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Pentagon punishes software developer for anti-war comments

By Gary Wilson

The Pentagon has cancelled funding for a software project because the lead developer said he was sickened by the war in Iraq.

On April 6, the Toronto Globe and Mail published an interview with Theo de Raadt of the OpenBSD project (openbsd.org), based in Calgary, Canada. The article focused on a controversy that was developing over the funding OpenBSD received from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA is the Pentagon agency that funded the development of the system that eventually evolved into the Internet.

OpenBSD is a computer operating system that is widely used on computer systems requiring strong security. Users range from universities to Fortune 500 companies like Adobe to many governments as well as non-governmental agencies like Amnesty International--all worried about security.

OpenBSD has been developed almost entirely by volunteers over its seven years of existence. The primary focus of the developers has been security.

During its first seven years, OpenBSD reported only one security hole. Microsoft, on the other hand, reported 68 security holes in its products over the last year, or more than one a week.

The Pentagon believes OpenBSD "may be its best bet to protect its computer networks from so-called cyber-terrorist attacks," reported the Globe and Mail.

A controversy developed because many questioned OpenBSD's acceptance of funds from the Pentagon. Not many outside the United States are ready to trust the Pentagon and its motives. It is already widely believed that the Pentagon has a secret deal with Microsoft that gives it a back door into Windows servers--the powerful computers that run networks, databases and internet shopping services--that can be used to gain access to data without anyone else knowing. For that reason many governments have banned Microsoft products from their most sensitive systems.

OpenBSD has emerged as a favorite for many looking for an alternative system. But then came the revelation that the Pentagon had been funding the project since the year 2000.

The developers of OpenBSD at first welcomed the funding. DARPA's funds meant that after years of people working on a volunteer basis, a full-time staff could be hired. Five developers, including de Raadt, were given full-time jobs on OpenBSD.

But then the questions started coming. De Raadt told the Globe and Mail that they had accepted Pentagon funding only on the condition that absolutely no strings would be attached.

The war on Iraq was making it more difficult to justify acceptance of Pentagon funds. The war, de Raadt noted, is about oil, not human rights. "It just sickens me," he said. As for the Pentagon's funding, he said, "I'm actually fairly uncomfortable about it."

He then added, "I try to convince myself that our grant means a half of a cruise missile doesn't get built."

Soon after that interview, de Raadt was called by Jonathan Smith, the computer science professor in charge of the DARPA project funding OpenBSD at the University of Pennsylvania, who said that people at the university and DARPA were uncomfortable with his anti-war comments. Two days after the phone call he was told officially that all funds were terminated. This fits a pattern. Many public figures who have spoken out against the war on Iraq are being publicly punished by the Bush administration and the Pentagon.

OpenBSD had planned a seminar in May. Without notice, DARPA representatives called and canceled reservations at a Canadian hotel for 60 developers who were to attend. And all other funds just stopped.

In an online conversation available on slashdot.com, de Raadt said, "I am not sorry for having said my anti-war stuff, in fact if anything, this comes to something I said to Ty a few nights ago at the bar: 'If they take the money away, then it was blood money, and I don't want it.'"

The OpenBSD project has put out an appeal for help that has gotten wide support. Funds were quickly raised to replace the $30,000 withdrawn from the conference; it will happen as scheduled.

Reprinted from the May 1, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

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