The Mysterious Death of Bush's Cyber-Guru – Michael Connell

     

Shortly before six o’clock on the evening of December 19, 2008, a man standing outside his home in Lake Township, Ohio heard the whine of an engine in the sky above him.

Moments later two red lights broke through the low clouds, heading almost directly toward the ground. It was a light aircraft, and for a second, as it descended below the tree line, the man thought it would climb back up. Instead, there was a terrible thud, and the sky turned orange. When the fire crews arrived, they found the burning wreckage of a Piper Saratoga strewn across a vacant lot. The plane had narrowly missed a house, but the explosion was so intense that the home’s plastic siding was on fire. So was the grass. The pilot had been thrown from the plane and died instantly. Body parts and pieces of twisted metal were scattered everywhere. A prayer book lay open on the ground, its pages on fire.

The crash would have remained a private tragedy confined to the pages of the local press and the hearts of the pilot’s widow and four children, but within days the blogosphere was abuzz with rumors and conspiracy theories: The plane, it was said, had been sabotaged and the pilot murdered to cover up the GOP’s alleged theft of the Ohio vote in the 2004 presidential election. At the center of this plot was the Saratoga’s pilot, a prodigiously gifted IT expert named Michael Connell, whose altar boy charm and technical brilliance had made him the computer whiz of choice for the Republican Party. Left-wing Web sites openly referred to Connell as “Bush’s vote rigger” and claimed that his fingerprints were on all the most controversial elections in recent history. There were dark whispers of electronic pulses or sniper fire being used to bring down the plane – a black ops attack designed to keep him from testifying against his former cronies. Right-wing bloggers and talk show hosts derided such claims as the twisted delusions of liberal nut jobs and tinfoil hatters. The mainstream press sat on its hands.

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But while the rumors, innuendos, and allegations continue to swirl through the ether, evidence has recently emerged that suggests the Ohio vote may have been hacked, and that Connell was involved.

Born in 1963 in Peoria, Illinois into a large Irish-American family, Michael Connell was a lifelong Republican and a devout Roman Catholic who went to Mass every day and wore a wristband saying what would jesus do? What Connell did was realize the potential of the Internet to shape politics. While still in his 20s, he worked as finance director for Republican Congressman Jim Leach, and as director of voter programs for Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. In 1988 Connell developed a voter contact database for George H. W. Bush, thus inaugurating a long association with the Bush family: Connell worked on Jeb’s gubernatorial campaign in Florida in 1998; two years later he was the chief architect of George W. Bush’s Web site as Dubya launched his bid for the White House.

But it was while serving as tech guru to Karl Rove that Connell developed his deepest and perhaps most problematic professional relationship. Recruited in the late ’80s, Connell became Rove’s most trusted cyberlieutenant: a Web wizard who could turn portals into power and who would gain access to the very heights of American politics by the time he reached 30 years old. Connell’s two Ohio-based companies, New Media Communications and GovTech, became virtual research and development labs for the Republican Party, building and managing Web sites and e-mail accounts for both Presidents Bush and a long list of leading Republicans. GovTech also designed and managed numerous Congressional IT systems, including those for the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, putting Connell “behind the fire wall” of some of the most sensitive government Web sites from the safety of the Bush White House.

“Mike was known as the GOP’s Mister Fix-It,” says Stephen Spoonamore, an IT security expert and friend of Connell’s. “He built really intelligent tools that allowed people who wanted to win elections do a better job organizing their data.” But aside from his more legitimate business, Connell was no stranger to the darker side of American politics. He was forced to resign from Senator Coats’ campaign for his involvement in ethical violations. Connell’s was also the hand behind the Web site for the notorious Swift Boat Veterans’ for Truth smear campaign against John Kerry and GWB43.com, the secret e-mail account used by Rove and dozens of other White House staffers.

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Just six weeks before his death, Connell had given a deposition in an Ohio lawsuit that accused Rove, Bush, and Co. of something far more serious than merely scrubbing e-mails: the theft of the 2004 Ohio vote. “This is the biggest scandal in our history,” says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University who has written extensively about electronic voter fraud. “Watergate grew out of a paranoid attempt to disable the opposition. But Ohio was exponentially different. We’re talking about a systematic, centralized attempt to rig the voting system.”

“We decided to try to bring a racketeering claim against Rove under Ohio law,” says Cliff Arnebeck, the attorney who brought the suit, a broad-shouldered man with a Senatorial air dressed in a blue blazer. “We detected a pattern of criminal activity, and we identified Connell as a key witness, as the implementer for Rove.”

By any calculation, the Ohio 2004 election was a black day for American democracy. Lou Harris, known as the “father of modern political polling,” and a man not given to hyperbole, called it “as dirty an election as America has ever seen.” All the exit polls suggested Ohio would go to Kerry. But when the vote was counted George Bush had won by 132,685 votes, adding Ohio’s crucial 20 Electoral College votes to his tally. And putting him, not Kerry, into the White House. It has since been alleged that at several points on election night, the Ohio secretary of state’s official Web site, which was responsible for reporting the results, was being hosted by a server in a basement in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Ohio’s secretary of state in 2004 was a fiercely partisan Christian named Ken Blackwell. Blackwell had hired a company called GDC Limited to run the IT systems, which had subcontracted the job to Michael Connell’s company, GovTech. Connell had in turn sub-contracted SMARTech, an IT firm based in Chattanooga, to act, it was claimed, as a backup server.

“By looking at the URLs on the Web site, we discovered that there were three points on election night when SMARTech’s computers took over from the secretary of state,” says Arnebeck. “It is during that period that we believe votes were manipulated.”

In computer jargon it is known as a man-in-the-middle attack.

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“At the time I didn’t know who SMARTech were,” says IT expert Stephen Spoonamore, opening a file on his computer showing the Internet architecture map of the 2004 Ohio election. He points to a red box in the bottom right-hand corner showing SMARTech’s server.

“Then I found out: They host Rove’s e-mails. They host the RNC’s Web site. They host George Bush’s Web site.” His voice rises in disbelief.

“I go, ‘Holy s__t, this is a man-in-the-middle attack! These guys have programmed the state’s computers to talk to a company with ties to the Republican Party.’ It’s brilliant.”

With his wiry hair and designer glasses, Spoonamore looks like a character in a Tim Burton movie. A lifelong Republican, he is also one of the world’s acknowledged experts on cybersecurity, with a résumé that includes work for the U.S. armed forces and the FBI. In his spare time he has devoted thousands of hours to investigating cyberfraud in American elections. “I know I sound crazy when I talk about this stuff. No one wants to believe it. They say, ‘No one would steal an election.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, they would. And that’s exactly what they did.’ ”

Spoonamore believes that while Michael Connell may have facilitated electoral fraud, he was really just a tool of more powerful forces. “Mike has been called the Forrest Gump of GOP IT operations,” he says. “And I think there’s a truth to that. I think he was a good guy surrounded by wolves. He was always going to be the fall guy.”

The two men had gotten to know each other at Spoonamore’s Washington, D.C. offices in late 2005. “The two of us hit it off,” recalls Spoonamore. “We were the same age, the same generation. We had a lot of friends in common.” At the end of the meeting, Connell broached a delicate topic. “Mike asked me, ‘How easy is it to destroy all records of e-mail?’ ” recalls Spoonamore. “He sort of gestured toward the White House and said, ‘Because I have clients down the street who are working on that problem.’ And I stepped back and said, ‘If you are talking about White House e-mail destruction, I want nothing to do with it.’ ”

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A year later, at an IT conference in London, Spoonamore confronted the pro-life Connell about the Ohio election: “He said, ‘I’m afraid that in my zeal to save the babies, the system I built may have been abused.’ ”

Three days later, in the back of a cab heading toward the airport, Spoonamore asked Connell if he would be willing to talk to a Congressional judiciary committee about what he knew. “I actually took Mike’s hand and said, ‘If I can arrange for a private meeting for you to sit down with the committee and explain what you think may have happened in 2004 and how your systems may have been abused, will you do it?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Connell never did talk to the judiciary committee. But in the months leading up to his death he was under intense pressure. In an attempt to extricate himself from the world of politics, he had sold two of his businesses, including GovTech. Throughout the fall his plane was being tracked by Arnebeck and his associates so they could serve him with a subpoena. Connell sought refuge from the maelstrom in his deep Catholic faith. He took to wearing a scapular, two squares of cloth with religious images favored by devout Catholics, under his shirt. He went to Mass twice a day and became more directly involved with the pro-life movement, spending weekends standing outside abortion clinics. He traveled to Burma and Thailand to work with religious dissidents and started a Catholic charity in El Salvador.

Finally, on October 8, 2008, Connell was served with his subpoena at College Park Airfield outside Washington, D.C. Seven weeks later his Piper Saratoga would fall from the sky.

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February 18, 2010