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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.

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