The "real" fake Col. Steven Boylan's e-mail

Salon obtains e-mails from an online scammer who claimed to be Gen. Petraeus' spokesman in Iraq. They're nothing like the message the real Col. Boylan says he didn't send to blogger Glenn Greenwald.

By Farhad Manjoo
November 1, 2007 9:05PM (UTC)
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I've been following the controversy surrounding Col. Steven Boylan, the military's top public affairs officer in Iraq, who denies that he wrote an angry note to Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald earlier this week. Several tech experts have pointed out that Boylan's denial looks weak -- the e-mail he says he never wrote was routed through a machine on a military network, the same network through which previous, genuine e-mails from Boylan have been routed.

But Boylan's denial has been bolstered -- at least a bit -- by a recent news event: In September, a person pretending to be Boylan attempted to rent a vacation cabin from Fred Humphrey, a retired English professor in Guilford, Vt. The cops foiled the plan; a $3,000 check that the fake Boylan wrote to Humphrey proved to be bogus. Boylan told Greenwald that the incident suggested that someone is masquerading as the colonel online.


Late last night Fred Humphrey, the cabin owner in Vermont, sent Salon copies of his correspondence with the fake Boylan. These messages to Humphrey look very different from the disputed e-mail to Greenwald -- they don't bear the same return address, they don't come through the same server, and they're written in a different style. The real fake Boylan -- the scammer who tried to defraud Humphrey -- looks, in other words, to be a completely separate person from the fellow who accused Greenwald of being "too lazy to do the research on the topics to gain the facts."

This does not prove that the e-mail to Greenwald was really from Boylan. But if Boylan's credibility, so far, has been on life support, now it's at Code Blue.

As e-mail experts note, if the e-mail to Greenwald was fake, the person who pulled it off was likely quite sophisticated. In order to send the message through the military's computers, the fraudster would have had to gain access to Boylan's computer or hack into the military's network in Iraq. But the fake Boylan that we know of, the fake Boylan who e-mailed Humphrey, is not at all sophisticated.


"Steve Boylan's" e-mails to Humphrey were sent through Gmail: is the return address, and the "header" in the e-mail -- which shows how the message was shuffled through the Internet on its way to Humphrey -- proves that it came through Google's servers.

The fake Boylan, moreover, writes in a way that screams "spam!" Here's how he begins one message to Humphrey: "Attention Fred!!!!" In another he says, "As I write this,the agent is supposed to contact me through e-mail to assert his ability to take me up on the offer of logistics for the couple ,if not you should have a local agent contracted to do so for them unless you dont provide such services." (Punctuation errors in the original.)

The scam, too, was pretty obvious. The fake Boylan told Humphrey that he wanted to rent the cabin as a surprise for his godson and the godson's wife, a couple named Edward and Nina Kaminsky, who would be coming to Vermont from London.


The fake Boylan would send Humphrey a check to cover the cabin rental plus a couple thousand extra for plane tickets for the couple's trip. Humphrey was instructed to wire the money for the plane tickets to the fake Boylan's "agent" in New York. The scammer was counting on Humphrey wiring the money before he discovered that the scammer's check was bad -- a trick that, of course, Humphrey saw through.

Look, on the other hand, at the writing style of the disputed letter to Greenwald: "You do have one fact in your post -- then Brigadier General Bergner did work at the National Security Council on matters concerning Iraq. Not surprising as he had returned from a year plus deployment to Iraq as the Multi-National Division - North Assistant Division Commander." Behold the jargon! Behold the awareness of military personnel changes!


In other parts this person references major American newspapers, Alan Colmes, the Privacy Act, and uses the phrase "pray tell" and the metaphor "the same ballpark as reality." Philosophically, there may not be much difference between a public relations expert and an online scammer. But it doesn't take a literary investigator to show that the guy who wrote to Humphrey is a run-of-the-mill online fraudster, while the person who wrote to Greenwald sounds much closer to a seasoned P.R. man.

OK, you might say, but maybe there are two -- or more -- people pretending to be Boylan. Maybe there's an unsophisticated fake Boylan who uses Gmail to mount a vacation-home scam, and maybe there's another very crafty fake Boylan who can route his missives through the military's network in an effort to bash lefty critics.

If you believe that's more likely than the alternate explanation -- that the real Boylan, aghast that Greenwald had published his rant, used the clumsy, fake Boylan as an easy out -- well, then, I've got a vacation home I'd like to rent to you in Vermont.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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