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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.”
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.”