Not From the Onion: The CIA, the NYTimes and Playboy

In Hiding Details of Dubious Deal, U.S. Invokes National Security the NYTimes today reports on how easily the US government was conned out of millions of dollars for software that could supposedly decode secret al-Qaeda messages being transmitted via bar codes in Al-Jazeera broadcasts. You may recall the terror alert of Christmas 2003 when President Bush ordered dozens of trans-atlantic flights to be cancelled and we were told:

A surge in recent terrorism intelligence points to the possibility of a spectacular attack that terrorists abroad "believe will rival or exceed the scope and impact of those we experienced on Sept. 11,'' said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary.

Apparently the December scare was based on a hoax and not even an elaborate hoax. The con man, a heavy gambler with no serious background in computer science, never gave anyone in the CIA, the Air Force, or Special Operations Command his software or explained his algorithms and no one else ever found any secret messages in Al-Jazeera broadcasts. Moreover, despite the fact that this information went right to the top, few people stopped to ask the obvious questions such as why the hell would al-Qaeda do something ridiculous like embed messages in Al-Jazeera broadcasts? Wouldn't, you know, say an email or obscure web page work better?

On a lighter note this sentence in the NYTimes piece caught my eye:

Hints of fraud by Mr. Montgomery, previously raised by Bloomberg Markets and Playboy, provide a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of government contracting.

Playboy?!!! Determined to investigate further, I discovered that the NYTimes is being somewhat duplicitous since Playboy broke the story and provided a lot more than hints. The Playboy story is in fact quite a bit more detailed than the NYTimes gloss (need I warn you, however, that the adverts make it NSFW?).

Are you surprised that Playboy would break such an important story? I was, that is, until I remembered that Playboy has been uncovering fakes for a long time.


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