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Stealth secrets feared stolen
PAUL SHUKOVSKY SEATTLE P-I REPORTER
Oct. 30 - A Russian mathematician who was given access to an American supercomputer loaded with stealth warplane design software is under investigation for espionage.
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      FEDERAL AGENTS SUSPECT that Aleksey Yeremin, who logged on to the supercomputer from Moscow, took advantage of Lockheed Martin and military security lapses to steal stealth technology secrets.     The 3 1/2-year investigation stretches from the heart of the old Soviet empire to Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works plant in Southern California to a quiet suburb north of Seattle.

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This is the visa issued to Aleksey Yeremin, a Russian mathematician and partner in a Bothell software company that did work for Lockheed Martin. U.S. officials now say he has ties to the Russian military and now-defunct KGB.

    Yeremin, vice president of a software company
based in Bothell that did work for Lockheed, was e-mailed part of
Lockheed’s modeling program for designing stealth planes. And, sources
say, it would have been easy for him to steal the rest of it.

    The potential loss is staggering: the United
States’ global monopoly on radar invisibility.

    In spring 1997, the FBI and the Air Force Office
of Special Investigations, or OSI, began the investigation, code-named
Digital Demon. A short time later, Lockheed pulled the plug on its
project with Yeremin: an ultra-high-speed, number-crunching computer
program that was supposed to greatly accelerate stealth aircraft design
work.

    Federal criminal-justice sources say Yeremin,
46, has connections to the Russian military and now-defunct KGB.

    It is unknown whether Yeremin got his hands on
any classified information. But sources told the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer that some of the unclassified information he did
obtain should have been classified top-secret.

    A retired Air Force three-star general said he
is concerned that the apparent leak could help the Russians build their
own stealth warplanes.

    “I don’t think what is at risk here is
making these (U.S.) aircraft any more visible to radar,” said George
Muellner, who played a key role in developing the nation’s stealth
fleet.

    “But what is at risk is accelerating a
country’s ability to develop and build these sorts of aircraft – to
produce something that is a threat downstream,” he said. “If they
started building and selling these things to the Iraqis, that would be a
concern.”

    The joint FBI-Air Force probe has so far yielded
no arrests, and no one has been publicly charged with a crime. Agents
have seized the home computer of a Lockheed employee who worked closely
with Yeremin.

    That man told the P-I that he now realizes he
was deftly manipulated by Yeremin.

    “I am not 100 percent sure, but I am highly
sure he is a spy,” said the 38-year-old computer expert, who no longer
works for Lockheed. He asked that he not be identified for fear of
jeopardizing his current job.

    He said he went beyond giving Yeremin portions
of the MM3D simulation software – used to model highly complex
interactions between stealth aircraft and radar – that the Russian
needed to do his job. He said he also provided information that Yeremin
could have used to determine American stealth capabilities.

    “I have to admit, I am very gullible, very
naive, very trusting,” he said. “He asked very probing questions,
but I pushed my concerns away.

    “Now I can look back and see how he gathered
information from me. He used textbook ways to win over someone; to
recruit them as an operative or agent. He would earn my trust by saying
he was not in any way . . . loyal to the country he was from, but wanted
to come here.”

    The computer expert is befuddled by how Lockheed
and the Air Force could allow a Russian with KGB ties access to such a
sensitive program.

    Lockheed refused to answer questions about
whether security was compromised. The Air Force would not explain how it
conducts security oversight of the defense contractor.




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    Officials at Skunk Works, in Palmdale, Calif.,
where the U-2 spy plane, the bat-winged F-117 and the F-22 were
designed, first became aware in 1997 “that an employee . . . was not
reporting contacts with foreign nationals as required by governing
security regulations,” Lockheed spokesman Sam Grizzle said in a
prepared statement.

    The officials reported the violations to
“appropriate U.S. government agencies and followed their instructions
in addressing the situation. The employee in question no longer works
for Lockheed Martin,” Grizzle said.

    The FBI and the Air Force OSI declined to
comment on the case, and federal prosecutors did not return a call.
“What I can tell you is it is an ongoing investigation,” said Maj.
Mike Richmond, an OSI spokesman at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

    There are strong parallels to the Wen Ho Lee
case, which also raised questions about digital transmission of
technology to foreign nationals, and the way in which the federal
government classifies its secrets.

    The government feared that Lee, a scientist at
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, had stolen computer
records containing the crown jewels of U.S. nuclear secrets and turned
them over to the Chinese government. He recently pleaded guilty to a
single count of mishandling classified information and received a
sentence of time served – nine months.

    A federal judge delivered a stinging rebuke of
the government’s handling of the case, apologizing to Lee for the
harsh conditions of his incarceration.

    The Bothell connection

    Working out of his Bothell home, high-tech
entrepreneur Russ Sarbora plucked Yeremin from a Russian military
aircraft-design center a decade ago and collaborated with him to start a
company called Elegant Mathematics.

    Today, Sarbora is shocked that his business
partner is under investigation in an espionage case.

    “I believe he is not an agent for any foreign
power,” Sarbora said. “It would surprise me enormously if he turned
out to be.”

    Yeremin “readily acknowledged working for the
Soviet military,” according to Sarbora, but “prior to 1990, if you
were a scientist of any stature, you worked for the Soviet military
structure. You didn’t get to work, or support in school without
working for the military.”

    Reached recently at his home in Moscow, Yeremin
refused to discuss the espionage allegations.

    “If somebody say something about that, it is
better that you ask this individual,” he said in heavily accented
English.

    Yeremin and his associates in Russia were
working on computers loaded with software known as MM3D, or Method of
Moments in Three Dimensions. It would have been easy for people with
their expertise to steal the portions of MM3D they hadn’t already been
given, the former Lockheed computer expert said.


Case sparks calls for tighter security




    And it wasn’t just MM3D that was at risk of
being stolen. Also loaded on the expert’s home computer were test
fixtures – secret computer representations of stealth aircraft
structures.

    The expert said he had been assured by Lockheed
engineers that the test fixtures were not classified. But after the
investigation began, federal agents claimed some were top-secret. One of
the computers Yeremin was given access to also contained data on the
performance characteristics of radar-absorbing materials that coat stealth
planes, the expert said.

    Those data, however, did not specifically identify
the name or chemical composition of the materials, he said.

    Gen. Muellner, now vice president-general manager
of The Boeing Co.’s Phantom Works research and development division,
cautions that there may be no way of telling if the apparent leak is
devastating or merely distressing.

    In the old days of espionage, blueprints, decoder
machines and the like would suddenly disappear – setting off alarms.
Today, secrets can be downloaded without a trace.

    “It’s like the thing in Los Alamos,”
Muellner said. “You don’t know what is lost.”

    Like Lee and former CIA Director John Deutch, who
is under investigation for having classified information on his home
computer, the Lockheed computer expert was working on an unsecure
computer.

    His home computer was loaded with MM3D. The
program, he said, contains a feature called an “optimizer” by which
designers can simulate changes in aircraft configuration or materials and
quickly see how that affects the plane’s radar invisibility.



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Retired Gen. George Muellner, who helped develop the stealth fleet, said the feared leak would not put U.S. warplanes at greater risk.


 

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High-tech entrepreneur Russ Sarbora started Bothell-based Elegant Mathematics with Aleksey Yeremin, whom he plucked from a Russian military aircraft-design center a decade ago. Sarbora is shocked by the spy allegations. Anthony P. Bolante/P-I

    Unlike in the Deutch case, the computer expert
said he had written permission from Lockheed’s security and legal
departments to work on the program at home. Only after the investigation
began was he told that the optimizer should have been classified
top-secret, he said.

    The computer expert said the reason he was allowed
to work at home is that at night, he could access government and private
supercomputers for free, saving Lockheed the expense of maintaining an
in-house supercomputer on which he could work. “I really campaigned hard
to get an in-house supercomputer so I wouldn’t have to go out on the
Net,” he said.

    He said he repeatedly sought guidance from
Lockheed security officials over how far he could go with Yeremin but was
either ignored or rebuffed. “I had continually apprised security of
everything,” he said. “Somebody out there knew what Alex’s
background was. But somehow the communication to the (security) guy that
was supposed to be covering my back didn’t happen.”

    A former Lockheed security official agreed.

    “It was bungled by Lockheed and the Air Force.
From what I saw, everybody kind of snoozed through, kind of kissed it off.
It was just ‘keep an eye on it and give a report once in a while,’“
said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

    The computer expert said he left Lockheed after
the company pulled his access to work on the stealth program. He remained
a Lockheed consultant for a time, then left for another job.

    He maintains that any information he gave Yeremin
“pales in comparison” to open articles written by scientists and
engineers, and technical information available over the Internet.

    “The bigger issue is that these guys (Russian
mathematicians) had access to a lot of computers and computer networks,”
the former employee said. “Their software was being run on many American
networks and supercomputers.”

    Yeremin’s algorithm

    The 48-year-old Sarbora is a longtime software
programmer and former computer industry executive.

    He moved to Seattle in 1988 to become vice
president of quality assurance and technical support at Microrim Inc., a
database software company.

    During the Goodwill Games of 1990, Sarbora
volunteered to work on a project showcasing the best of Soviet technology
and met several Russian scientists.

    The following year, Sarbora went to Russia on a
business trip, looking to bring back software he could sell to U.S.
companies. He said he met Yeremin at the Central Aerohydrodynamics
Institute, about 30 miles southeast of Moscow, where Russian warplanes are
designed.

    It was shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Work for scientists and mathematicians in Russia was rapidly disappearing.
The U.S. government feared they would peddle their expertise in
“rogue” states like Libya or Iraq.

    When Sarbora learned that Yeremin had created an
algorithm, or calculation method, that could achieve on relatively
primitive computers what U.S. scientists did on supercomputers, he
immediately grasped the scientific and commercial potential.

    Yeremin joined forces with Sarbora to launch
Elegant Mathematics. They incorporated in Washington state with Sarbora as
president and Yeremin as vice president. The main offices, however, were
thousands of miles away in Moscow, at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    At its peak, the company employed about 20
mathematicians, physicists and software experts from the Russian academy,
Steklov Mathematical Institute and Moscow State University.

    “We insisted on maintaining the team in
Russia,” Sarbora said. “The idea is that after the transition from
communism to capitalism, there would be a few teams that could maintain
mathematics in Russia.”

    “We developed technology that would reduce
computational costs of solving problems in stealth technology by reducing
the number of calculations by an order of 10,” Sarbora said.

    Sarbora said his company scored its first major
contract with Cray, a supercomputer maker, and continued working on its
software-development project at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and
at IBM.

    In 1994, Elegant Mathematics was hired by Lockheed
to improve the efficiency and speed of computer simulations related to the
interaction between the aircraft and radar. That effectively meant
infusing MM3D with Yeremin’s “solver” program.

    The computer expert’s job at Lockheed involved
using computers to simulate how a radar wave reflects off the surface of a
plane. The whole idea of stealth technology is to prevent that reflection
so the wave echo doesn’t return to the radar antenna and get read on a
radar screen.

    Over the next three years, the computer expert
said, he met with Yeremin at Skunk Works at least 15 times. The sprawling
facility in the Mojave Desert is surrounded by chain-link fences topped
with razor wire. Armed guards are stationed at the gates. Access to secure
buildings requires personal security codes and badges that open electronic
locks.

    The former Lockheed security official said the
company lusted after Elegant Mathematics’ promised cost-cutting
technology. “That was where the greed came in. Yeremin was offering this
tantalizing carrot in front of everybody.”

    “He’s an interesting character,” the
computer expert said of Yeremin. “I always liked him a lot because of
his zeal for the task at hand. But he leaves a trail of people very pissed
off because he’s so arrogant. He’s brilliant, but not as brilliant as
he thinks he is.”

    The expert, however, said he believed in
Yeremin’s algorithm.

    “I have seen it solve big problems,” he said.
“Seeing is believing. I don’t think they were peddling snake oil.”

    Others disagree. Even before the security concerns
were raised, Yeremin’s breakthrough was being officially snubbed.

    Elegant Mathematics’ grant application to
continue research into its algorithm failed to pass review at the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Defense Department agency that
sponsors exotic research.

    “The methods he (Yeremin) has developed are not
considered competitive in this country. He got attention for a while,
until his balloon was punctured,” said University of Illinois professor
Eric Michielssen, an expert in the use of computer modeling of radar
problems.

    Fear of bugged software

    The computer expert said he sent Yeremin sections
of source code, the underlying components of the MM3D program, by e-mail
in early 1997.

    He said the source code was not classified, and
the portions he sent were not related to the physics of stealth, but to
technical requirements of inputting and retrieving data that Yeremin
needed for his work.

    The expert was testing Yeremin’s software on
supercomputers at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and at IBM in New York. The entire
MM3D program was loaded on the NASA Ames and IBM computers, as well as on
his home computer, he said.

    Federal agents told the expert there were worries
over whether Yeremin’s software might have been implanted with the
hacking capability of e-mailing information from those computers back to
Russia. And Yeremin had direct, online access to the IBM supercomputer,
the expert said.

    The expert said the agents “were never 100
percent sure that I had not sent the whole (MM3D) source code to Yeremin.
I could have sent the whole farm to him. Which, of course, I did not.”

    There was also the concern that Yeremin or one of
his Russian colleagues could have hacked into the computer expert’s home
computer. The expert said he followed the rules by reporting his e-mail
exchanges with Yeremin to Lockheed security. Security people later turned
over to Air Force OSI agents information on the e-mails, triggering the
investigation.

    What the Air Force calls a “Red Team” – a
group of technology, military and security experts – was mobilized to
assess the potential damage to national security. One inside source said
the team called it “catastrophic.” Other investigators are not
convinced that Yeremin was involved in espionage, federal sources said.

    Like Muellner, the retired general, the former
Lockheed computer expert worries that the Russians might have stolen
technology that gives them a big boost in the design and construction of
stealth aircraft.

    “We don’t know if he got the source codes,”
the computer expert said. “That was the supposition due to the fact that
we were working on the same computer. A routine hacker with the kind of
access Yeremin had could have gotten the codes.”

    When federal agents came calling on the computer
expert on June 23, 1997, he was aghast. They entered his home in
California’s Tehachapi Mountains and demanded that he turn over his
computer. He said he cooperated fully.

    ‘Traumatized beyond belief’

    They told him he may have seriously damaged
national security.

    “I was traumatized beyond belief,” he said.

    That was more than three years ago.

    The agents still have his hard drive. He hasn’t
been arrested since then, he asserts, because he didn’t deliver
classified information to Yeremin, had permission to work on his home
computer and had no intent to damage national security.

    The FBI paid a similar call on Sarbora in 1997.
Sarbora says it marked the beginning of the end for Elegant Mathematics.

    Lockheed soon cut its ties to the company. The
specter of an espionage investigation scared off almost everyone else.

    The FBI, Sarbora said, interviewed “our
customers and prospective customers; anyone we had a relationship with.
That had a very chilling effect on business. It pretty much put a box
around it and shut it down.”

    In 1997 and 1998, Sarbora was questioned several
times by the FBI. So was Yeremin, who has not been seen in the United
States since 1999. While Yeremin is still considered a “person of
interest” in the spy case, Sarbora said the agents ultimately told him
he was no longer under suspicion.

    By then, it was too late. The dreams of Yeremin
and Sarbora had been dashed. So were the hopes of the crack team of
Russian scientists. They “are all scratching for jobs,” Sarbora said.

    “Elegant was on life-support – comatose –
and remains so.”