Two MacDill laptops recovered
By MARY JACOBY and DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
TAMPA -- An intensive search for two laptop computers missing from MacDill Air Force Base ended Friday after a military man confessed to taking them.
The laptops, one of which contained classified information, were then recovered at a private residence, according to Maj. Mike Richmond of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Richmond said there is no evidence the computers were taken for purposes of espionage. "We don't have any indication that points that way," he said.
The man who confessed had access to a secure room where the computers had been stored. He was in custody at MacDill on Friday, but Richmond would not give his name, rank, or branch of the military.
No charges had been filed, said Richmond, adding that a decision on whether to initiate a court-martial lies with the man's commanding officer.
The disappearance of the laptops had provoked widespread concern because of the crucial role played by Central Command, located at MacDill, in running the war in Afghanistan and planning for possible military action against Iraq.
But Richmond said the removal of the laptops did not appear to be aimed at obtaining military secrets.
"We have information pertaining to a motive, but we are not going to get into it," Richmond added. "It is restricted information if there is a court-martial."
The man's confession was obtained after the Office of Special Investigations -- the criminal investigative branch of the Air Force -- sent 46 agents to MacDill from posts around the country and world to help solve the mystery of the laptops, which were discovered missing Aug. 2.
The 46 agents joined a team of five investigators who are permanently assigned to MacDill in interviewing a list of military members who had access to the storage room, known as a Secure Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.
"This person was on the list, and over the course of the conversation with this person, there was a confession and the confession led to the location" of the computers, said Richmond.
He described the list as "long." As of Thursday, investigators had interviewed about 300 people, according to Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who had been briefed by the military.
On Wednesday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon news briefing that one of the computers was believed to contain classified information.
Central Command is led by Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who is responsible for military actions in 25 countries in the Middle East and South Asia, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
Central Command officials referred all questions to Richmond, who declined to talk about the nature of any classified information that might have been on the laptops. But he said military computer experts will make a full inspection.
"We've got computer forensics experts within OSI who are trained to get into the computer and ascertain whether the information has been manipulated or compromised," Richmond said. "It's akin to going in there and finding out where the footprints are and discerning what was done."
The missing computers came to light last week in the course of another OSI investigation into the source of a July 5 New York Times story about options for attacking Iraq.
The New York Times story reported details from an "American military planning document" that called for a land, sea and air attack on Iraq from three sides.
The missing computers do not appear connected to either the leak to the New York Times or the leak investigation ordered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Richmond said.
Richmond also said it was too early to say whether Central Command will change its security procedures as a result of the incident. He said OSI investigators customarily make suggestions for improving security when warranted but do so "only in an advisory capacity."
According to retired Army Col. Mike Pheneger, who served as deputy director of intelligence at Central Command in the late 1980s, access to the SCIF at MacDill is tightly controlled.
"Only people who have security clearance would be allowed unescorted access. They do a very significant background investigation. Then they periodically update that investigation over time."
Other current and former military officials said SCIFs are typically outfitted with special walls that prevent electronic emanations from passing through.
The security design is meant to thwart sensitive espionage devices that, if held close enough, can pick up the keystrokes being typed into a computer. Spies can use such information to decipher the information contained on a hard drive.
The ability to thwart such espionage devices is one reason why military members are encouraged to use computers that contain classified information only in a SCIF.
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