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Greed, Power, and Endless War -- James Risen Tears the Lid off America's Dirty Wars

An excerpt from Risen's new book, "Pay Any Price," on the government spending 'rivers of cash' to fight terrorism.

The following is an excerpt from James Risen's new book,  Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.

Throughout the war on terror, greed and power have flourished just as readily back home in the United States, where the government’s surging counterterrorism spending created a new national security gold rush. The post-9/11 panic led Congress to throw cash at the FBI, CIA, and Pentagon faster than they were able to spend it. Soon, a counterterrorism bubble, like a financial bubble, grew in Washington, and a new breed of entrepreneur learned that one of the surest and easiest paths to riches could be found not in Silicon Valley building computers or New York designing clothes but rather in Tysons Corner, Virginia, coming up with new ways to predict, analyze, and prevent terrorist attacks —or, short of that, at least in convincing a few government bureaucrats that you had some magic formula for doing so.

Consider the example of Dennis Montgomery. He provides the perfect case study to explain how during the war on terror greed and ambition have been married to unlimited rivers of cash to create a climate in which someone who has been accused of being a con artist was able to create a rogue intelligence operation with little or no adult supervision. Crazy became the new normal in the war on terror, and the original objectives of the war got lost in the process.

***

Whatever else he was, Dennis Montgomery was a man who understood how best to profit from America’s decade of fear. He saw the post-9/11 age for what it was, a time to make money.

Montgomery was the maestro behind what many current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the case now believe was one of the most elaborate and dangerous hoaxes in American history, a ruse that was so successful that it nearly convinced the Bush administration to order fighter jets to start shooting down commercial airliners filled with passengers over the Atlantic. Once it was over, once the fever broke and government officials realized that they had been taken in by a grand illusion, they did absolutely nothing about it. The Central Intelligence Agency buried the whole insane episode and acted like it had never happened. The Pentagon just kept working with Montgomery. Justice Department lawyers fanned out across the country to try to block any information about Montgomery and his schemes from becoming public, invoking the state secrets privilege in a series of civil lawsuits involving Montgomery.

It was as if everyone in Washington was afraid to admit that the Emperor of the War on Terror had no clothes.

***

A former medical technician, a self-styled computer software expert with no experience whatsoever in national security affairs, Dennis Montgomery almost singlehandedly prompted President Bush to ground a series of international commercial flights based on what now appears to have been an elaborate hoax. Even after it appeared that Montgomery had pulled off a scheme of amazing scope, he still had die-hard supporters in the government who steadfastly refused to believe the evidence suggesting that Montgomery was a fake, and who rejected the notion that the super-secret computer software that he foisted on the Pentagon and CIA was anything other than America’s salvation.

Montgomery’s story demonstrates how hundreds of billions of dollars poured into the war on terror went to waste. With all rules discarded and no one watching the bottom line, government officials simply threw money at contractors who claimed to offer an edge against the new enemies. And the officials almost never checked back to make sure that what they were buying from contractors actually did any good—or that the contractors themselves weren’t crooks. A 2011 study by the Pentagon found that during the ten years after 9/11, the Defense Department had given more than $400 billion to contractors who had previously been sanctioned in cases involving $1 million or more in fraud.

The Montgomery episode teaches one other lesson, too: the chance to gain promotions and greater bureaucratic power through access to and control over secret information can mean that there is no incentive for government officials to question the validity of that secret information. Being part of a charmed inner circle holds a seductive power that is difficult to resist.

Montgomery strongly denies that he peddled fraudulent technology. He insists that the charges have been leveled by critics with axes to grind, including his former lawyer and former employees. He claims that he was following direct orders from both the NSA and the CIA, and says that the CIA, NSA, and U.S. military took his technology so seriously that it was used to help in the targeting of Predator strikes and other raids. Montgomery adds that he is limited in what he can say about his software and business dealings with the CIA and Pentagon without the approval of the Justice Department. The fact that the government is blocking public disclosure of the details of its relationship with him, he adds, shows that his work was considered serious and important. “Do you really think,” he asked, “the government invoked the state secrets privilege just from being embarrassed or conned?” 

***

The strange tale of Dennis Montgomery and his self-proclaimed plan to win the war on terror begins, appropriately enough, inside the El Dorado Casino in downtown Reno.

Montgomery was an overweight, middle-aged, incorrigible gambler, a man who liked to play long odds because he was convinced that he could out-think the house. He once boasted to a business partner that he had a system for counting an eight-deck blackjack shoe, quite a difficult feat for even the best card sharks, and he regularly tested his theories at the El Dorado and the Peppermill Casino in Reno. He usually came up short but that didn’t stop him from playing blackjack on a nightly basis, racking up unwieldy debts that eventually led to his 2010 arrest for bouncing more than $1 million in bad checks at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Gambling is how he met his first backer, Warren Trepp. Trepp got rich in the biggest casino of them all, Wall Street. He had been Michael Milken’s right-hand man in the heyday of Milken’s famous Beverly Hills trading desk during the “greed is good” era of insider trading in the 1980s. When a hungry federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani went after Milken for insider trading, he tried to get Trepp to roll over on his boss. Trepp refused, even in the face of a threat that he would be charged himself if he failed to cooperate. Milken went to jail, but Giuliani never could nail Trepp. Instead of facing criminal charges, Trepp became the subject of a marathon investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which tried to impose civil sanctions for Trepp’s alleged part in Milken’s insider-trading bonanza. It took nearly a decade, but Trepp finally beat the feds. In 1997, the SEC’s case against him was dismissed. He walked away from the Milken years with a fortune.

Warren Trepp may have been able to defeat Rudy Giuliani and a whole legion of federal investigators, but he couldn’t outwit Dennis Montgomery.

By the late 1990s, Trepp was living in Incline Village, a wealthy enclave on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, where he was shaking off his past and trying to remake himself into a respected philanthropist, theater angel, and canny private investor. And then he met Montgomery.

Trepp was introduced to Montgomery by a casino host at the El Dorado in 1997. Montgomery was on the lookout for somebody to bankroll him, and had put out the word to his friends at the casinos that he frequented the most. A year later, Montgomery and Trepp were in business together. Trepp was one of the first, but hardly the last, to be beguiled by Montgomery’s claims that he had achieved breakthroughs in computer technology of historic significance. The two founded a company together and tried to find buyers for Montgomery’s alleged miracle software.

Montgomery convinced Trepp that he had achieved a series of major technological advances in computer software that could be worth millions. One was the development of software that he argued provided a new method of video compression, allowing for greater video storage and transmission than was ever available before. Another innovation was stunningly detailed video facial recognition. But the most dazzling claim of all involved software that Montgomery said could identify objects and anomalies embedded in video with unprecedented detail. He claimed that his technology could even find and identify objects hidden inside videotape that were not visible to the naked eye.

How his technology worked was a secret. Dennis Montgomery’s computer code became the great treasure behind eTreppid Technologies, the company he and Trepp founded. Later, many of those around Montgomery began to suspect the reason why Montgomery had to guard his technological innovations so carefully. They came to believe that at least some of the technology didn’t really exist.

***
To commercialize his technology, Montgomery first tried to convince Hollywood that he had developed a new and efficient means of colorizing old movies. His object identification software, he claimed, could speed the process of deciding where and how to colorize each frame of film. Warren Trepp later told a court that Montgomery had given him a demonstration of his software’s ability to identify patterns and images in a video of the 1939 black-and-white classic Gunga Din.

But after failing to strike it big in Hollywood, Montgomery and Trepp shifted their focus to the casino industry in Reno and Las Vegas. Montgomery later bragged that he had developed pattern recognition software specifically for casinos that could help identify cheaters. He even claimed he had technology that could identify high-value chips inside piles of chips on gaming tables, to detect when dealers tried to steal from the casinos by slipping valuable chips to friends. Montgomery also said he had developed video compression software that would allow casinos to more easily store thousands of hours of surveillance tapes, rather than erase all of their old footage.

But his technology was never a big hit with the casino industry, either. So Montgomery turned to Washington. There, Montgomery finally succeeded in his new search for clients through a series of coincidences and chance encounters, along with strong political and financial connections that helped to smooth the way. And it all started, like so many other things in his life, in a casino.

In 2002, Warren Trepp arranged for the MGM Grand Casino to take a look at Montgomery’s technology. An air force colonel who had heard about Montgomery’s work decided to come and see it as well. Impressed, he helped Montgomery and eTreppid land a contract with the air force.

Michael Flynn, Montgomery’s former lawyer—who later concluded that Montgomery was a fraud—said that Montgomery had told him that Montgomery had won over the visiting air force officer, who became convinced that Montgomery’s object recognition and video compression technologies could help the air force’s Predator drone program. The CIA and air force were flying Predator drones over Afghanistan at the time, and they were sending back thousands of hours of video that needed to be analyzed and stored. Just like  Las Vegas casinos, the air force needed a way to maintain the massive piles of video generated by its own version of the eye in the sky. Montgomery’s object recognition technology could provide new ways for the air force to track suspected terrorists with the Predator. Montgomery claimed that his facial recognition software was so good that he could identify individual faces from the video camera flying on a Predator high above the mountains of southern Afghanistan.

Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

 

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