Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Were The Iranians Looking For?

In December 1978, I was working for Ross Perot at Electronic Data Systems. I mean, for Ross Perot himself . Before then, I had been working as a senior developer on Part B healthcare systems. One afternoon afterimage lunch, I found a yellow sticky note stuck to my monitor. My first thoughts: I’m screwed. I took too long for lunch. We knew Ross monitored our card-key comings and goings and I had taken an extra ten minutes. I’m totally screwed. “What’s with this?” I asked Darrell, my manager. He just shrugged and told me to hustle my ass upstairs. I scurried up to Ross’ office on the 7th floor. His secretary/gatekeeper recognized me at once. “Hi Bill, go on in. He’s waiting for you.” Her cute Atlanta accent was wilting. How did she know me? I smiled, and began walking my final mile toward Ross’ office. The door was open.

“Hi Bill, have a seat. How’s the wife? I understand you have a new daughter.” His signature east-Texas twang made me feel a lot less like a condemned man and more like he lived next door. For the next few minutes I filled in the details on my family and how well I liked my job. But he already seemed to know everything. He knew how I had hacked into the EDS mainframes all over the country using a Radio Shack antenna switch to get my programs compiled on idle systems. And he had heard how I had soldered together my own personal computer, written my own BIOS and was programming at home as much as I was at the office. He didn’t know that I thought his operation was inefficient and I had bypassed many of their rules to get more done in less time. I’m screwed.

And then he told me why he had asked to talk to me. Ross had read a story in Popular Electronics that said the 8080 CPU would revolutionize the world. For the next hour we discussed the future of computing. He was a good listener. To make a long story short, that’s when I started to work for Ross himself as his technical advisor. I was moved into an office on the 7th floor and asked to sit in on meetings and consult on any number of technical issues. I eventually began work on an accounting program that would be sold with IBM 5110 “personal” computers to small businesses.

Fallout from the Iran Mission

In December of 1978 several bedraggled men were placed in the vacant desks all around us. Despite the fact they were wearing the EDS uniform (3-piece business suits), they looked like they had just returned from a harrowing battle in Vietnam. At first they didn’t really say much. But over the next few days we learned more and more about how EDS’s grand plans for Iran had fallen through.

They told us how EDS wanted to expand their foreign offices. When they discovered that the Shah of Iran wanted to modernize their systems to ostensibly keep track of their citizens, Ross jumped at the chance. He flew a team to Iran and EDS was awarded the bid. For some reason, the other vendors wanted a lot more time to get the system up but Ross’ people were confident they could get it up in a year. What they didn’t know is that it usually took several years to get anything through customs. The onsite team worked around this by “storing” the shipment in a sealed warehouse within the customs security fence. Less than a year later the system was up. After some time, they were bringing in a million dollars a month. It was widely rumored was the database was being used by SAVAK to track dissidents.

All was going well until the Shah was deposed and the government stopped paying their monthly bill. Eight months later, the situation had deteriorated dramatically. While the State Department was not providing much sensible intelligence, the EDS employees and their families were already very concerned. When someone drove by the EDS building and sprayed the second floor offices with an AK47, they knew they had to get out while they could. After getting the go-ahead from Dallas, the staff backed up the system to tape and formatted the hard drives. The tapes were taken to the American Embassy and put in an embassy pouch to be delivered back to the Dallas headquarters. Unfortunately, an informant working for the company notified Khomeini’s people. Most of the staff escaped Tehran as quickly as possible.

The story of what happened to the EDS employees (Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord) that didn’t get out was fodder for a Ken Follett book “On Wings of Eagles.” After they were thrown in prison, the question they were asked a thousand times was “Where is the data?” Ross was able to engineer an escape for his employees and they returned to the Dallas headquarters. When I heard about it, I volunteered to fly the chopper out of Turkey. Ross thanked me but turned me down. He had recruited my flight-school instructor pilot.

When the mobs attacked the embassy in April of 1980, they turned the building inside out looking for something. Was it the data tapes containing SAVAK files?

Again, an American company was was paid millions (perhaps through naiveté) to make a tyrannical regime more efficient at monitoring its citizens (and victims). While EDS was told this system was to replicate the functionality of the Social Security system in the US, did the EDS people onsite know it was being used by the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police? Were they ignorant, or did they turn a blind eye? Did Ross know? Only those men who survived this really know. Perhaps we should ask them—just to get the story straight.

Of course, all of this unfolded over three decades ago. My memory is not what it once was but this is the story as I remember it. Perhaps it will help those individuals working for companies here and abroad to be more cognizant of whom they are helping with their skills.


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