Danny Casolaro and the Surveillance State
Thirty years after this reporter's death, the conspiracy lives on
I am writing this in a Holiday Inn in Martinsburg, West Virginia. As Mark Fenster made me well aware a few short hours ago, while I drifted off to sleep reading his book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (like most academic conspiracy titles, perhaps best used to lull you to sleep) I may be in danger of becoming a cliché: in this case, that of the lone conspiracy researcher, typing away in his lonely hotel room, perpetually one step away from either exposing The Truth — with a capital ’T’ — or from being tracked down and taken out by those who really wield power in the world. (Except, of course, that I’m under no illusion that my writing threatens anybody, those in power or otherwise.)
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the death of journalist Daniel Joseph Casolaro, who died in this Martinsburg hotel at the age of 44, either late August 9 or early August 10, 1991. Some say he committed suicide (this was the finding of the Berkeley County coroner). Some say he was killed by “The Octopus,” a cabal of government officials, spies, and mobsters behind some of the most notorious conspiracies of the twentieth century.
Housekeeping found Casolaro dead in the bathtub the morning of August 10, a Saturday. He had been in town since Thursday. Published accounts state that he had consumed a lot of alcohol over the previous two days, but there are plenty of gaps in the investigation’s timeline, time he could have used to meet with sources — or his murderer. It’s also worth noting that Danny’s family insists that he was not suicidal and had been receiving death threats for weeks. Even more damning, there were irregularities in the investigation of his death: Casolaro’s body was embalmed before the autopsy. A urine test detected small amounts of alcohol, Vicodin, and a tricyclic antidepressant — nothing that would necessarily indicate that he was drugged or incapacitated at the time of his death.
In The Village Voice, journalists James Ridgeway and Doug Vaughn (“The Last Days of Danny Casolaro,” October 15, 1991) described the scene at his funeral:
As his mother, brothers, sisters, and close friends watched from beneath a canopy, a man in a tan raincoat and a beribboned black soldier in army dress uniform walked up to the casket. The soldier laid a medal on the lid, saluted, and both men quickly walked away. No one recognized either man; Danny had never served in or covered the military. The medal was buried with the coffin.
It all began in August 1990, when Casolaro received a tip about Inslaw, a computer software contractor allegedly ripped off by the Department of Justice. Inslaw was known for database software called PROMIS (short for Prosecutor’s Management Information System).
By the 1980s, the U.S. federal government was a confused mixture of disparate computer systems. There was plenty of data in the government’s possession, but it all resided in its own silos. It was a tremendous hassle to share information among the Department of Justice, the IRS, and local law enforcement, to give one example. The genius of PROMIS was that it could facilitate communication between these different systems. While Inslaw initially aimed its product at the justice system, it could be used to track anything — or anyone. Perhaps unwittingly, Inslaw had developed a powerful tool for the surveillance state.
In 1982, the company struck a $10 million deal with the DOJ to install PROMIS in U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country. But the government stopped making its payments, citing cost overruns. By February 1985, Inslaw was forced to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Bill and Nancy Hamilton, the owners of the company, charge that the government conspired to "drive INSLAW out of business 'through trickery, fraud and deceit.'" To some people, this sounded far-fetched, but both a bankruptcy court and federal district court found in the Hamiltons’ favor. When a court of appeals later reversed these decisions, it was on a technicality (it ruled that the bankruptcy court was the wrong venue for the case).
Up until this point, the Inslaw affair was little more than an obscure example of government corruption. Then Bill Hamilton was contacted by Jeffrey Steinberg of Executive Intelligence Review (the corporate intelligence arm of cult leader Lyndon LaRouche's organization) who in turn connected the entrepreneur with a felon and self-described whistleblower named Michael Riconosciuto. According to Riconosciuto, the Reagan Administration modified PROMIS and sold it to countries around the world. At this point, it went from being a software product to a conspiracy myth.
As described in most conspiracy literature, PROMIS is a science fiction weapon capable of tracking nuclear submarines and extraterrestrial spacecraft, hiding drug money from the prying eyes of the government through an impenetrable maze of off-shore banking institutions, and anything else, it seems, that researchers can dream up. Bin Laden is even said to have used it to pull off 9/11, somehow.
In the 1990s, when this story first broke, very few people had computers in their homes, and there was no World Wide Web; the internet was just a few lines of text available to researchers in universities or government-funded labs. Computers were magical, seemed capable of damn near anything, and could be imbued with powers by whoever invoked them in their research. PROMIS became an almost supernatural talisman, a sort of Holy Grail accessed through copper telephone lines and rickety 300 baud modems.
Did the U.S. government rip off Bill and Nancy Hamilton? If Danny’s sources are to be believed, the answer encapsulates some of the biggest stories of the 1980s, from the Iran-Contra arms for hostages deal to the BCCI scandal, the Reagan Administration’s plans to declare martial law in case of national emergency, and much more. This is a story populated with criminals and spies — and sometimes you can’t tell which is which.
Danny had a name for the covert network behind all these scandals. He called it The Octopus. And there are many people to this day who believe that it was The Octopus who ended Danny’s life.
In today’s Failed State Update podcast, available here, I interview Tim Shorrock and Jack Calhoun, two journalists with unique insight into PROMIS and its possible (actual, documented) use by spies and intelligence agencies. I also speak with Dominic Orlando, a playwright and the cousin of Danny Casolaro. We talk about Danny’s story and why it isn’t as far-fetched as some people seem to think.
Next week, check this space for a deeper look at Casolaro’s investigation and the political network responsible for his death.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Danny’s cousin Dominic Orlando as Dominic Casolaro.)