The conspiracy theory seemed to come out of nowhere: Dark forces had hacked into voting systems nationwide to rob Donald Trump of the 2020 US presidential election.
The myth started spreading even before the votes were counted. One of the earliest versions, from an obscure right-wing website, had a hero: Dennis Montgomery, a computer programmer and self-described former contractor for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The writer cited Montgomery’s claim that he had built a supercomputer called the Hammer years ago as a US government surveillance tool, along with software called Scorecard that could be used to manipulate election results. Now, Montgomery alleged, someone had hijacked the technology and was using it to steal the presidency for Joe Biden.
In the election’s febrile aftermath, these and other unproven claims about Hammer and Scorecard went viral and morphed into a grand global conspiracy theory about how a host of sinister characters, often tied to China, had hacked voting systems to flip votes from Trump to Biden. As the stolen-election fiction spread, so did its repercussions — frivolous lawsuits seeking to overturn the election; threats of violence against election workers; and well-funded campaigns to rid America of voting machines. Two years later, about two-thirds of Republicans say they believe Trump was cheated, Reuters polls show.
Montgomery did not comment for this article. Reuters interviewed more than two dozen of his former associates and prominent election deniers to trace the evolution of the Hammer-and-Scorecard conspiracy theory. The convoluted tale emerged in a series of phone interviews of Montgomery by Mary Fanning, the right-wing writer who originally published his unsupported allegations on her website, the American Report. Fanning told Reuters that Montgomery approached her with the election-hacking claims shortly before the November 2020 vote.
Fanning’s post cast Montgomery as a whistleblower exposing the secret use of his tech creations to steal votes. But former associates of Montgomery have called him a con artist, and federal judges in civil cases have accused him of fraud and cited him for perjury. The computer programmer has a history of promoting tall tales: He’s peddled allegedly phony technology or bogus evidence of conspiracy theories to the U.S. government, a right-wing Arizona sheriff and, most recently, Mike Lindell, the pillow magnate and outspoken election denier.
Fanning published Montgomery’s hacked-election claims after Trump himself had predicted for months that he would be cheated. Then Trump allies seized on the theory. Among the first was pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who referenced Hammer and Scorecard on Fox News. Other right-wing figures in an emerging election-denial movement piled in, unleashing a wave of social-media posts from grassroots Trump supporters about Hammer and Scorecard.
Powell and other prominent election deniers have since offered a wide array of false claims about hacked voting machines, drop boxes stuffed with illegal ballots, and election workers with suitcases full of fake Biden votes. By their telling, the perpetrators include corrupt Democrats, Venezuelan socialists, Chinese agents and traitors lurking inside major US voting-equipment makers.
But the essence of Montgomery’s allegations — a vast conspiracy to hack election systems and flip votes — has endured, even among Trump supporters who have never heard of Hammer and Scorecard. The theory provided the foundation for a nebulous but versatile constellation of vote-rigging allegations to feed Trump supporters’ hunger for explanations of his stolen-election claims.
Last month’s midterm elections proved a rebuke of sorts for the election-denier movement. Many strident conspiracists lost their bids for Congress and key state offices. A predicted “red wave” of Republican victories never materialized, despite high US inflation and low approval ratings for Biden.
And yet the results also underscored the lasting appeal of stolen-election falsehoods, especially in rural Republican districts. Various news organizations have estimated that more than 150 newly elected or re-elected Republicans in the US Congress have denied or questioned whether Biden won the 2020 election.
As the Hammer-and-Scorecard theory first started to spread, Christopher Krebs, then the Trump administration’s top cybersecurity expert, immediately tried to knock it down, tweeting that it was “nonsense” and “a hoax.” It didn’t work.
In a recent interview, Krebs said Montgomery’s “ludicrous” theory “was the first technical conspiracy theory that really broke through.”
“It has all the hallmarks of the classic conspiracy theory because it throws in the CIA,” said Krebs, who is now a risk management consultant. “It was a trope that became part of the zeitgeist even without the name Hammer and Scorecard.”
The man behind the myth is something of a cipher. Leading election deniers have lionized Montgomery and attributed a variety of vote-rigging allegations to him. But Montgomery himself has said little in public about the alleged conspiracy to steal the 2020 election from Trump. His motivations and political leanings remain mysterious.
Montgomery and his attorney, Chris Kachouroff, did not answer detailed questions from Reuters for this story. Kachouroff, in a brief interview, said of his client’s election-conspiracy claims: “Dennis has too much information for this to be made up.”
Yet Kachouroff acknowledged his own doubts about Montgomery’s allegations. “Does he have my complete confidence? No,” he said. “Dennis is either the single greatest con artist this country has ever produced, or he’s telling the truth.”
Montgomery, 69, last year sold a trove of the purported evidence to Lindell, one of America’s most prominent Trump allies and election conspiracy theorists. Lindell, the founder and CEO of MyPillow, has spent millions of dollars on a campaign to abolish voting machines. He publicly announced his purchase of Montgomery’s data in August at a gathering in Missouri of hundreds of his followers.
“I own it,” Lindell said of Montgomery’s data, touting it as irrefutable proof Trump was cheated. “The machines are going to be gone!” he yelled, to uproarious applause. “We’re going to get our country back!”
He called Montgomery the “smartest man I’ve ever met."
Lindell confirmed to Reuters that he bought the data from Montgomery in 2021 but declined to say exactly when or what he paid. He said it includes internet records of intrusions into U.S. voting systems to manipulate election results.
Lindell has promised to publicly release the full data set for more than a year but hasn’t delivered, citing legal and security concerns for repeated delays. He did release some data, however, in August of 2021, when he invited teams of information-technology experts to scrutinize it at a “cyber symposium."
Lindell told Reuters the information he gave the experts for vetting was “metadata” that proved the authenticity of the full data set. Three experts who examined it told Reuters what Lindell provided was “bunk,” “bogus” and “nonsense.” In interviews, the experts described massive files that contained a hodge-podge of gibberish code — often meaningless text or numbers, or randomly generated characters, in no recognizable data format.
Bob Zeidman, a computer forensics specialist, said it was “absolutely” not metadata, or any data related to an election. He wrote in a social media post after Lindell’s event that the material had “stumped” the assembled experts and made him wonder: “Was someone sabotaging Mike’s data? Or had Mike been bamboozled? Or was Mike the bamboozler?”
Montgomery’s Hammer-and-Scorecard theory nevertheless remains a central preoccupation of some election deniers. Robert Beadles, a wealthy Nevada businessman who led campaigns seeking the ouster of local officials based on unproven vote-rigging claims, wrote in a Nov. 14 blog post that Montgomery’s data, if released by Lindell, could provide evidence of widespread fraud in last month’s midterm elections.
“Here could be the smoking gun,” he wrote, “proof our elections are selections by red China or even our own country.”
Before Trump made election fraud a national obsession on the political right, Montgomery had focused his conspiratorial claims on alleged domestic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Fanning, the right-wing writer, has for years reported Montgomery’s claims that he developed the Hammer two decades ago as a surveillance tool for the government to use on foreign targets. Montgomery himself has made similar allegations in court filings, without using the term “Hammer.” The computer programmer has repeatedly alleged his technology was commandeered by Democratic politicians and U.S. intelligence officials to spy on Americans.
A CIA spokesperson called Montgomery’s domestic spying allegations “absurd” but did not comment on what, if any, technology Montgomery has developed for the agency.
A federal judge took a similar view in 2017, when Montgomery sued the directors of the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), along with former US president Barack Obama, alleging they conducted “ongoing, illegal, unconstitutional surveillance of millions of Americans.” The judge dismissed the claims, calling them “a veritable anthology of conspiracy theorists’ complaints.”
A representative of Obama declined to comment.
Reuters could find no evidence beyond the claims attributed to Montgomery that Hammer and Scorecard even exist, much less that the technology is capable of the fantastical vote-rigging feats claimed by election deniers.
Montgomery has said he originally developed his surveillance technology for the government after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to help fight terrorism. He worked with businessman Warren Trepp in a company called eTreppid Technologies that won US government contracts. In 2006, the partners sued one another in federal court in Nevada, each claiming the other stole trade secrets related to the technology they sold the government.
The case was settled in 2009 after the court issued a judgment against Montgomery, who subsequently filed for bankruptcy, court records show. A judge ruled in 2009 that Montgomery had perjured himself in the case, by knowingly submitting a false court filing, and sanctioned him with a $61,000 penalty.
Trepp did not respond to requests for comment.
Federal records reviewed by Reuters show the US military awarded at least $7.5 million in contracts for technology to eTreppid. The company announced in 2004 that it had $30 million worth of contracts for its technology with the US government, without specifying what agencies.
Reuters could not verify how much federal agencies ultimately paid Montgomery or the specifics of how they used his technology.
The programmer is perhaps best known for convincing the CIA two decades ago that he had developed technology that could intercept hidden terrorist messages embedded in videos broadcast on the Al Jazeera news network. The intelligence prompted the George W. Bush administration to issue public alerts and ground flights out of fear of impending attacks, according to media reports and congressional testimony. In a 2014 book, James Risen, then a New York Times reporter, described Montgomery as “the maestro” behind what US officials came to believe was “one of the most elaborate and dangerous hoaxes in American history.”
Montgomery challenged Risen’s claims in a defamation lawsuit that was dismissed, with the judge noting the “plethora of evidence showing that officials and others who worked with Montgomery do believe his work to have been a hoax.”
Al Jazeera called Montgomery’s claims a false conspiracy theory at the time. In response to questions from Reuters, the CIA did not comment on whether it contracted with or purchased technology from Montgomery. The agency referred Reuters to testimony from former CIA director John Brennan during his 2013 Senate confirmation process. He was asked why the agency passed Montgomery’s dubious intelligence to the White House during the George W. Bush administration, causing needless public alarm. Brennan acknowledged the CIA provided the information to a threat assessment office he ran at the time, which then “included it in analytic products.” The intelligence was later deemed inaccurate, Brennan testified.
A spokesperson for Brennan declined to comment.
Former senior CIA official Marty Martin, who headed the CIA’s Al Qaeda hunt at the time, told Reuters that the claims about coded messages on Al Jazeera were “imaginary voodoo” and “bullshit.”
The sheriff and the 'con man'
In 2013, Montgomery profited by offering proof of conspiracy theories to right-wing Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who granted Montgomery a lucrative arrangement as a confidential informant.
Arpaio, the former sheriff in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, was a controversial national political figure at the time because of his harsh immigration crackdown in the border state. He was also among the most fervent promoters of the false “birther” conspiracy theory, which claims that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible to be US president.
Montgomery convinced the sheriff to investigate whether the lawman and his constituents were being illegally spied on by the Obama administration, two former sheriff’s investigators told Reuters. Arpaio and one of the investigators told Reuters that Montgomery offered proof of the alleged spying and also promised to explain how Obama’s U.S. birth certificate was faked. Arpaio dispatched the two investigators to visit Montgomery at his Seattle home.
The investigators, Michael Zullo and Brian Mackiewicz, said Montgomery showed them towering stacks of hard drives. The programmer claimed they contained classified government data on private citizens, Zullo said in an interview. He said Montgomery had a streetwise patter that ran counter to the stereotype of an uptight computer programmer.
“He’s very street smart,” said Zullo, who is now retired.
Mackiewicz, also retired, described Montgomery as “funny” and “likable.”
The investigators left not knowing whether to believe Montgomery’s tales, they said. But the sheriff’s office afterward started paying Montgomery $10,000 a month as an informant out of a discretionary fund, the investigators told Reuters, and Montgomery collected a total of $120,000 in 2013 and 2014.
Zullo said he brought blank hard drives to Montgomery, who claimed to load them with decrypted data that would prove the government spied against Maricopa County citizens.
None of the information panned out, the investigators said. Zullo said Montgomery claimed to have a software program that could reveal how the Obama birth certificate was forged – but it didn’t work. And the data Montgomery supplied as proof of government spying showed nothing of the kind, according to a 2014 assessment Zullo and Mackiewicz commissioned from two former officials of the US National Security Agency.
What they found on the hard drives, the former NSA officials wrote, was “evidence of an outright and fraudulent con” perpetrated on the sheriff’s office by Montgomery.
A federal judge agreed two years later when the arrangement came to light as part of an unrelated lawsuit alleging civil rights violations by Arpaio’s office. (Arpaio denied the allegations, but a judge found his office had used illegal practices to enforce immigration laws.)
“Mr. Montgomery committed a fraud on the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office,” which paid “large sums of money” for evidence deemed “not credible,” US District Judge G Murray Snow found in May 2016.
Arpaio wrote in his memoirs that Montgomery would “string us along for as long as he could before giving us the information, then only to squeeze more money out of us.”
Reached by phone, Arpaio called Montgomery a “con man.”
“He can con anyone. He conned two presidents,” said the sheriff, now 90, referring to Montgomery’s efforts to convince Trump allies that the election was hacked and to persuade George W. Bush administration officials that he had intelligence on foreign attackers.
In 2019, Montgomery sued Arpaio, Zullo and Mackiewicz alleging libel. The computer programmer claimed the sheriff’s office had hired him to “hack into databases and websites to help them prove their beliefs about President Obama’s ancestry and birth information.” The suit was dismissed in 2022.
At the time Montgomery was getting paid by the sheriff’s office, he faced felony theft charges for writing $1 million in bad checks to Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas, according to charging documents filed in 2009. The case dragged on for more than a decade. A judge ultimately dismissed it “pursuant to negotiations” in May 2022, according to court records, which did not elaborate on the negotiations or the terms of the resolution.
The Clark County, Nevada District Attorney’s office did not comment on the case. Caesar’s Palace did not respond to a request for comment.
A 'genius' who 'loves America'
When Montgomery approached Fanning with his 2020 vote-rigging claims, shortly before Election Day, he told her for the first time that Scorecard was being used to manipulate vote counts in the presidential race, Fanning said.
“That was the reveal,” she told Reuters.
Fanning’s story on Montgomery’s claims reported that Hammer and Scorecard had been used for years to rig elections for Democrats, including the 2012 presidency, when Barack Obama won with Biden as his vice president. Then, in 2020, Democrats “tested” the technology by stealing the party’s presidential nomination from Bernie Sanders, one of Biden’s leading opponents in the Democratic primary elections, Fanning wrote, citing Montgomery. As the general election loomed, Fanning added, the system was being used to rob Trump: “This time, SCORECARD is stealing votes in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona.”
The theory started spreading even before the vote counts confirmed Trump’s loss. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon pushed Montgomery’s claims on an episode of his War Room podcast the day before the election, promising: “We’re going to pull the plug on Scorecard.”
Bannon cited Fanning’s report and introduced a retired Air Force general, Tom McInerney, known for promoting bizarre conspiracy theories.
McInerney called Montgomery a “genius” who “loves America.”
“Dennis invented Scorecard,” McInerney said, “and he’s on our side.”
McInerney could not be reached for comment.
The Hammer-and-Scorecard theory took stolen-election claims to a new level, jumping the gap from mundane allegations of voter-fraud — like ballot-stuffing by corrupt local officials — to a vast international conspiracy to hack election systems and change millions of votes.
Powell, the attorney, also talked about Hammer and Scorecard on the same podcast with Bannon and McInerney: “There is already evidence from multiple sources that it exists. Absolute confirmation of it.”
Powell did not respond to requests for comment.
Three days after Election Day, with the race still undecided and freshly counted mail-in ballots putting Biden ahead, Powell pushed Montgomery’s claims from the corners of the internet into the mainstream media. In a Fox News appearance, she told host Lou Dobbs of “the likelihood that 3% of the vote total was changed in the pre-election ballots” by unnamed election-fixers using Hammer and Scorecard.
A Fox spokesperson said that the network later aired segments criticizing hacked-election conspiracy theories and confirming Biden’s win was legitimate.
On 9 November, far-right podcaster Joe Oltmann linked Montgomery’s Hammer and Scorecard claims to a parallel conspiracy theory: that widely used voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems were rigged to flip votes from Trump to Biden. Dominion has repeatedly denied the baseless claim.
“We’re doing a deep dive on Dominion Voting Systems, all the stuff we’re seeing with Scorecard, with Hammer, Big Tech as a whole,” Oltmann said on his podcast.
The Dominion and Hammer-and-Scorecard narratives started to merge into a sweeping, amorphous theory that came to include leftist foreign governments as the villains. A week after the race was called for Biden, Powell appeared again on Fox, claiming to have “staggering statistical evidence” that Venezuela, China and Cuba worked with Dominion to steal the election.
“I’m going to release the Kraken,” she said, alluding to a fearsome mythological sea monster.
Two days later, Trump announced that Powell was added “to our other wonderful lawyers and representatives” on his legal team.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about Montgomery or his Hammer-and-Scorecard theory.
Zullo, the Arizona sheriff’s investigator, wrote Powell on 20 Novermber 2020, to warn her about Montgomery, in an email reviewed by Reuters.
“Montgomery will destroy the credibility of your legal team and send this entire matter and the nation in a whirlwind of lies and unproven claims,” wrote Zullo, a Trump supporter. “Please exercise much caution when dealing with Dennis Montgomery as he is very convincing.”
Zullo said Powell did not respond to his message.
Five days later, Powell filed a lawsuit in Michigan seeking to overturn the election results there. It was part of a barrage of similar suits nationwide that were rejected by judges for lack of evidence. She included a lengthy declaration by an expert who named Montgomery and cited his allegations that “US intelligence services had developed tools to infiltrate foreign voting systems.” The expert claimed that “hundreds of thousands of votes that were cast for President Trump in the 2020 general election were transferred to former Vice-President Biden.”
Reuters was unable to reach the expert, Navid Keshavarz-Nia.
Powell amended her complaint a few days later and dropped the expert’s declaration and the references to Montgomery’s claims.
It isn’t clear why. Reuters could not determine whether Powell ever met or consulted with Montgomery and could not find any further references she made to him or the Hammer and Scorecard theory after November 2020. Powell has continued to air debunked claims about election-rigging conspiracies but has cited different alleged evidence. Other Trump lawyers would later deny Powell represented the outgoing president.
Bannon, who embraced the Hammer and Scorecard theory in 2020, told Reuters he has become skeptical of Montgomery’s claims. “I’m not a believer” in the theory, he said. “I fail to see the evidence.”
Oltmann, the podcaster, now says he doesn’t know for sure if Hammer and Scorecard exist, but that he trusts Mike Lindell. “I still believe there could be a connection” between Montgomery’s technology and election-rigging, he said in an interview.
‘A deranged imagination’
Lindell remains convinced of Montgomery’s stolen-election claims. He’s been hooked on the theory since Jan. 9, 2021. That’s when Lindell says he first spoke with Fanning, the writer, as Washington reeled from the US Capitol insurrection three days before.
Lindell told Reuters he had an epiphany after listening to Fanning describe the Hammer and Scorecard theory in a phone call. “I said, ‘Wow!’ This would absolutely explain what I couldn’t explain!” Lindell recalled in an interview. “It was done with computers! I knew that was the only explanation.”
By summer 2021, Lindell had announced plans to host a “cyber symposium” that August to prove that China had hacked the election. He promised to release “packet captures” showing actual internet transmissions in which election data was manipulated, and he invited experts to attend and vet the information.
“We’re bringing in all the cyber guys,” Lindell said at a June 2021 rally in Tampa, promising that the packet captures would allow the experts to spot rigged vote counts anywhere in the country, according to a video of the event reviewed by Reuters. “How many votes were flipped here in Tampa?” Lindell asked. “Here you go, boom.”
Lindell never mentioned the data’s connection to Montgomery or Hammer and Scorecard as he marketed the symposium. He told Reuters in a recent interview that he worried at the time about the media “attacking Dennis Montgomery and myself” before he could publicly release the data and prove its authenticity.
As Lindell prepared for the August cyber symposium in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he turned for organizational help to Phil Waldron, a former US Army Colonel and psychological operations expert. Waldron, now a prominent election denier, put together what he called a “red team,” military jargon for a unit that mimics enemy operations to spot weaknesses.
Waldron declined to comment for this story.
One team member was Joshua Merritt, a computer consultant and conspiracy buff.
On 4 Augus, several days before the symposium began, Waldron emailed the team a “slice” of what was purported to be the packet-capture data, according to Merritt and a copy of the email reviewed by Reuters. Merritt said the team worked remotely, communicating through a secure chat board.
Merritt said the data only confused the Red Team members. They couldn’t find the promised packet captures, or “PCAPS.”
“We all came to the assessment very quickly: It did not say what Lindell said it said,” Merritt said. “We realized the PCAP stuff was horseshit.”
When the symposium opened on Aug. 10, more cyber experts arrived to assess the data Lindell had promised to release. One of them was Robert Graham, a cybersecurity consultant and popular blogger on cyber issues. He said he analyzed the material and concluded it was “bunk” and “the product of a deranged imagination.”
Zeidman, the computer forensics specialist, said he came to the symposium as a conservative Trump supporter who was intrigued by Lindell’s claims. He said he and every other expert who attended, including some he described as “world class,” came away disappointed: “I can tell you, unanimously, everybody there concluded that it was bogus.”
Lindell now says the material he provided was not the packet captures he’d promised at all, and that’s why the experts couldn’t make sense of it. He gave several reasons for holding back the data, including that he was assaulted by unnamed assailants on the second night of the symposium. Lindell has sometimes said his attackers had a gun, and other times said they had a yellow device that they pressed painfully into his ribs. Additionally, he said, his security team advised him that the US government would put a “poison pill” in the data to undermine its credibility.
A raccoon and a unicorn
It would be nearly a year after the cyber conference before Lindell would publicly name an expert who claimed to have authenticated the data he bought from Montgomery. The only person Reuters could identify who says he has examined and vouched for the material is Jeff O’Donnell, a Florida computer engineer. O’Donnell has promoted rigged-election theories on the internet, writing as “The Lone Raccoon.”
Last summer, Lindell hired him to vet Montgomery’s data, said O’Donnell, who continues to work as a cyber expert on Lindell’s team searching for election-fraud evidence. In July, Lindell flew to Florida and brought O’Donnell to a house where Montgomery had a half-dozen computers and multiple screens set up on a long table, O’Donnell told Reuters.
He said he initially doubted Montgomery’s claims but, within a couple of hours, the two men had “formed a connection.” Montgomery walked O’Donnell through his technology, showing him the code he’d used to capture the data. After two days at the house, O’Donnell said, he came away convinced.
“It is such next-level stuff,” he added. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
Lindell then featured O’Donnell at his gathering the following month at the Springfield Expo Center in Springfield, Missouri. Lindell called it the “Moment of Truth Summit.”
“I’ve seen the unicorn,” O’Donnell told the crowd.
Lindell keeps promising to release the full data publicly. When he does, he said, it will prove that Hammer and Scorecard were used to hack into voting systems in November’s midterms, in addition to the 2020 presidential vote.
He has previously claimed he was prevented from disseminating the data by a 2007 court order restricting Montgomery from divulging certain information related to his intelligence contracting. But the government said in a recent court filing that the order has nothing to do with election data. Lindell told Reuters he now sees no legal barrier to releasing it and hopes to do so “in the next 60 days.”
Even Fanning, the earliest and most consistent promoter of Montgomery’s conspiracy claims, is growing frustrated that his alleged evidence remains under wraps, noting that there are “no excuses” now for holding it back.
“If you have the data,” she said, “then release it.”