Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Octopus: The Secret Government and Death of Danny Casolaro (Hardcover) by Kenn Thomas, Jim Keith

The Octopus: The Secret Government and Death of Danny Casolaro (Hardcover)
by Kenn Thomas, Jim Keith

If you have heard about Daniel Pearl, WSJ journalist who was murdered by Islamic militants in Karachi, after learning about Danny Casolaro, you may wonder if Daniel is a common name of journalists whose life are shorted because they ventured into bad men's land.

Danny Casolaro was a freelancing journalist who, everybody feels today,  was on something really very sensational. The forces behind the mask that he was going to uncover were very powerful and had seen many such people come and go. They took care of Danny as well as they had taken care of many such venturesome people entering their dark world. Danny Casolaro was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in Martinsburg, West Virginia. His death looked  like a suicide. Both of his wrists were slashed multiple times to puncture his veins. Suicide note was also found.

But, a lot of stories emerged later. Danny was not someone who did some small time investigative journalism. He was after what he called 'Octopus', a group of extremely high powered government officials who were running a parallel world. If you have to go by what is written in the book, group's active involvement has been found in JFK's assassination and Nixon's impeachment to many recent political arm twistings.

Danny bumped into this investigative lead when he started investigating about PROMIS (PROsecutors Management Information System) a software written to collect large chunks of data, aggregate them, slice and dice them and present in variety of useful ways to let people draw intelligent inferences. Even today, after 20 years since inception, PROMIS is considered to be a landmark software. It is  highly configurable and can be trained (like an expert system) as it ages. It has been used by spy agencies and other organizations to effectively tie many disparate pieces of data to generate many useful information. For example, PROMIS may look at different databases such as water consumption in a city, telephone calls in a city etc. and may shed some interesting observations on people. Say for example, a person under surveillance, suddenly starts showing sudden increase in the consumption of water, electricity or phone calls and at the same time some other person thought to be his cohort shows significant decrease in the consumption of these, PROMIS can take cue from such observations and move on to investigate additional details to draw if any kind of theory can be built which can be pursued by intelligence people.

This software was a really effective tool for many agencies. It was a developed by  Bill Hamilton who worked for government and then went private. DOJ and Hamilton got into a dispute on the ownership of PROMIS. DOJ's point was it was developed while Hamilton worked for them. Hamilton's point was his newer version had many advanced features which were developed independently and did not make use of DOJ's resources or time. Anyway, it was a long drawn legal battle, inquiry commissions and what not.

While all this legal drama was going on, few enterprising individuals from "Octopus" group got hold of a copy of PROMIS software and started selling it to customers all over the world. Robert Maxwell's front company was heavily involved in actual selling. Since Maxwell was a known front man for many spy agencies, it is clear who were involved in selling the software. Spy agencies!!

Bigger point was that the software being sold by "Octopus" was modified to have a secret trap door which allowed "Octopus" to clandestinely tap into the data of the customers once installed at customer sites. There have been a lot of differing opinions and arguments about the trap door. Some computer scientists have called it  purely fictional. Other computer scientists and people close to all the fishy stuff have given plausible explanations. Explanations of  a trap door ranges from a simple malicious piece of software which harnessed sensitive information and uploaded it wherever "Octopus" wanted to highly sophisticated custom made IC chips which tapped into information directly and transmitted to satellites using listening posts planted by intelligence agencies at strategic locations. Both are reasonable explanations. But, it is not clear how it was achieved.

PROMIS is also described in great detail in Ben Ari Menashe's "Profits of War" and Gordon Thomas' "Robert Maxwell...." and "Gideon spies".

Danny Casolaro was developing a solid story around the whole PROMIS episode by meeting right sources and connecting dots. Mysterious deaths of Amiram Nir, a confirmed Israeli agent who worked with Ari Ben Menashe,  the death of powerful US senator John Towers in a plane crash, deaths of certain sources of Casolaro, crash of BCCI bank known to have many people such as terrorist Abu Nidal, arms deal such Adnan Khasoggi as its customers, all point to a sensational conspiracy theory. "Octopus" had to protect itself from many such secrets. PROMIS was only one of them.

As said before, PROMIS was sold to many intelligence agencies all over the world. Both to friends and foes. Secret trap door opened up rich intelligence to "Octopus".

This book is based on the notes made by Danny Casolaro and extensive additional investigation by the authors. Extensive foot notes and abundant references make it a really credible read. If you believe all the exploits attributed to "Octopus", you can not help but wonder if the world is run a by a very small group of very powerful men who are a government of their own. Even the assassination of Olaf Palme of Sweden is said to be the handiwork of "Octopus" as he was against certain arm deals and arm dealers. If you can connect dots, even Rajiv Gandhi's assassination is attributed to something similar by people like Subramanian Swamy who believe that Rajiv Gandhi was eliminated because he was becoming a thorn preventing powerful people from pushing arms to India. Anyway, too complex web of "Octopus"

Good book especially if you have read Gordon Thomas' and Ari Ben Menashe's book.


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