PRISM’s Controversial Forerunner

Using a powerful computer program known as PRISM, the U.S. government has been downloading vast amounts of communications data and mining it for counterterrorism purposes. But these capabilities began more than three decades ago with the controversial PROMIS software, Richard L. Fricker reports.

By Richard L. Fricker

Long before Edward Snowden’s claims or revelations that the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency were monitoring and tracking the Internet, cell phones, e-mails and any other electronic communication they could get their hands on using a program known as PRISM, there existed PROMIS [Prosecutors Management Information Systems].

PROMIS was designed in the late 1970s and ‘80s to bring Department of Justice criminal case management from the dark ages into the light of the computer age. In the spring of 1981, the Reagan Administration hailed PROMIS as one of law enforcements greatest assets. By 1983, PROMIS had morphed into the behemoth of intelligence gathering. It was not state of the art it was the art.

Over the ensuing decades PROMIS is reported to have been used by the DOJ, CIA, NSA, and several foreign intelligence agencies including Israel’s Mossad. The ownership of PROMIS has been the subject of federal court hearings and a congressional investigation.

The capabilities of PROMIS as a data collection and tracking program have never been a secret. But the only discussion of PROMIS has been about theft and black-market sales. Neither the courts nor Congress have ever inquired as to privacy issues or the ethics of the program. There has been no rending of political robes as seen with the Snowden case. In fact, the function of PROMIS has been discussed in open court and various public arenas.

PROMIS is a tracking program with enhancements by Washington, DC-based Inslaw Inc., owned by Bill and Nancy Hamilton. PROMIS was developed under a Law Enforcement Assistance Administration [LEAA] grant. Bill Hamilton was employed by NSA for six years. He left the agency in 1966.

PROMIS was designed to track the vast amount of criminal cases piling up in DOJ offices across the country. Bill Hamilton, in an interview for this story, recounted, “It was always a tracking program. It was designed to keep track of cases in local U.S. Attorneys’ offices, which means street crimes, keep track of the scheduled events in court, what actually takes place, who’s there, witnesses, police officers, conclusions, convictions, acquittals, whatever.”

As the LEAA dissolved in the late days of the Carter Administration, the Hamiltons formed Inslaw and began to make modifications to the public domain PROMIS. The short version: as originally designed, PROMIS ran only on 16-bit computers, using their own funds. INSLAW converted the program to run on 32-bit VAX computers which were massive for their time.

The Reagan administration was very taken with the Inslaw version of PROMIS. In March 1982 Inslaw was awarded $9.6 million to install the program in 20 U.S. Attorney’s offices, with further installations in the remaining 74 offices, if successful. This would be the last government contact the Hamiltons would receive, not because the system failed quite the contrary, it was too successful.

Hamilton explained, “We developed it originally just for prosecutors. But some of our users wanted to have it shared with the courts and the police. So, the software was engineered to make it adaptable. In making it highly adaptable, a byproduct was to make it useable for non-prosecutor tracking and that made it adaptable totally outside the criminal justice system.”

It became obvious with the latest round of modifications any data system could be integrated into PROMIS. And those data systems could interact that is, combine with each other forming a massive tracking data base of people via government documents such as birth and death certificates, licenses, mortgages, lawsuits or anything else kept in a data base. PROMIS could also track banking transactions, arms shipments, communications, airplane parts again, anything kept in a data base.

With the discovery of these new capabilities Inslaw’s problems began. Unknowingly, the Hamiltons had embarked on an odyssey winding from the White House and the heart of the Reagan inner circle, bankruptcy court, a congressional investigation, secret informants, the CIA, NSA, and the Mossad.

The odyssey began in February 1983 when Dr. Ben Orr, an Israeli prosecutor, came to Hamilton’s office for a demonstration. He left, never placed an order and was never seen again. This was just one of the many demonstrations the company provided potential customers and the press. There was no shroud of secrecy about PROMIS or its capabilities.

Shortly after Dr. Orr’s visit, DOJ terminated payments to Inslaw, but refused to return the software. The company soon [June 1986] found its way into bankruptcy court. Inslaw put forth the claim that DOJ had stolen their software and made a concerted effort to drive them out of business. Bankruptcy Judge George Bason agreed.

In a 216-page opinion delivered in 1987, Judge Bason wrote that DOJ used “trickery, fraud and deceit” to steal PROMIS. He was later overruled by the DC District Court of Appeals on jurisdictional grounds. A previous district court supported his findings that PROMIS had been stolen. Bason became one of the very few Bankruptcy judges to not be re-appointed.

As the PROMIS odyssey continued, information began to surface that DOJ had provided the NSA and CIA with the enhanced 32-bit PROMIS. Stories began to circulate that friends of the Reagan Administration were selling black-market versions of PROMIS to anyone willing to pay the price.

Time and time again the veracity of government employees was called into question. In 1989 the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jack Brooks D-Texas, launched what would become a three-year investigation into the theft of PROMIS and DOJ efforts to drive INSLAW out of business.

The Brooks report dated Aug. 11, 1992 not only agreed with Bason’s findings but went further: “High government officials were involved individuals testified under oath that Inslaw’s PROMIS software was stolen and distributed internationally in order to provide financial gain and to further intelligence and foreign policy objectives.”

The report includes scathing comments about former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and several ranking DOJ staffers. Brooks recommended a settlement of Inslaw claims for damages and the appointment of a special prosecutor. Neither happened. Brooks said in an interview at the time, “[Inslaw] was ravaged by the Justice Department.” They were, he said, “treated like dogs.”

By this time nothing in the report surprised the Hamiltons. Seven months earlier they had discovered that their 1983 visitor, Dr. Ben Orr, was in fact Rafael Etian, chief of the Israeli Defense Force’s [IDF] anti-terrorism intelligence unit. They further learned he left Washington carrying a copy of PROMIS.

The DOJ explanation was that he was given the 16-bit version, not the new improved 32-bit VAX version. The question would be: why the subterfuge? And why show off the superior 32-bit VAX version and then only provide the cheaper model? DOJ has never answered the question.

Through all this, Inslaw has survived; Ireland installed PROMIS for case management, to track land records and in the bank credit system. Hamilton noted that every credit card transaction is tracked by PROMIS.

The Netherlands uses the program to keep track of all the inmates in their prison system. The city of Rome has PROMIS for use in their tax office. In fact PROMIS is being legally used in several countries around the world.

Illegally? Who knows. The Canadian government once wrote Inslaw asking for an operating manual. Inslaw never sold PROMIS to Canada. A similar event popped up with Lithuania when a member of their parliament asked for help with their PROMIS program. In each case, when told they may have a bootleg version, the reply was, it must be a different PROMIS.

To date, Inslaw has never received a dime for any government recommended settlements, some as high as $50 million.

Hamilton has declined to suggest that PROMIS was the frontrunner to PRISM. He said flatly in the interview for this article that his only information about PRISM is from news accounts.

Regardless of the Inslaw affair, PROMIS is still out there, still tracking whatever its masters require. And still, to this day, no one in government or otherwise has inquired, not about what PROMIS can do, but rather what is PROMIS doing, for whom and why.

PROMIS has been toiling in the intelligence caverns for nearly 30 years that’s a lot of data consumption, that’s a lot of tracking. Where is the PROMIS data? Compared to 30 years of information gathering and tracking by PROMIS, PRISM could be considered the equivalent of digital binge drinking.

Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer, where this article first appeared. His latest book, The Last Day of the War, is available at or at The entire story of the PROMIS software, Inslaw and what became known as “The Octopus” can be found in Fricker’s article that appeared in Wired magazine:

15 comments for “PRISM’s Controversial Forerunner

  1. chmoore
    July 12, 2013 at 17:31

    I think the early part of this story is historically interesting, but the later part leads out into the weeds of conspiracy theory – or maybe more objectively, is kind of a dated story today.

    “PROMIS is still out there, still tracking whatever its masters require”
    “…not about what PROMIS can do, but rather what is PROMIS doing, for whom and why”
    “PROMIS has been toiling in the intelligence caverns for nearly 30 years”

    Due to computer advances, it’s more likely the real story today is about methods of data aquisition, mining and use rather than an early 80’s vintage proprietary computer program. Although concepts from PROMIS may have been carried forward, that old octopus is probably dead seaweed by now.

    According to Fricker’s, Wired magazine, 1993, “The INSLAW Octopus” PROMIS was alleged to have “…a staggering 570,000 lines of computer code”

    Here’s some perspective: the average Windows Operating System for the average home PC today has tens of milllions of lines of code, and the average person owning one can download SQLEXPRESS directly from Microsoft for Free, a powerful database engine which in combination with other free downloadable apps can probably blow PROMIS out of the water. That’s before we even get to SQL Enterprise or Oracle or any of the others.

    Dont’ get me wrong, none of this is meant to imply that government abuse of secrets and information is not a problem – I’m inclined to believe it probably is. I just suspect that whatever became of PROMIS as a piece of software won’t tell us much about a present day info-crisis.

    • Ed Encho
      July 12, 2013 at 17:53

      Not dated at all, PROMIS laid the groundwork and provided the platform for the hostile takeover of the entire system. Think it doesn’t? There are a trail of dead bodies of those who got too close to the story of PROMIS and The Octopus.

  2. Mike Giuffrida
    July 12, 2013 at 11:37

    I was in court for Judge Bason’s findings and opinion, and watched the reactions of the Hamiltons and their attorney Elliot Richardson. My immediate reaction was “FINALLY, justice will be served”! My mind conjured up a scenario whereby Mr. Richardson, through simple discourse with then DOJ head Thornburgh, would help our government arrive at a reasonable settlement for our government’s wrongdoings, and life would resume for the Hamiltons and for Inslaw. After all, Mr. Richardson – held out in Washington as Mr. Integrity – had in face headed DOJ as one of his four United States Cabinet positions. Aahhh, not to happen with Thornburgh. Well, second try with Thornburgh’s successor William Barr. Ooops. Strike two. Surface Janet Reno, and Mr. Richardson’s third attempt to reason with his way to justice for the Hamiltons. Strike three. Young men and women in my circle are already disappointed in the country I love, and they don’t even know this story……

  3. Mike Giuffrida
    July 12, 2013 at 11:20

    How does one post a comment? Tried yesterday, but did not have the password, and cannot find it. Help?

  4. Ed Encho
    July 12, 2013 at 06:43

    The theft and modification of PROMIS is the greatest untold story of the last century in that it allowed the fascist element to use advanced technology of the time to dig into every aspect of the system. All else evolved from this.

  5. Bill Mack
    July 11, 2013 at 21:17

    Edward Snowden is a triple agent and Danny Casolaro was murdered while investigating the theft of Promis as it involved the “Octopus”.

  6. Robert Schwartz
    July 11, 2013 at 20:57

    Smart: “With all this talk of PROMIS and PRISM, don’t you think we should use the Cone of Silence, Chief?”

    Chief: “No, Max. Not the Cone of Silence.”

    Smart: “But Chief, all you have to do is push this button right here…”

    Chief: “Don’t push that button, Max.”

    • Robert Schwartz
      July 11, 2013 at 21:01

      Chief: (picking himself off the floor) “I asked you not to push that button, Max.”

      Smart: (still on the floor, taking off ringing shoe) “Sorry about that, Chief.”

  7. F. G. Sanford
    July 11, 2013 at 17:00

    “In a 216-page opinion delivered in 1987, Judge Bason wrote that DOJ used “trickery, fraud and deceit” to steal PROMIS.”

    Reminds me of that Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) line: “On your side, you have logic, reason and evidence, whereas we have only trickery and deceit.” But look at the bright side. If it hadn’t been for PROMIS tracking all that data, there would have been dozens of hijacked airliners on 9/11 instead of that measly four. Look how safe it kept us!

    • AnneC
      July 12, 2013 at 05:16

      PROMIS also helped the feds to quickly figure out who stole anthrax from a high-security, highly-contained lab in a US government research facility. Presumably they do not hand out anthrax samples to just anyone who drives up and asks for them. Someone then produced several grams of dried anthrax to mail to nosy reporters and progressive politicians. If germ warfare researchers have to wear moon-suit type coverings this is hardly something just anyone could do in their basement. The list of suspects could not have been all that long. Obviously this made it absolutely necessary to investigate all the e-mail of every grandmother on the planet.

  8. David Hamilton
    July 11, 2013 at 16:14

    Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta were following this story in 1991 also. I saw in the Wired link where Oliver North had been using it for dissident lists for attendance at FEMA camps. Wasn’t the implication back in those days that PROMIS was at the heart of an international money-laundering banking network (BCCI)? That one really got deep. PRISM sounds like the next generation of PROMIS – what, 64-bit?

  9. Boiled Frog
    July 11, 2013 at 14:40

    I complained about PROMIS a long time ago, and everyone told me to just go back to the corner and put on my tinfoil hat.

    • AnneC
      July 12, 2013 at 04:59

      One time some aggressive “patriots” asked what I used aluminum foil for when I suggested that the government could save money if they would stop snooping on non-violent protesters.
      I explained that I do not use much foil at home for environmental reasons. Then I admitted that I do love to bake potatoes in the ashes of a campfire. One of the best recipes is to sprinkle some dried onion and rosemary leaves into the aluminum foil along with the potato. I like a little black pepper on the potato after it is baked. In girl scouts we baked bananas in aluminum foil with a few drops of lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon in the ashes of our campfires. Corn on the cob does not need foil and is best if it is just roasted in the husk.
      The “patriots” just kept asking (rather nastily) about my aluminum foil use so I was happy to keep sharing recipes. Eventually they stopped bothering me and for some reason their eyes started glazing over . . .

      • AnneC
        July 12, 2013 at 10:30

        Clarification on aluminum foil uses. To make roasted bananas in aluminum foil you put the lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon on the banana after making a slice in the banana peeling. Then you wrap the banana in the foil and bake in the ashes.

        Be sure to explain to aspiring patriots who believe in government infallibility that it is unsanitary to put aluminum foil on your head before using it to wrap food. If you know something about microbiology feel free to include many details. They will stop bothering you and everyone else will be too busy laughing to listen to them.

        Goodnight Gracie.

    • Carla
      July 12, 2013 at 23:09

      This made me laugh, (about going into the corner and putting on your tinfoil hat. Pretty much the same thing happened to me with some other stuff back then, with the FAA and flight security. Contracting it out was always a bad idea in my view, but they did it anyway…like everything else.

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