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NPR Weekend All Things Considered December 8, 2002 (8:00 PM ET)

FBI's continuing investigation of Boston-area software company Ptech and its possible ties to terrorism

STEVE INSKEEP, host: People who tipped off the FBI about a Boston-area software company say federal authorities failed to properly investigate suspicions of terrorism. On Friday, the FBI raided the computer software company Ptech, which was a military contractor. Authorities insist the company never had a chance to obtain classified information, but some security experts suggest otherwise. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

First, it's important to stress that no Ptech employees have been arrested, and authorities do not officially characterize the raid into the company's offices as a terrorism investigation. So the company, which has a number of Muslim employees, may well be innocent of any wrongdoing. But there have been some troubling questions raised about Ptech by its own employees and others close to the company. The story sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel on cybersnooping. Joe Bergantino is a reporter with the Boston CBS affiliate WBZ-TV. He's been working on the Ptech story for months, but he says he held off airing it at the request of federal investigators.

Mr. JOE BERGANTINO (Reporter, WBZ-TV): The worst-case scenario is that this is a situation where this was planned for a very long time to establish a company in this country and in the computer software business that would target federal agencies and gain access to key government data to essentially help terrorists launch another attack.

ARNOLD: Part of what concerns experts is the nature of Ptech's software. They say it's used to broadly assess strengths and weaknesses across organizations.

Ms. INDIRA SINGH (Risk Management and Computer Systems Consultant): The Ptech consultants and employees come into contact with the most sensitive information in an organization.

ARNOLD: Indira Singh was one of the first people to raise alarm about Ptech. She's a risk management and computer systems consultant. Singh was working with a major Wall Street bank and was thinking of using Ptech's software and consulting services. While checking on the company, she talked to an ex-employee. She says that person told her that some people at Ptech were concerned that one of its central investors was Yasin al-Qadi, who the FBI suspects of financing terrorist groups. Singh says she was told that at least several other employees and executives had ties to organizations suspected by the US government of funding terrorism. Singh says given that Ptech was doing work for the FBI, the Air Force, Navy and a host of other agencies, she became very concerned.

Ms. SINGH: I called the FBI directly.

ARNOLD: Singh says she'd learned that an ex-Ptech employee had also called the Boston office of the FBI months before, soon after the attacks on September 11th. So when she called that same office in May of this year, she hoped to hear that Ptech had been investigated and cleared of suspicion or was being aggressively looked into. She doesn't believe that it was.

Ms. SINGH: None of that was done. And the language, the kind of language law enforcement, counterterrorism and the FBI agents themselves were using basically indicated to me that absolutely no investigation was going on, that it was totally at a standstill, at which point my hair stood on end.

ARNOLD: A spokesperson for the FBI denies that the bureau failed to follow up on leads. Singh says she and others had to apply further pressure before the government started aggressively investigating the matter nearly a year after the FBI was first notified.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Ptech's software has now been scrutinized and it in no way jeopardizes the security of the country. But some security experts think the government is downplaying the potential threat. John Pike is a defense and intelligence analyst who heads up GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based non-profit policy group.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (GlobalSecurity.org): When you look at all of the different military security agencies that they have as customers, it's very difficult to imagine how they would not be encountering sensitive information, classified information.

ARNOLD: Indira Singh now believes that some Ptech employees had access to lots of information that could be dangerous in the hands of terrorists. She says Ptech did work for the Department of Energy in which it essentially blueprinted the process for nuclear waste disposal. She says Ptech employees could have learned how nuclear waste is transported and where it's stored. The company denies any ties to terrorist groups. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

Copyright 2002 National Public Radio (R)