Did Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have access to a U.S. computer tracking program that enabled them to monitor our intelligence-gathering efforts and financial transactions? If so, who is responsible for allowing the program to fall into their hands? And who else among America's enemies might have access to the tracking system?
It's an explosive spy software scandal that no one in official Washington wants to investigate.
This complex, tangled story began two decades ago, when a tiny private company called Inslaw Inc. developed a software package to help U.S. attorneys' offices in large urban districts keep tabs on their criminal prosecutors' caseloads. The program, dubbed the Prosecutor's Management Information System (PROMIS), was effective and popular. It allowed a prosecutor to locate defendants and witnesses, track motions and monitor ongoing investigations. In 1982, Inslaw won a large Justice Department contract to implement the system nationwide.
In the meantime, Inslaw also developed privately owned enhancements to PROMIS. Despite contractual guarantees of Inslaw's proprietary rights to the enhanced version of PROMIS, the Justice Department essentially commandeered the improved program for its own uses without paying for it. Inslaw was forced into bankruptcy and began an endless fight with the Justice Department to recoup its losses.
In the course of their court battles, Inslaw founder Bill Hamilton and his wife innocently stumbled upon shocking national security revelations. Former Attorney General Ed Meese, the Hamiltons concluded, had conspired to force Inslaw into bankruptcy so that an old Meese crony, California businessman Earl Brian, could take over the company's assets. The Hamiltons obtained information through sworn affidavits of several individuals that suggested Meese, Brian, high-ranking Justice Department official Peter Videnieks and others wanted to modify and distribute the enhanced PROMIS software with "back-door" capabilities for covert intelligence operations.
In 1987, a federal judge blasted the Justice Department for stealing PROMIS. The government, Judge George Bason said, stole Inslaw's software through "trickery, fraud, and deceit" with "contempt for both the law and any principle of fair dealing." The House Judiciary Committee also found in 1992 that there was "strong evidence" the Justice Department had conspired to steal the PROMIS program. An internal Justice Department memo made public by the committee revealed that the Justice Department had secretly turned over a copy of PROMIS to the Israeli government.