A former General Dynamics computer programmer who planted a destructive "logic bomb" in one of the San Diego defense contractor's mainframe computers pleaded guilty Monday to one count of attempted computer tampering.
In a plea bargain, Michael John Lauffenburger, 31, who was arraigned in June on two felony counts of computer tampering and fraud, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count. He faces a maximum sentence of one year in federal custody and a fine of $100,000.
Federal prosecutors, who had called the incident a "new wave-type of crime," said Lauffenburger had hoped to increase his salary by creating a problem only he could solve: a program he named "Cleanup" that was designed to destroy a database of Atlas Rocket components.
In March, investigators say, Lauffenburger set the program to activate at 6 p.m. May 24, on Memorial Day weekend when no one would be around. He then resigned--hoping, investigators say, that the company would rehire him as a highly paid consultant once it discovered the damage.
But, in April, after Lauffenburger had left the company, another General Dynamics programmer inadvertently ran across the program when he tried to get into Lauffenburger's computer memory bank and was unable to access a file. He alerted security and the "bomb" was disarmed--saving the company an estimated $100,000 in repairs.
Lauffenburger, who had worked in the company's Space Systems Division in Kearny Mesa since June, 1989, had unlimited access to the files he set out to destroy because he was the principal architect of a central record-keeping program.
His Cleanup program, which was designed to bypass computer security procedures, was created to destroy the rocket component database, delete another set of programs used to respond to governmental requests, then delete itself, without leaving a trace.
Had it been allowed to do its work, the program would have impaired the company's ability to report its progress to the federal government as required under its contracts. It would not have affected the manufacture or launching of the rockets.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Mitchell D. Dembin said a rarely used law, the Computer Crimes Statute, was used to prosecute Lauffenburger. Dembin said he knows of only three cases across the country in which this law has been used.
Lauffenburger originally faced felony charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Instead, under the plea agreement, he is expected to receive probation and be sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service. He is free on bail, and sentencing by U.S. District Judge Howard B. Turrentine is scheduled for Jan. 21.
The Atlas family of rockets has served as workhorse launchers for the United States since the early days of the space program. Since the 1950s, the rockets have been used to boost unmanned spacecraft to the moon and other planets, and to place satellites in space.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.