One man's claims about secret al-Qaida messages sent via television led American officials to raise terror-alert levels and cancel a number of flights. But those claims turned out to be bogus. Guy Raz talks with journalist Aram Roston about his article in Playboy magazine about Dennis Montgomery, "The Man Who Conned the Pentagon."
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GUY RAZ, host:
Back during the Bush administration, officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often accused Al Jazeera of serving as al-Qaida's favorite TV station. That may explain how a man named Dennis Montgomery convinced the CIA that Al Jazeera was sending coded messages through its broadcast signal to al-Qaida operatives. And Montgomery claimed he had the computer software to break the code.
For several months starting in the fall of 2003, Montgomery's analysis led directly to national code orange security alerts and cancelled flights. The only problem: he was making it all up. And you and me, the taxpayers, well, we paid for it.
The story is told in the new issue of Playboy magazine. And the author, Aram Roston, joins me from our New York bureau.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. ARAM ROSTON (Author, "The Man who Conned the Pentagon"): Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: Let's start at the beginning. What was Dennis Montgomery claiming he could find in Al Jazeera's broadcasts?
Mr. ROSTON: First of all, let me point out it's still all classified. That said, what he was claiming to find were barcodes in essence. Sequences of information that he said then revealed the targets of intended terrorist attacks.
RAZ: Barcodes from a television signal?
Mr. ROSTON: Yeah. He said they were sort of embedded within the digital feed from Al Jazeera, so - and which is potentially technically possible, of course. You could sort of scramble the pixels in various ways. But he said he could decode all this and find these barcodes or sort of things like barcodes. And he said these translate into coordinates - latitudes or longitude, times, flight times, flight numbers - and those were terrorist targets, he claimed.
RAZ: Let's back up for a moment. How did Dennis Montgomery convince the CIA to give him business, because they gave him business? I mean, they actually put some money into this.
Mr. ROSTON: He was in business with another man, as the article describes, in a company called eTreppid. They were the initial contractor, although later, he would sell the same, or try to sell the same software through another company with another partner.
The first partner was a man named Warren Trepp. Now, people who are familiar with Michael Milken and the big scandal of the '80s, the Drexel Burnham scandal...
RAZ: The junk bonds.
Mr. ROSTON: ...the junk bonds scandals, exactly, they'll be familiar with Warren Trepp because he was Michael Milken's right-hand man in the junk bond schemes.
RAZ: And he was running this company that hired Dennis Montgomery and that company managed to get the contract with the CIA.
Mr. ROSTON: Exactly.
RAZ: You write about some of the code orange security alerts that came directly from Montgomery's so-called analysis of those al-Jazeera signals. Describe some of them.
Mr. ROSTON: On the 21st of December in 2003, there was this huge announcement -it was a Sunday. Everything seemed to be going fine that Christmas season, and then suddenly on that Sunday, Tom Ridge, the secretary of Homeland Security, made this announcement: we're going to orange alert - and nobody knew what it was.
Reporters, you know, investigative reporters and then people who cover the intelligence community and so forth, were all trying to gauge what was going on. They talked about was there chatter intercepts and informants and so forth. What it was was this guy's analysis or supposed analysis of al-Jazeera.
And people in the CIA, people who knew what they were talking about, were furious. Every quote I got from them was basically full of expletives. They were so upset. They were just losing it.
RAZ: But who believed him? I mean, who believed him there?
Mr. ROSTON: What happened was there was a particular division called science and technology, and they were the CIA's, you know, sort of high tech group. The ones that you often like in the movies - they make disguises and intercepts and special little gadgets. They were the ones that believed it. They were the ones that gave him the contract.
RAZ: And some of this data reached Frances Townsend, who was President George W. Bush's senior counterterrorism advisor.
Mr. ROSTON: Yeah. Well, what happened was sources told me she was chairing the meetings during this time that resulted from this stream of supposed intelligence. She was the one who President Bush appointed to oversee the response meetings - and she would hold them every day. And so I talked to her and she did admit she held those meetings. She agreed she held those meetings. She remember all the intelligence, she sort of laughed about it. She said, well, they had to take it seriously.
RAZ: Is it possible that the decision to announce a code orange alert in December of 2003 was based on additional intelligence but not just this information from Dennis Montgomery?
Mr. ROSTON: That's what some of them have said. They say this was part of it but not all of it. There were other concerns. But ex-CIA guys I talked to say that's not the case. They say this was it.
RAZ: How long did it take before the CIA found out the truth about Montgomery?
Mr. ROSTON: Some of them knew the truth about it all from the beginning. But eventually, what they did is parts of the CIA tried to recreate this. It was hard because nobody was being told exactly what it was, which was one of the secrets to its success, if you want to call it that. If you can never figure out what intelligence is, how do you knock it down?
They did it with the cooperation of the French intelligence services, I was told. The French were affected tremendously because of this Air France flight that was cancelled over and over and over again. Nobody was telling them why anybody was cancelling their flights. Eventually, the agency did tell them, and that's when this all came, they did some real analysis and found, you know, this isn't there. This was just irrational.
RAZ: So, what happened? Did the CIA just sort of drop all contacts with Montgomery or did they launch an investigation?
Mr. ROSTON: Well, that's sort of complex. He was under a federal investigation in 2006. So many agencies have touched on: the FBI, the U.S. Air Force, special investigations and others that it's unclear where he stands legally in all that. But he's not in good shape right now legally.
Caesar's in Vegas, they filed criminal charges against him. The county attorney in Clark County, Nevada, filed criminal charges against him for bouncing checks to Caesar's Casino - almost a million dollars. He liked to gamble, in other words.
RAZ: He's living in Nevada?
Mr. ROSTON: No. He lives in Rancho Mirage. It's a very nice house. I tried to go there. It was a very beautiful estate...
RAZ: This is in California.
Mr. ROSTON: In California, yeah. Sort of a Spanish tile on top.
RAZ: And he wouldn't talk to you.
Mr. ROSTON: He wouldn't, no.
RAZ: Why do you think Dennis Montgomery was ultimately believed? I mean, was it the atmosphere of the times? The sort of deep fear and concern that terrorists would strike again or was it pure carelessness by folks at the CIA and Homeland Security and other government agencies?
Mr. ROSTON: It's always so hard. You know, I wrote a book about Ben Ahmad Chalabi and it's sort of hard to figure out why he was believed so much. I think it's mainly because he offered an easy solution. If you go to somebody in government and say, listen, I've got a secret technology that can solve your terror problems right now and tell you exactly what al-Qaida's thinking, you know, a lot of people will say, well, I can't ignore that. That sounds great. That sounds perfect. That's what I think it was.
RAZ: That's investigative reporter Aram Roston. His article, "The Man who Conned the Pentagon," can be found in the new issue of Playboy, which you might be surprised to know has great articles.
Aram Roston, thanks so much.
Mr. ROSTON: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.