By James Retherford and Sherman DeBrosse
Originally published by The Rag Blog, February 2, 2010
After Watergate and other revelations of illegal government intrusions led to Congress- mandated clamping down on intelligence operations in the mid-1970s, Ronald Reagan immediately set out to roll back the reforms. With former CIA director George H. W. Bush as his running mate, Reagan received considerable assistance from the intelligence community in the election of 1980. This may have included a secret trip to Paris — as has been widely asserted — to make a deal with Iranians guaranteeing that Jimmy Carter would not be able to retrieve the 42 American hostages before the November election, the so-called “October Surprise.”
Reagan approved hiring the many private intelligence firms founded by former agents who had been ousted in the 1970s. He also brought psy-op people from the agency to the White House and State Department, using them in “public diplomacy programs” to mold public opinion. Vice President George H.W. Bush oversaw efforts to harass and spy on dissidents.
The coup de grace: the Reagan Justice Department “commandeered” (i.e., stole) a remarkable computer database program called Prosecutor’s Management Information System or PROMIS which would serve as the foundation for domestic and global surveillance operations for decades to come, including PRISM, the NSA’s massive data-mining system, outed by Edward Snowden in 2013.
The story of PROMIS has become a Hollywood-style thriller replete with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, rogue agents and alleged contract murderers, high-tech looting and international espionage, drug cartels, the Mafia and the Yakuza, allegations of mass murder and massive cover-up, and near war with Japan with all fingers pointing to massive government corruption by Ronald Reagan’s coterie of friends in the Ed Meese Department of Justice.
This is compelling stuff for any legit investigative reporter, and indeed many — such as Joel Bleifuss, Barron’s, and Richard L. Fricker in the inaugural issue of Wired — have taken a shot at connecting the dots. But the scent of blood has also lured the conspiracy sleuths and rightwing demagogues ranging from Alex Jones to Lyndon LaRouche and the Moonies.
Here is what we make of the story.
Reagan rolled back reforms initiated after the Watergate break in.
The PROMIS … and more
Funded by grant money from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), PROMIS software had been developed in the 1970s by the INSLAW Corporation, a small software development company owned by William and Nancy Hamilton, for integrating criminal justice records.
“But the real power of PROMIS,” Fricker writes in Wired, “is that with a staggering 570,000 lines of computer code, PROMIS can integrate innumerable databases without requiring any reprogramming. In essence, PROMIS can turn blind data into information. And anyone in government will tell you that information, when wielded with finesse, begets power. Converted to use by intelligence agencies, as has been alleged in interviews by ex-CIA and Israeli Mossad agents, PROMIS can be a powerful tracking device capable of monitoring intelligence operations, agents and targets, instead of legal cases.”
As it was being pitched to the Justice Department, government officials quickly recognized that its capability potential was for more advanced than any data integration system previously developed. PROMIS could be programmed to do everything from tracking all kinds of financial transactions to mapping troop movements in all parts of the world to monitoring intelligence operations, agents, and targets. It could used to acquire and integrate data in various foreign languages. Through an artificial intelligence component codenamed “Brainstorm,” PROMIS extended personality profiling into the realm of predicting an individual’s thoughts and future actions.
The Justice Department first signed a $10 million contract to lease the software and then simply seized it and drove INSLAW into bankruptcy, trying to force liquidation to a rival firm, Hadron, Inc., controlled by a key Reagan crony named Dr. Earl Brian.
Brian had already ridden the coattails of Reagan and Attorney General Ed Meese from the former California governor’s state cabinet to a number of lucrative business holdings, including United Press International and Financial News Network (FNN), and allegedly was a key player in the so-called October Surprise, in which Reagan operatives, including vice presidential candidate Bush, have been alleged to have met with Iranian diplomats in Paris and arranged a deal to short circuit Jimmy Carter’s hostage release negotiations until after the 1980 election.
INSLAW founders and PROMIS developers William and Nancy Hamilton
Ignoring the licensing agreement, the DoJ soon passed PROMIS along to other government agencies, including the CIA, though the U.S. government consistently denied this. There followed a long battle through the courts in which INSLAW unsuccessfully tried to obtain redress for the government’s theft of its intellectual property. Those who still believe in the integrity of our judicial system should research the case. For a time INSLAW was represented by Elliott Richardson, who argued compellingly that the matter called for a special investigator.
The CIA was not the only place where illegal versions of PROMIS showed up. According to former Israeli spy Ari Ben-Menashe, the U.S. sold the program to Israel. Ben-Menashe claims that Mossad counterterrorism expert Rafael Eitan first thought of the idea of bugging PROMIS and then selling it to Israel’s enemies in order to snoop on their security and intelligence activities undetected; Israel’s “trapdoor” was reportedly designed by an Israeli American living in Chatsworth, CA.
In turn, the Israelis sold the software to a number of national intelligence services, including Jordan and Iraq, as well as financial institutions, most notably the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which used PROMIS to track money flow on behalf of U.S. and British intelligence agencies before imploding into a spectacular bank failure in 1991. Though Degem, a software company owned by British media mogul (and secret Israeli agent) Robert Maxwell, PROMIS was sold to the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries.
The software also slipped into Dr. Brian’s hands, allegedly as a payoff towards favors owed for Brian’s help during the October Surprise. From there Brian engaged the services of rogue computer expert Michael Riconoscuito to create a U.S. version with a secret backdoor allowing undetected U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on PROMIS users’ activities.
These modifications were done at a facility located on the Cabazon Indian reservation in Indio, CA, owned by Wackenhut, a Florida-based security company with FBI and CIA connections (and an alleged weapons fencing operation for Oliver North’s Iran-Contra dealings).
Wackenhut was founded by retired FBI and CIA executives and is often called the “FBI’s FBI.” Biological weapons and explosives were also developed at its Cabezon facility, located on tribal land officially administered by a self-professed former CIA operative, John Philip Nichols, who later would be convicted of murder solicitation in the death of a tribal official who allegedly had information linking Nichols to misappropriated money involving Wackenhut, illegal arms deals, gaming, and the mob.
Through Hadron, Brian sold the bugged PROMIS to Britain, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Iraq, and Canada. The illegal sale to Canada was discovered by accident when a Canadian government agency telephoned INSLAW requesting a French-language version of the software.
Perhaps the murkiest allegations about the distribution of the Trojan Horse-version of PROMIS came from Debra von Trapp, a technical expert who was hired by the Bush I administration and claims to have worked on a number of clandestine operations, including the bugging and installation of spyware in the White House as Bill Clinton prepared to move in. Von Trapp also claims to have been involved in a CIA project, staged out of a Xerox plant in Germany, to install spyware-enhanced PROMIS on hard drives being sold to Eastern Bloc intelligence agencies, including the KGB.
During the senior Bush’s term, von Trapp was a member of a team developing software to mine all sorts of information about people’s personal lives, allegedly run out of Oliver North’s office at the Department of Justice.
At the same time Riconoscuito was developing a spyware backdoor, another consultant, Barry Kumnick, whose father Frank was an Aryan Nation ideologue living next door to Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, ID, was creating an artificial intelligent component called Brainstorm which could allow technicians to predict an individual’s thinking and future action.
Kumnick’s early work later morphed into the Total Information Awareness program under the second Bush. It is said that work on the program was stopped when Bush Senior was not reelected, but the work just as likely continued under the radar.
Investigative reporter Danny Casolaro’s bizarre death was ruled a suicide,
and his notes and tape recorder are missing.
Like any good spy story, the INSLAW-PROMIS saga is marked by its trail of dead, disappeared, and discredited, with claims of as many as fifty persons murdered. The most remembered casualty was investigative reporter Danny Casolaro, whose naked body was found in a blood-filled bathtub in a Martinsburg, WV, hotel room with multiple slash wounds on his arms and wrists.
Missing was his ever-present briefcase, tape recorder, and notes and outline of his proposed book about the web of intrigue surrounding Iran-Contra, the savings and loan meltdown, BCCI, Contra-connected Wackenhut, Wackenhut-connected INSLAW, the INSLAW-connected October Surprise, and possibly including a secret group of well-connected work-for-hire former spooks running drugs for the Contras.
Casolaro called this high-level conspiracy “The Octopus” and had shown friends his research findings only days before his death. He was in Martinsburg to interview a source who, he told friends, would help him nail down a last piece of evidence in the INSLAW software theft case.
Bleifuss, reporting on the Casolaro death in In These Times, talked to a close friend who said Casolaro began receiving death threats eight or nine months before his demise. The last one, according to Casolaro’s brother, came five days before his trip to West Virginia. Casolaro reportedly told his brother that “if anything happens to me, don’t believe it is an accident.”
Casolaro’s body was found on a Saturday and was embalmed the following Monday — before family members could be notified — without a careful autopsy or forensic investigation; the death scene was quickly sanitized by a “cleaning contractor.” Four days later authorities ruled the young journalist’s death was a likely suicide.
Two years later attorney and corruption investigator Paul Wilcher, representing jailed former CIA operative Gunther Russbacher and also looking into the INSLAW case and its possible connections of other high-level conspiracies and cover-ups, was found dead in his bathroom with no apparent cause of death.
Days earlier Wilcher told a friend, now deceased White House correspondent (and Tyler, TX, native) Sarah McClendon, that his investigation had taken him deeper into the conspiracy than Casolaro’s had and that he had become a “danger signal” to powerful interests.
Wilcher’s personal records, documents, computer files, and other information also disappeared, and his body was cremated without positive identification, fingerprinting, or complete forensic examination to determine cause of death. Wilcher was 40 years old and, according to friends, in good health.
Russbacher claims that, as a aviator attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence, he piloted George Bush to Paris in 1980 to rendezvous with Iranian revolutionaries and hammer out details for the hostage release delay. He also claims that $40 million was handled over to the Iranians in Paris to seal the deal. Furthermore, Russbacher said that he had cockpit tape showing the former CIA director in the back seat of the SR71 spy plane used in the return flight.
Russbacher convinced Milcher that his intimate knowledge of the October Surprise as well as other agency “dirty tricks” was the real reason he had been imprisoned, charged, he said, with violating parole in fictional criminal cases originally fabricated by the government to provide cover in his clandestine work.
Riconoscuito also is in the slammer, convicted of illegal drug manufacture. He says he was framed as punishment for going public with his dealings with Brian, the development of PROMIS’s backdoor, and Wackenhut weapons manufacturing and Contra connections.
The developer of the Brainstorm AI component, Barry Kumnick, disappeared amidst the PROMIS scandal fallout. Before disappearing, Kumnick told his sister in Idaho that his new program would be extremely dangerous if it got into the wrong hands. Kumnick has recently resurfaced but has had little to say about INSLAW or his disappearance.
The Inslaw case is indeed an octopus with tentacles reaching into many dark places, and this telling barely scratches the surface of the layers of deception and intrigue
For instance, we have omitted Debra von Tripp’s story of how the U.S. came perilously close to war with Japan over CIA intrusions into confidential Japanese business dealings and Japanese bugging of the White House; her allegations connect the Saran gas attack in Tokyo, the mid-air explosion of a Lear jet carrying the assistant secretary of the Army, and the Oklahoma bombing, planned and carried out, she said, by rogue U.S. intelligence agents working for the Japanese government.
Von Tripp states that the FBI-CIA dual-assignment agent behind these plots, Robert Goetzman, also murdered Vincent Foster because he “got greedy” and started selling NSA code to the Israelis. She states that one of Goetzman’s covers was as an executive for MCA/Universal, a Japanese-owned multinational entertainment conglomerate with ties to both the Yakuza and American organized crime … and also to Ronald Reagan — who was represented by the MCA talent management company during his Hollywood career. That is her story, and she is still alive and free and apparently sticking to it, though few are listening.
In 2001, the Unification Church-owned Washington Times and Fox News each quoted federal law enforcement officials familiar with debriefing former FBI agent Robert Hanssen as claiming that the convicted spy had stolen copies of a PROMIS-derivative for his Soviet KGB handlers.
These reports further stated that Osama bin Laden later bought copies of the same PROMIS-derivative on the Russian black market for $2 million and used the software to penetrate database systems in order to move funds throughout the banking system and evade detection by U.S. law enforcement.
In 2006, former Polish-CIA double-agent and now international journalist David Dastych alleged that Chinese military intelligence (PLA-2) devised their own double backdoor through which they penetrated the PROMIS database systems in the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in order “to steal U.S. nuclear secrets.”
Despite first a federal bankruptcy judge’s blistering ruling that “through trickery, deceit, and fraud,” the U.S. Department of Justice “took, converted, and stole” software belonging to INSLAW, and then an equally damning investigation by the House Judicial Committee, chaired by Texas congressman Jack Brooks, which also called for a full investigation of Danny Casolaro’s death, the Department of Justice and the CIA have managed to divert or outright quash every serious investigation into the PROMIS affair and the web of shadowy subplots surrounding the story.
INSLAW has not received an additional penny for the massive theft and widespread sale of its intellectual property. Faced with closing its doors due to bankruptcy, the company was rescued by a substantial cash investment by IBM and is still in business, though perhaps just barely judging from its modest presence on the World Wide Web.
The possible moral of this story of labyrinthian counterplots: Crime pays … if you are the Department of Justice.
Related books and articles
Ben-Menashe, Ari, Profits of War, New York, 1992.
Dastych, David M., “Promisgate: World’s Longest Spy Scandal Still Glossed Over,” Canadian Free Press, January 31, 2006.
Fricker, Richard L., “The INSLAW Octopus,” Wired, March-April 1993
Hamilton, William A., “FBI’s Incapitating Cover-up,” Nachrichten Heute, November 17, 2008.
Richardson, Elliot L., “A High-Tech Watergate,” New York Times, October 21, 1991.
DeRienzo, Paul, “Interview With Bill Hamilton,” WBAI-FM, New York, September 20, 1991.
Ridgeway, James, “Software to Die For: Inslaw Lawyer Elliot Richardson Talks About Murder and the CIA,” Village Voice, September 24, 1991.
Thomas, Ken, and Jim Keith, The Octopus: Secret Government and the Death of Danny Casolaro, Port Townsend, WA, 2005.