by Erik Kirschbaum
Reuters News Agency
December 19, 2001
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German computer experts are trying to find the truth behind an unexplained surge in financial transactions made just before two hijacked planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center on September 11. And they’re finding the evidence inside the ruins of the Twin Towers themselves.
There was a sharp rise in credit card transactions moving through some computer systems at the WTC shortly before the planes hit the twin towers. This could be a criminal enterprise-in which case, did they get advance warning? Or was it only a coincidence that more than $100 million was rushed through the computers as the disaster unfolded?
The German-based firm Convar, a world leader in retrieving data, is trying to answer those questions while they help credit card companies, telecommunications firms and accountants in New York recover their records from computer hard drives that have been partially damaged by fire, water or fine dust.
They are using a pioneering laser scanning technology to find data on damaged computer hard drives and main frames found in the rubble of the World Trade Center and other nearby collapsed buildings. So far, they have recovered information from 32 computers that support suspicions that some of the 911 transactions were illegal.
“The suspicion is that inside information about the attack was used to send financial transaction commands and authorizations in the belief that amid all the chaos the criminals would have, at the very least, a good head start,” says Convar director Peter Henschel. “Of course it is also possible that there were perfectly legitimate reasons for the unusual rise in business volume. It could turn out that Americans went on an absolute shopping binge on that Tuesday morning. But at this point there are many transactions that cannot be accounted for. Not only the volume but the size of the transactions was far higher than usual for a day like that. There is a suspicion that these were possibly planned to take advantage of the chaos.”
There are several data retrieval companies in the United States and Europe, but Convar is doing most of the World Trade Center work because of its laser scanning technology. Convar developed a laser scanner two years ago that makes it possible to retrieve data from badly damaged computers.
Inside the Convar building in Germany, many of the doors have code-operated door locks for security reasons. In the center of the facility is a large dust-free “clean room” where the damaged computer drives are coaxed back to life. The raw material they retrieve is sent immediately by satellite or courier back to New York.
Companies pay between $20,000 and $30,000 for each computer recovered. The high recovery costs are one reason why only a limited number of hard drives are being examined. “We have been quite surprised that so many of the hard drives were in good enough shape to retrieve the data,” Henschel says. “The contamination rate is high. The fine dust that was everywhere in the area got pressed under high pressure into the drives. But we’ve still been able to retrieve 100% of the data on most of the drives we’ve received.”
Richard Wagner, a data retrieval expert at the company, says illegal transfers of more than $100 million might have been made immediately before and during the disaster. “There is a suspicion that some people had advance knowledge of the approximate time of the plane crashes in order to move out amounts exceeding $100 million,” he says. “They thought that the records of their transactions could not be traced after the main frames were destroyed.”
Henschel says, “We’re helping them find out what happened to the computers on September 11 as quickly as possible. I’m sure that one day they will know what happened to the money.”