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    Laptops' removal no mistake, officials say

    Investigators say the suspect was not "taking work home on a laptop,'' but they don't think espionage is involved.

    By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 11, 2002

    TAMPA -- Investigators who found the missing military laptop computers made it clear Saturday that the man who took them has no simple explanation for his actions.

    They have said they don't think espionage is involved in the case of two laptops that were taken from a secure Central Command room at MacDill Air Force Base. But on Saturday they emphasized the man was not "merely an overworked employee taking work home on a laptop."

    Maj. Mike Richmond, spokesman for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, wouldn't elaborate about any motive for taking the laptops, but addressed speculation that the man might have been using the laptops for work.

    "We thought we better douse that," Richmond said. "It's flatly untrue."

    The missing computers, last seen the afternoon of Aug. 1 and reported missing the next morning, prompted an intensive investigation because of the critical role Central Command plays in the war in Afghanistan and possible military strikes against Iraq. One of the laptops contained classified information.

    Of the 46 agents in OSI, the investigative arm of the Air Force, who were sent to MacDill to assist with the investigation, 36 are being returned to their posts around the world. The other 10 will help five investigators permanently assigned to MacDill interview personnel who might corroborate the suspect's confession.

    On Monday, the laptops will be transported to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where OSI's computer forensics specialists will search hard drives. Their work will determine "whether any of it has been compromised or manipulated," Richmond said.

    OSI also will not say how many people its investigators had interviewed before the suspect admitted taking the laptops, though U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, who was briefed on the matter, said the number was about 300.

    Richmond said OSI started with a general list of people to interview, including those who had access to the room, and was attempting to narrow that down to a collection of "persons of interest."

    Those are people who were not necessarily suspects, but might be more likely to know information.

    "This individual had made that list by the time we got to him," Richmond said. "During the course of the interview, he did confess."

    The suspect is now being held at a jail-like facility at MacDill, officials said. After the investigation is complete, investigators will forward their information to the suspect's commanding officer, who consults with military lawyers to decide whether to file charges.

    Many details of the case must remain secret until charges are filed, including the suspect's name, rank and branch of service. The computers were found in a private residence in the Tampa area, but Richmond will also not specify whether the home was at MacDill.

    "We play out of a different rule book in our justice system, and there is some very specific information about what can be released prior to a trial and what can't," Richmond said.

    Maj. Pete Mitchell, spokesman for Central Command, said the computers were stolen from an area that is accessed by swiping a badge and punching numbers into a key pad. The suspect was authorized to enter the area.

    Central Command has no plans to increase security for the room, Mitchell said.

    "We're never going to be able to prevent somebody from being irresponsible," Mitchell said, "but we can, as an organization, be more watchful and more vigilant in how we watch each other."

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