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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 10/ 4/2010

CIA mum on lawsuit alleging drone targeting errors

By Jeff Stein

The CIA has declined comment on allegations that its drones have a targeting margin of error of up to 40 feet, a malfunction that could be contributing to civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The allegations have surfaced in a complex suit over intellectual property theft in Massachusetts, in which the developer of the targeting software testified that he was surprised to hear that the CIA was willing to use untested code in the drones.

"My reaction was one of stun, amazement that they want to kill people with my software that doesn't work," Richard Zimmerman, chief technology officer for Boston-based Intelligent Integration Systems (IISi), said in a sworn deposition in April.

Zimmerman said an executive from Netezza, his company’s partner in the venture, had told him and other company executives that “the CIA called them on the phone, said we need to target predator drones in Afghanistan, that this is a national security matter. We need [the software] up and running immediately.”

The spy agency was desperate for the software and willing to accept untested code in increments, the Netezza executive said, according to Zimmerman.

But IISi would not cooperate in a rush job, Zimmerman said -- at least not without some legal immunity in case the missiles missed their targets -- or as Zimmerman put it in his deposition: “without some sort of terms around that that indemnifies us in case that code kills people.”

IISi later discovered that an "illegally and hastily reverse-engineered" version of its software ended up on the CIA’s computers, the company is charging. It has sued Netezza for damages and is seeking an injunction to stop the firm and the CIA from using the software in its drones.

Netezza, headquartered in Marlborough, Mass., is in the process of being acquired by IBM.

The Netezza executive’s call, in which at least five executives from both companies participated, Zimmerman said, took place on Oct. 9, 2009, when the CIA was beginning to escalate the number of drone strikes in the war zones.

The CIA liaison on the project was identified in e-mail exchanges and testimony as “Skip McCormick,” who co-authored a 1998 book, “AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis.”

A U.K.-based technology journal that has been covering the case, The Register, reported last month that a Hays W. "Skip" McCormick III “has worked at the CIA for several years.” It said that McCormick has also been a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Northrop Grumman.

According his personal and book-publicity pages, McCormick is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and lead engineer at Mitre Corp., “focusing on object-oriented systems development and legacy systems integration.”

A publicity blurb says McCormick’s book “helps you navigate through today's dangerous software development projects.”

The CIA, which is not a party to the dispute, declined to comment on the case, and McCormick could not be reached for comment.

Netezza officials did not respond to requests for comment.

UPDATE: A Netezza spokesman said, "It is our policy not to comment on current and pending litigation. We believe that the claims made against Netezza by IISI are without merit and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves against those claims in court."

By Jeff Stein  | October 4, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Financial/business, Intelligence, Lawandcourts  | Tags:  Hays W. "Skip" McCormick III, IISi, Intelligent Integration Systems, Netezza  
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You'd think the CIA would be good at code... but cost cutting and cutting corners go hand in hand and it is certainly better than the 5mi accuracy in early WWII bombing of Germany... the real problem might be if the target is really a target at all because there were those cardboard tanks back in the 90's we kept wasting expensive ordinance on...and the neighborhood personal enemies who kept getting turned in for rewards etc...

Posted by: Wildthing1 | October 5, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for that synopsis in this very complex and extraordinary interaction of companies and people. This reveals what Top Secret America is all about reflecting a TSA beyond control and buried out of sight. Without this lawsuit this would have never become public.

My search in the TSA database for IISi and Netezza produced no results. They could represent that vast number of companies which are outside the direct association with TSA yet still have an incredible impact on TSA as can be seen in direct war efforts and targeting: miss a house by 13 metres (40 feet), and you hit the house next door.

If Netezza is acquired by IBM for some $1.7b, they could disappear off the TSA radar totally. This is Data Warehousing and Date Mining solutions software (IISi) and hardware (Netezza) that ran amok in their crossing joint ventures when the CIA's war needs emerged. IISi's software can provide data mining info for intercepted mobile phone conversations and pinpoint the target. The software worked in the earlier hardware version but not when Netezza changed to new hardware.

I am reminded of the earlier article on the complicated software involved in targeting the Tomahawk missiles which was provided with the renewal of that contract. Dana Priest describes Tomahawk launches and the precision necessary for targeting in the Kosovo conflict in 1999 in her book "The Mission." Here it is emerging all over again in the current war with Predator Bs when the targeting is off due to allegedly reverse engineered software because Netezza under CIA pressure wouldn't wait for IISi to update its software for the new hardware.

It's too bad the CIA is not commenting, but then it won't even comment on its drone attacks which are controlled from during flight Nevada where, I suspect, the Netezza "TwinFin" hardware resides running the IISi software. What will eventually come out in court will be fascinating, but I suspect they might settle this one out of court before much more comes out unless the CIA is determined to use the software, and IISi is terrified of its possible liability. This mess just shows how very valuable TSA is and relevant to what's happening in the age of technological spying and drone warfare. What makes me think drones will be the wave of the future?

Posted by: garydchance | October 6, 2010 6:20 AM | Report abuse

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