even after the CIA unmasked his hoax. Note, in particular, the interview with torture-apologist Frances Townsend, Bush’s counterterrorism advisor, who upholds the Bush tradition of never admitting a mistake. Apparently Townsend’s ready to buy snake oil again if there’s more to be sold.
Watch Aram discuss the story last night with Rachel Maddow:
Read my interview with Aram about his book on the rise of another charlatan of the Bush era, Ahmed Chalabi, here.