The Very Strange Case of HAMMER, Part 1: Did It Exist?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

This is an interesting story since it is hard to discern the truth in certain respects.  If true, it fills in some blanks and explains other things, but if false it sends the story off on an unnecessary detour.  As discussed previously, in the days after 9/11, Bush instituted what was to be called Operation Stellar Wind which authorized domestic electronic surveillance without a warrant in order to deter future terrorist plots.  With the information gathered, there had to be a central storage place for that data.  Initially, Thin Thread was used which had safeguards for US citizens, but this was scrapped for TrailBlazer, another metadata collection, storage, and analytical tool.

In the late 1990s, Dennis Montgomery was a computer expert who formed a company called eTreppid in Reno, Nevada.  They had developed digital technology dealing with the compression of video data on surveillance feeds and had sold some of it to the casino industry in Nevada.  Montgomery and his partners later sold some of the technology to the Air Force that then incorporated it into their drone program.

However, it was the events of 9/11 that led to the story here.  According to Dennis Montgomery, he had developed a super-computer that could be used to collect, monitor and store electronic communications of foreign targets in the war on terror.  This was roughly the time between when the NSA had discarded Thin Thread and before they installed TrailBlazer.  Obviously, the NSA did not stop monitoring electronic communications; storage and transmission was the problem.  

This brings into question an important point about Montgomery and what would later be revealed as his HAMMER system.  It is described as a supercomputer used to eavesdrop on phone calls by deploying malicious plug-ins at targeted computers and smartphones to collect the intercepts and send the data back to the computer’s main frame.  Other plugins could conceivably hack into bank accounts, electronic instant messaging, email addresses and other apps, then send the information back to the supercomputer.

Montgomery claims that the original funding for this system was provided by the FBI, then headed by Robert Mueller.  This is interesting since Stellar Wind and its progeny were NSA spying projects.  After the reorganization of the intelligence community and the FISA laws did the FBI gain access to NSA data.  Prior to that, firewalls had been constructed to prevent the sharing of information under the Clinton administration.  These firewalls were later blamed for law enforcement and the intelligence community failing to “connect the dots” and prevent 9/11.  It makes sense that instead of jumping through bureaucratic and legal hoops, the FBI would want some form of electronic counterintelligence abilities.  Whether it was the hypothesized HAMMER may never be known.  However, we do have certain inconsistencies in the story as it unfolds that may be a clue to its truthfulness.

According to many reports and court documents, Montgomery and his business partners received over $20 million in government contracts to purchase or develop computer software that would stop al-Qaeda from future attacks.  We do know that Montgomery’s technology was involved.  

The software he sold could allegedly find hidden terrorist messages embedded in al-Jazeera telecasts (a theory at the time), and identify terrorist targets through drones.  In 2003, based on information provided by the software, President Bush ceased all international airline flights to the United States since one of Montgomery’s pieces of software picked up a message in an al-Jazeera telecast.  It was unfounded.  According to later reports, CIA officials and analysts were livid since it made them look foolish.  Montgomery countered that his software simply provided the information and it was up to CIA analysts to do with it what they thought feasible.

The strange thing is that despite the government’s use of this technology which was later characterized as a hoax and fraud, they continued to use it.  For example, it is blamed for a dead end on an alleged terrorist plot in Great Britain.  As late as 2009, they were using the software which allegedly uncovered a Somali plot to assassinate Obama on Inauguration Day.

In their rush to embrace new technologies in the war on terror, it is possible that the CIA and FBI were duped by Montgomery.  Later audits showed that the military and other government agencies were bilked to the tune of $285 million in the war on terror.  Montgomery was accused of falsifying test results of his technology in order to sell it to the government. 

By 2006, Montgomery had a falling out with his partner Warren Trepp.  Based on Trepp’s accusations, the Air Force and FBI looked into whether Montgomery stole digital data from the company.  In their zeal to obtain the evidence, the FBI signed off on the search warrant application which was approved.  However, the case fell apart when the same judge later determined that the warrant application was suspicious and they chided the FBI for misrepresenting items in the warrant.

The litigation seriously worried intelligence officials.  The Bush administration declared some of the information and technology “state secrets” that would hurt national security should they be revealed in open court.  Montgomery’s lawyer at the time had his home computer “scrubbed” by the FBI of all references to the technology.  Judges in Nevada and Montana, where the litigation was taking place, issued protective orders of all classified information.  During a deposition given by Montgomery, two unnamed agents who refused to state the agencies they worked for monitored the questions.

For a fraud and/or hoax, the government did not want Montgomery’s technology made public.  Was it embarrassment, or was it something else?  These actions indicate that there was something there, otherwise why go through such efforts?  One is left with the impression that the government protests too much.

Next: HAMMER- more proof and smears