The Spy `Trap' Scandal
Canadian RCMP cast wider net in software spy probe Cast of characters deepens intrigue in Promis case
By Allan Thompson and Valerie Lawton
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau
`It's the first time that there has been the possibility of a credible criminal investigation of this.' - Inslaw Inc. co-founder Bill Hamilton
OTTAWA - RCMP officers have travelled across North America to interview former Israeli spies, a convicted drug dealer, financiers and conspiracy theorists, probing claims that foreign agents used rigged software to hack into secret Canadian computer files.
The Mounties are tight-lipped about their mysterious investigation, code-named ``Project Abbreviation,'' and will confirm only that they're looking into an alleged breach of national security.
But information obtained by The Star indicates that RCMP officers have waded into the mire of a tangled conspiracy theory.
``They have opened a Pandora's box,'' said one player in the intelligence community familiar with the investigation.
The Star first revealed on Aug. 25 that the RCMP's national security section is probing claims the computer software program known as Promis was sold to the RCMP and CSIS in the early 1980s, and then used by U.S. and Israeli agents to eavesdrop on Canada.
The RCMP reluctantly confirmed the existence of the investigation, but have refused to comment further.
The allegations were at the centre of a political scandal that first made headlines in the U.S. in the early 1990s and has never been resolved.
It is impossible to ascertain with certainty what prompted the RCMP to launch an investigation years later.
But details of the probe so far show that RCMP officers have already gone to considerable lengths visiting the stations of the cross of one of the longest-running conspiracy theories in American history.
Bill Hamilton, co-founder of Washington-based Inslaw Inc., alleges the U.S. government stole Promis from him, and then - along with the Israelis - sold pirated versions to intelligence agencies around the world.
He also believes those stolen versions were equipped with a hidden ``trap door'' that allowed spies to peek into top-secret databases and download any information they wanted. Their intent was allegedly to line their own pockets and finance such covert operations as the arming of Nicaragua's Contras.
In 1987, an American bankruptcy court ruled there was evidence the U.S. justice department used ``trickery, fraud and deceit'' to steal Promis from Inslaw.
The ruling was later overturned on procedural grounds.
A three-year investigation by the U.S. House judiciary committee said some justice department officials had acted to ``misappropriate'' the software and called for an independent counsel to look at the case.
A later report by a retired judge hired to probe the matter said there was no credible evidence the software had been stolen by the U.S. justice department.
Before The Star revealed last month that the RCMP was conducting an investigation, the Promis software story hadn't made headlines for nearly a decade.
Two weeks ago, RCMP investigator Sean McDade cautioned The Star to be wary of the web of intrigue surrounding the affair and the wild-eyed stories told by some of those involved.
``I'll guarantee you that a lot of information that's being circulated out there, there are people who should just shut up because they don't know what they're talking about,'' McDade said.
But that doesn't explain the wide-ranging list of informants that have been interviewed in recent months by McDade and partner Randy Buffam:
Michael Riconoscuito, now imprisoned in Allenwood, Pa., on drug charges, was interviewed by an RCMP investigator who told Riconoscuito's lawyer he was probing a possible breach of Canada's national security. Riconoscuito, a computer wizard with connections to the intelligence community, said in a 1991 affidavit that he helped modify Promis software for use by the RCMP and CSIS. (Riconoscuito also seems to be the tenuous link between the RCMP's software probe and the investigation of a three-year-old double homicide in California.)
Cheri Seymour, a researcher and writer who lives in California, confirmed that an RCMP investigator has interviewed her twice, the first time in February and most recently in early August. Seymour has written a manuscript entitled The Last Circle, which detail her findings on alleged drug smuggling, money laundering and covert operations linked to the Promis software sales.
Seymour said RCMP investigator McDade spent three days in February at her home poring over documents she says she obtained from file boxes belonging to Riconoscuito.
The RCMP, said Seymour, ``walked into something that was way beyond what they originally anticipated.''
Juval Aviv, a former Israeli intelligence agent who is now a New York-based investigator, said several RCMP officers have questioned him in recent months about the Promis affair. Aviv said RCMP investigators asked him to keep quiet about the details of their probe. But he said it does involve allegations that British media tycoon Robert Maxwell - who died in 1991 - arranged for the Promis software to be sold to Canada.
John Belton, a former Ontario stockbroker who has been obsessively gathering information on the Promis affair for years, said the RCMP have interviewed him numerous times over the last 18 months at his home outside Ottawa. Belton said other executives at the brokerage firm where he once worked got involved in shady financial dealings that were linked to the Promis software sale in Canada.
U.S. journalist Mike Ruppert, a former Los Angeles police officer who now runs a Web site that seeks to expose CIA covert operations, said he met with RCMP investigator McDade on Aug. 3 in L.A. Ruppert said the RCMP officer was anxious to see documents he received three years ago from a shadowy Green Beret named Bill Tyre detailing the sale of rigged Promis software to Canada.
Inslaw founder Hamilton told The Star the Mounties first called him earlier this year. He has spoken with McDade ``probably dozens'' of times since then. Hamilton, who refused to talk about exactly what the Mounties want to know from him, has a lot at stake in the probe and doesn't want to jeopardize it.
``It's the first time that there has been the possibility of a credible criminal investigation of this,'' Hamilton said.