Plot Exposed Against Bloggers, Rights Advocates

By Andrew Kreig / Director's Blog

A secretive hacker’s group has exposed what appears to be a shocking plan by a well-connected security company to defame and otherwise harm human rights advocates, unions and bloggers who have offended powerful companies. A security contractor developed the plan to sell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce via one of its law firms, Hunton and Williams. The hacker group Anonymous exposed the scandal, described below.

A security company named HBGary Federal that is well-connected to U.S. government and major business clients was exposed as creating a shocking, dirty tricks plan to hurt bloggers, unions and activists who defend Assange and criticize the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The hackers group Anonymous learned that it had been targeted by HBGary and responded by purloining from the company a trove of what it calls some 50,000 emails and similar documents apparently showing how the security firm has been developing an illegal disinformation plan for potential sale this month to the law firm Hunton and Williams. The latter works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and was recommended by the Justice Department to Bank of America for the latter’s defense against WikiLeaks exposure. 

More generally, our reporting at the Justice Integrity Project makes this scandal especially relevant to us, our colleagues and courageous sources. We have published cutting-edge stories on Sweden’s prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who remains in the news because of his strange extradition hearing this week in the United Kingdom. Sweden wants him for questioning about two sex affairs gone bad last summer that haev resulted in controversial claims of sexual misconduct by him. Sweden initiated a global manhunt for him but denies his claims that the questioning is a ruse to hand him over to the United States for spy charges. Human rights advocate Dr. Marcello Ferrada de Noli, right, a medical school professor in Sweden who also works in Italy, is among those who have been drawing heavily on our work this week. He requested an update, published simultaneously on his Professors Blogg and below, with several updates here to include breaking news.

Almost one month ago, the Justice Integrity Project broke a story in Connecticut Watchdog, “Partner at Firm Counseling Assange's Accusers Helped the CIA In Rendition for Torture.”

The article attracted heavy readership from around the world by blog standards, and has since been reprinted on The Swedish Wire and elsewhere. So has our companion column documenting Karl Rove's consulting work for Sweden's governing conservative party, which is called the Moderate Party. Author Naomi Wolf prominently cited our Rove and other work in her columns published late this week in Sweden and in progressive websites in the United States, as described below.

Since publication no dispute arises from the facts, only interpretations. True, some critics have objected to the article's implication that injustice is possible. They say the public should withhold judgment and trust the justice system on the Assange case because a huge outcry would arise in both Sweden and throughout Europe over injustice. If only we could be so sure. Popular uprisings are sporadic, as shown by 30 years of Egyptian rule under a “state of emergency” supported by the Western powers -- and many other travesties our non-partisan group reviews on a daily basis. Also this week, explosive revelations about a secret, U.S.-based campaign against Assange’s defenders further undermine the notion that the public should simply trust authorities without continuing vigilance. Here’s what is happening in the U.S., along with some of its implications for Europe.

On Feb. 9, Tech Herald Security Editor Steve Ragan published a story tying Bank of America to a campaign to muzzle Assange. Following up was Think Progress.org, a reported target of the dirty tricks campaign and a unit of the Democratic-oriented think tank Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP President John Podesta is a former chief of staff for President Clinton and led the Transition Team in 2008 for President-elect Obama. Its report is excerpted below:

According to e-mails obtained by ThinkProgress, the Chamber hired the lobbying firm Hunton and Williams. Hunton and Williams' attorney Richard Wyatt, who once represented Food Lion in its infamous lawsuit against ABC News, was hired by the Chamber in October of last year. To assist the Chamber, Wyatt and his associates,John Woods and Bob Quackenboss, solicited a set of private security firms -- HBGary Federal, Palantir, and Berico Technologies (collectively called TeamThemis) -- to develop tactics for damaging progressive groups and labor unions,in particular ThinkProgress, the labor coalition called Change to Win, the SEIU, US Chamber Watch, and StopTheChamber.com.

According to one document prepared by Team Themis, the campaign included an entrapment project. The proposal called for first creating a "false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information," to give to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then to subsequently expose the document as a fake to undermine the credibility of the Chamber's opponents. In addition, the group proposed creating a "fake insider persona" to "generate communications" with Change to Win.

Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, an attorney and prominent critic of human rights abuses in the WikiLeaks prosecutions, was also a target of the disinformation campaign planned against progressives, unions and whistleblowers. Another target, apparently, was a tipster who on a confidential basis pointed me to publicly available information that’s at the root of my stories about Karl Rove’s connections to Swedish Prime Minister Frederic Reinfeldt and the law firm representing Assange’s accusers. Greenwald, whose Salon avatar is at left, provided an excellent summary of the new scandal, which is still unraveling. “The firms involved here are large, legitimate and serious, and do substantial amounts of work for both the U.S. Government and the nation's largest private corporations,” he wrote. “That's why this should be taken seriously, despite how ignorant, trite and laughably shallow is the specific leaked anti-WikiLeaks proposal. As creepy and odious as this is, there's nothing unusual about these kinds of smear campaigns.”

"One tactic discussed," USA Today reported, "was how to entice opponent groups to go public with the bogus documents smearing the chamber, then exposing the documents as erroneous. Even more worrisome were plans to harvest and circulate sensitive and unflattering information about spouses and children of progressive group leaders, says ThinkProgress reporter Scott Keyes." The plan was expected to be approved on Feb.14,Valentine's Day,according to the leaked documents.  "It's important to note that the smears and disinformation plans only saw the light of day because these e-mails were leaked," says Keyes. "Otherwise all this stuff very likely would have ended up in the mainstream dialogue, without people realizing that this was a smear plot deliberately hatched by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose president Tom Donahue has deep ties to Rove, on Feb. 10 issued a statement denying that it had hired HBGary. Their statement “More Baseless Attacks on the Chamber” said:

We’re incredulous that anyone would attempt to associate such activities with the Chamber as we’ve seen today from the Center for American Progress. The security firm referenced by ThinkProgress was not hired by the Chamber or by anyone else on the Chamber’s behalf. We have never seen the document in question nor has it ever been discussed with us. While ThinkProgress and the Center for American Progress continue to orchestrate a baseless smear campaign against the Chamber, we will continue to remain focused on promoting policies that create jobs.

This statement is what we in the United States call a “non-denial denial.” The term came into vogue during the 1970s Watergate scandal when officials would deny some apparent part of a scandal, but not the larger essence itself. In this instance, legal and media critic Marcy Wheeler wrote a column illustrating the distinctions. These and several other non-mainstream columns are excerpted below, along with a recent Russia Today newscast entitled, “Stockholm Syndrome.”

The U.S. Justice Department has reportedly convened a federal grand jury to investigate allegations that Anonymous disrupted the business affairs of several major credit card companies and Internet services companies to punish them for discontinuing services to WikiLeaks. We need to examine closely whether authorities are similarly disturbed over an apparent conspiracy against isolated writers and civil rights proponents.

The threat hits close to home for me, and not simply because someone purportedly from Anonymous last week sent me information showing the elaborate links between Swedish investors, defense contractors, news media and government officials. Those links are interesting but hardly surprising. More dramatic was a tip investigative reporter, RT commentator and former NSA analyst Wayne Madsen, right, received Feb. 10 from a formerly prominent Swedish official, who says that assassinated former Foreign Minister Anna Lindh has been unduly blamed for the 2001 CIA rendition from Sweden to Egypt of two asylum seekers. Eva Franchell, Lindh’s aide and a friend, separately wrote much the same thing in a 2009 book.

Let’s leave the last word to Greenwald, who wrote Feb. 11:

The very idea of trying to threaten the careers of journalists and activists to punish and deter their advocacy is self-evidently pernicious; that it's being so freely and casually proposed to groups as powerful as the Bank of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and the DOJ-recommended Hunton & Williams demonstrates how common this is. These highly experienced firms included such proposals because they assumed those deep-pocket organizations would approve and it would make their hiring more likely.

Greenwald’s and other recent blogs on these topics are excerpted below and on the Justice Integrity Project website section News Reports, which provides the full text of relevant articles in chronological order. This site also is searchable.

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment

Below are excerpts from selected recent columns about legal reform and related issues in security, the news media and politics. The full text or videos are available from the button News Reports at the top of this site's Home Page.

USA Today, U.S. Chamber joins BofA in denying ties to disinformation campaigns, Byron Acohido, Feb. 11, 2011. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- like the Bank of America -- is scrambling to distance itself from a cache of stolen e-mails that continue to disgorge stunning details of how high-stakes, corporate-backed disinformation campaigns get birthed. The chamber and BofA are embroiled in mirror-image controversies stemming directly from the spontaneous hack last Sunday of HBGary Federal, a digital intelligence firm. The hack was pulled off by the elite global hacking group known as Anonymous.

Salon/Unclaimed Territory, The leaked campaign to attack WikiLeaks and its supporters, Glenn Greenwald, Feb 11, 2011. The only unusual aspect here is that we happened to learn about it this time because of Anonymous' hacking.

Think Progress, US Chamber’s Lobbyists Solicited Hackers To Sabotage Unions, Smear Chamber’s Political Opponents, Lee Fang, Feb. 10, 2011. ThinkProgress has learned that a law firm representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big business trade association representing ExxonMobil, AIG, and other major international corporations, is working with set of “private security” companies and lobbying firms to undermine their political opponents, including ThinkProgress, with a surreptitious sabotage campaign.

Think Progress, To Investigate Opponents’ Families, Children To Investigate Opponents’ Families, Children, Scott Keyes, Feb. 10, 2011. Earlier today, ThinkProgress published an exclusive report that the law firm representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a right-wing trade association representing big business, is working with set of “private security” companies and lobbying firms to undermine their political opponents, including ThinkProgress. .

News From Underground, Something Rotten in the State of Sweden: 8 Big Problems with the ‘Case’ Against Assange, Naomi Wolf, Feb. 11, 2011.See also, Blogosfären (Sweden), (Sweden's Bloggers on Julian Assange) and Makthavare (Sweden), all by Naomi Wolf, right.

Emptywheel/FireDogLake, From the Chamberpot, Marcy Wheeler, Feb. 11, 2011. New emails reveal that the private spy company investigated the families and children of the Chamber’s political opponents. The apparent spearhead of this project was Aaron Barr, an executive at HBGary. Barr circulated numerous emails and documents detailing information about political opponents’ children, spouses, and personal lives. One of the targets was Mike Gehrke, a former staffer with Change to Win. Among the information circulated about Gehrke was the specific “Jewish church” he attended and a link to pictures of his wife and two children.

FireDogLake/Emptywheel, HBGary Fees: “Dam It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta,” Marcy Wheeler, Feb. 11, 2011. One of the more interesting documents on HBGary et al’s partnership with the Chamber of Commerce details the prices they wanted to charge. Now, other emails make it clear that the Chamber balked at what the team originally proposed would be $2 million of work–the Chamber didn’t pay these rates (indeed, they probably haven’t paid for any of this). As the Palantir employee working with Barr on these numbers put it, “Most of all that we are the best money can buy! Dam it feels good to be a gangsta.”

Emptywheel/FireDogLake, Security Firms Pitching Bank of America on WikiLeaks Response Proposed Targeting Glenn Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler, Feb. 9, 2011. On Saturday, private security firm HBGary Federal bragged to the FT that it had discovered who key members of the hacking group Anonymous are. In response, Anonymous hacked HB Gary Federal and got 44,000 of their emails and made them publicly available.

Washington Post, Arguments in Assange extradition hearing end; ruling expected Feb. 24, Anthony Faiola and Karla Adam, Feb. 11, 2011. Attorneys for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange insisted in the closing arguments of his extradition hearing Friday that the Swedish arrest warrant against him was not valid, adding that media leaks about the sexual assault allegations against him had created a "toxic atmosphere" that ensured he could not get a fair trial in Sweden.

Legal Schnauzer, Rove and Wallenberg Are At The Heart Of The Julian Assange Prosecution, Roger Shuler, Feb. 10, 2011.A federal grand jury in California is considering evidence against a group of activists that supports the efforts of WikiLeaks to expose official wrongdoing by release of secret documents. Anonymous was the target of a multi-state FBI raid on January 27, reports Bloomberg. Another pro-WikiLeaks group, Anonymous Operation Want (AOW), has released a video that spotlights the role of GOP political strategist Karl Rove and the wealthy Wallenberg family of Sweden as key players in an effort to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on sex-related charges in Europe.

Russia Today, Stockholm Syndrome, Rory Suchet, Laura Emmett, Wayne Madsen and Anisa Ardway, Feb. 7, 2011.font-size: 10pt;"

 

 

Other Security & Law Enforcement News

 

Washington Post, DeLay aide sentenced to 20 months in Abramoff lobbying scandal, Spencer Hsu, Feb. 11, 2011. A federal judge sentenced a onetime media aide to former House majority leader Tom DeLay to 20 months in prison Thursday, crediting him with serving as a key government witness in the unraveling of the corruption scandal surrounding the congressman and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Washington Post, Ex-CIA staffer alleges agency coverup in toxin exposure case, Feb. 11, 2011. A former CIA security officer is alleging that the agency is unjustifiably invoking a "state secrets" claim to cover up evidence that he and his family suffered illnesses as a result of exposure to environmental contamination at an agency facility. Kevin Shipp, 55, a counterterrorism consultant now employed by a firm with government contracts, said that the agency also has sought to prevent him from publicizing his ordeal by heavily redacting the manuscript he hopes to publish.

Wayne Madsen Report, CIA makes up half of some US embassies, runs independent air forces and armies, Feb. 11, 2011. (Subscription-only), The Central Intelligence Agency makes up fifty percent of U.S. embassy staff in certain countries, according to a former senior State Department official who has recently been in Afghanistan.

10pt;">Wayne Madsen Report, Peering through the shroud of global corruption, Wayne Madsen, Feb. 8, 2011. (Subscription-only), Amid a major FBI and Department of Justice criminal investigation of a hacktivist group known as "Anonymous," which has hacked into public and private computer systems in retaliation for actions taken against WikiLeaks for its release of over 250,000 classified State Department cables, WMR has been contacted by a source close to Anonymous to set the record straight on the group's intentions and convey a road map of its future plans.