Smear campaigns

by Henry on February 11, 2011

This is perhaps unsurprising, but nonetheless interesting.

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 — HB Gary Federal, Palantir, and Berico Technologies (collectively called Team Themis) — 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.

From the PDF

US Chamber Watch is one of the most active members of the opposition to the US Chamber of Commerce (CoC). Unlike some groups, members of this organization are politically connected and well established, making the US Chamber Watch vulnerable to information operations that could embarrass the organization and those associated with it. … we need to discredit the organization through the following. … Paint US Chamber Watch as an operative of CtW and the unions … Craft a message to combat the messaging propaganda of US Chamber Watch. …Create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if US Chamber Watch acquires it. Afterward, present explicit evidence proving that such transactions never occurred. Also, create a fake insider persona and generate communications with CtW. Afterward, release the actual documents at a specified time and explain the activity as a CtW contrived operation. … Connect US Chamber Watch’s radical tactics to Velvet Revolution … If needed, create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.

The Chamber of Commerce denies that it ever saw the document, or directly or indirectly hired the firm in question (which seems in fact to have been a number of firms, including Palantir Technology, which has been getting a lot of hype in cybersecurity circles over the last couple of years). This may be true, but I’ll be quite interested to see whether there is sufficient legal basis for the targeted organizations to sue the companies in question, and perhaps expand the lawsuit to the US Chamber of Commerce and its agents. In particular, I would be interested to see what further pertinent email communications might be uncovered if the potential plaintiffs manage to get discovery. There are perhaps some parallels to Dow and Sasol’s corporate spying efforts against Greenpeace, where we may see some quite interesting materials indeed emerge as the case wends its way through the courts.

Update: also see Glenn Greenwald, who was targeted by the same people.

{ 37 comments }

1

Satan Mayo 02.11.11 at 4:39 pm

I think us average people have an idea that “corporate espionage” goes on, but that it’s between corporations. This spying on and sabotaging entities with absolutely no power, on the basis that if they ever acquire power they might influence politicians in some way by telling them the truth, is hard to take.

2

Red 02.11.11 at 4:57 pm

Given what happened to ACORN and now Planned Parenthood (and earlier, Greenpeace, indeed), this is really no surprise, yet I am glad we know it. Now …. what? A law suit against the Chamber of Commerce? I love the idea but wonder about the basis: for planning a smear campaign? Not being a lawyer, this looks shaky to me. Aren’t there better options?

3

Pretendous 02.11.11 at 5:17 pm

Bob Quackenboss? Team Themis? Palantir Technology? Is this a conspiracy or a Dick Tracy/Fantasy novel?

4

Keith 02.11.11 at 6:00 pm

Red:

Conspiracy to commit a felony? Fraud, maybe? There’s definitely Intent in these documents, but unfortunately, ‘intent to make people’s lives a living hell’ is not against the law. Certainly not a prosecutable offense. Even if it’s clear to that these SOBs were morally bankrupt and capable of doing grievous harm, our laws are so twisted in favor of corporations that they’ll probably walk away.

5

Steve LaBonne 02.11.11 at 6:00 pm

Is this a conspiracy or a Dick Tracy/Fantasy novel?

I doubt that the dickheads at the CofC have a firm grasp of the difference.

6

Jim Harrison 02.11.11 at 6:07 pm

Granted the ideological tendencies of American judges, it’s hard to believe that legal action against Bank of America or any other large corporation would get anywhere.

7

Bryan 02.11.11 at 6:30 pm

Any idea what the bit about connecting US Chamber Watch to the Velvet Revolution is supposed to mean?

8

bianca steele 02.11.11 at 6:48 pm

I just finished reading The Wrecking Crew and I can’t help thinking of it in this regard, in particular of chapter 10, which my notes summarize as “Frank’s contention that conservatives and the business community as a whole have no ethics whatever—except the idea that anyone who interferes with their choices is evil. ” (Frank’s argument seems to contradict Daniel Bell’s thesis, however.)

9

Straightwood 02.11.11 at 6:50 pm

Noam Chomsky was right all along, and the silence of the vast majority of his academic colleagues will be their shame when the history of this sordid era of quiet corruption is written.

10

bianca steele 02.11.11 at 7:01 pm

The question is inevitably raised: if cybersecurity firm Palantir is so good, why didn’t they protect their client’s e-mails from being hacked? Or is that too trivial for them?

11

Substance McGravitas 02.11.11 at 7:01 pm

‘intent to make people’s lives a living hell’ is not against the law. Certainly not a prosecutable offense.

Depends on how you’re doing it.

12

Zephyrus 02.11.11 at 7:21 pm

I have the hardest time trying to figure out if our overlords are evil or incompetent.

I guess it’s not mutually exclusive.

13

Nine 02.11.11 at 7:46 pm

I’ll second Bryan’s question about the Velvet Revolution. WTF are they trying to say ?

14

tomslee 02.11.11 at 7:47 pm

I thought everyone already knew that the palantiri are controlled by Sauron and that no good comes from looking in them.

15

Red 02.11.11 at 7:49 pm

Updates are even creepier: thinkprogress.org/2011/02/10/chamberleaks-target-families/

16

Bryan 02.11.11 at 7:57 pm

To answer my own question, I’d guess they mean this website: http://www.velvetrevolution.us/ (I’ve never heard of it before) and not the Czech Velvet Revolution.

17

roac 02.11.11 at 8:15 pm

“Being evil” is not a tort. Alas. Even if there is evidence that any of these suggestions were carried out, most if not all of the actions suggested would be protected speech. But digging deeper is obviously called for.

(Neither do any of them look particularly effective, as Swiftboating goes. I would say that whatever the Chamber paid Hunton and Grunton, they wasted their money if this is all they got for it.)

The real question is how much attention this is going to get. There is an obvious benchmark — GM v. Ralph Nader. The comparison will tell us how far we have moved in 50 years in the direction of a total corporate stranglehold on the public forum.

18

Nine 02.11.11 at 8:18 pm

bianca,

Palantir are mostly about datamining, business intelligence and the like. I don’t think they claim any expertise in the area of securing business’s or any of that. Anonymous hacked the highly skilled security experts at HB Gary Fed. They look like world class idiots besides also being douchebags.

19

bianca steele 02.11.11 at 8:26 pm

I love the sentence in the slide, “Glenn was critical in the . . . transition.” It’s such a typical corporatespeak sentence. And I just found out from one of the links that full body scan technology is being used in roving vans. It only gets better and better.

20

Kenny Easwaran 02.11.11 at 8:44 pm

I’ve seen this discussed here and by Matthew Yglesias, but I don’t even know what “this” is. It looks to me like progressive bloggers are playing connect-the-dots about the Chamber of Commerce trying to play connect-the-dots about progressive bloggers. Is there something here that someone should be outraged about?

Also, what does Palantir have to do with any of this? Is it just one of the dots that is being connected, because someone hired it who also hired someone else who once worked for someone evil? Or is there more to it than that? I have a bunch of friends from undergrad who have been working at Palantir since they graduated, but I never really quite figured out what it did, other than that it’s something with computers. Several of these people had affiliations with campus conservative groups, but I never figured out if they all worked for Palantir because it had conservative affiliations itself, or if it’s just through a social process where friends from one organization often end up encouraging their friends to work at the same job as them.

21

roac 02.11.11 at 8:46 pm

Someone at Yglesias posted a link to an article establishing that the “highly skilled security expert” who runs this company has conclusively proven himself to be a complete bozo.

22

jacob 02.11.11 at 9:02 pm

Collecting information about people, even the sort of private information referenced in the article linked to by Red at 15, is hardly a big deal. Opposition research is basic, and groups on both sides do it all the time. On the left, we call it power mapping, so we can see where the pressure points for each decision maker is. (Know that someone goes to a particular “Jewish church?” That means you can picket there, or target his coparishioners or his rabbi.) It’s all fair game when you’re fighting for a contract.

What’s much creepier and more dangerous is the proposal to actually disrupt anti-Chamber groups through what seem to be like very COINTELPRO-like tactics of deception, agents provocateurs, etc.

Also, “Jewish church”? Really?

23

chris 02.11.11 at 9:40 pm

@tomslee: Yes, but their goal isn’t to do good, but to gain wealth and power. They practically ARE Sauron, or as close to it as human beings can come, anyway.

…Come to think of it, isn’t it a bit odd that one of the defining classes of institutions of our time, the immortal rulers-in-all-but-name of the modern world, pursue and even exalt a goal which earlier ages considered a deadly sin, and even the root of all evil? And most modern religi0us groups don’t even notice, or have made alliance with Mammon?

24

bianca steele 02.11.11 at 9:55 pm

Palantir seems to have a nifty set of little data analysis tools, presumably well integrated with one another, and presumably also a large number of analysts and consultants who are comfortable working with the government. Their blog also has one or two long analyses of cybersecurity issues (presumably created as a sales tool, not because their techies are obsessed with hacking). Not much to see, in ten minutes at least.

25

Dave 02.11.11 at 10:19 pm

the silence of the vast majority of his academic colleagues will be their shame when the history of this sordid era of quiet corruption is written.

It’s the academic m.o.

26

Salient 02.11.11 at 10:21 pm

It looks to me like progressive bloggers are playing connect-the-dots about the Chamber of Commerce trying to play connect-the-dots about progressive bloggers. Is there something here that someone should be outraged about?

Well, depends how jaded you are, I guess. I like how someone phrased it at ThinkProgress: “You mean they requested and funded illegal, underhanded, dishonest and undemocratic actions? And this is different from what they normally do how?”

27

rea 02.11.11 at 11:49 pm

Any idea what the bit about connecting US Chamber Watch to the Velvet Revolution is supposed to mean?

There is a conspiracy theory that the Velvet Revolution–the peaceful overthrow of the communist government of Czechoslovakia–was, in fact, a communist plot. No, really. Believers in the theory think the revolution was faked, and that the Communists are secretly running the country, or maybe now, both countries.

I’m not sure what the connection is supposed to be between a fake revolution in Eastern Europe and US Chamber Watch, other than of course, the involvement of plotting communists.

28

rea 02.11.11 at 11:58 pm

“Palantir . . . Not much to see, in ten minutes at least.”

Only a Great Red Eye, wreathed in flame . . .

29

roac 02.12.11 at 12:11 am

Not to be pedantic or anything, but that was the Mirror of Galadriel. The Palantir talked.

He said “Who are you?” I still did not answer, but it hurt me horribly; and he pressed me, so I said, “A left-wing blogger.”

30

Paul Madrigal 02.12.11 at 1:20 am

A subpart of the Velvet Revolution web site is Stop The Chamber
http://www.velvetrevolution.us/stop_chamber2/
Clearly an enemy of all rightwing business interests.

31

Timothy Scriven 02.12.11 at 5:40 am

I’m the kind of person who likes to see the best in people, so I usually assume that inviduals working for the powerful are rarely corrupt, but a kind of situational alchemy creates corruption at the level of the system while particular indviduals are largely clean. It’s a bad habit of mind, and it’s good to have things like this periodically jolt me into remembering that some people are actively evil, and many of them end up working for societies oligarchs.

32

Stuart 02.12.11 at 6:34 pm

Am I understanding the situation correctly: CW is trying to get leaks from the CoC to discredit them, so CoC is (allegedly) looking to create fake leaks so they can then discredit CW?

33

Eli Rabett 02.12.11 at 9:22 pm

Greenwald and Media Matters need to sue HBGary, and Palantir and get discovery. At that point it starts to unravel

34

Tim Wilkinson 02.13.11 at 2:06 pm

Bloody Wikileaks – with threads like this, the scope for supercilious denunciation of credulous ‘conspiracy-skepticism’ has dwindled to near zero.

One is reduced to pointing out obvious things, like the fact that: progressive bloggers are playing connect-the-dots about the Chamber of Commerce trying to play connect-the-dots about progressive bloggers (kenny easwaran @20) is an entirely inaccurate description of ‘this’, since the bloggers are connecting some pretty close together dots, while the CoC (or their apparent deniable agents) are drawing dots, and not about bloggers per se, but campaigners.

Or rather fine points, such as that in CW is trying to get leaks from the CoC to discredit them, so CoC is (allegedly) looking to create fake leaks so they can then discredit CW, ‘trying to get leaks’ should probably read ‘thought to be likely to accept leaks’; the first ‘discredit them’ should probably be replaced with ‘expose their disreputable activities’; and the second should probably be replaced with ‘create the false impression that, at the least, they are at irresponsible enough to be duped by a hoax and, more plausibly, that they are willing to present fabricated information as true’.

This is I believe known as a straw man operation, and the originator of the tainted documents or information has two huge advantages –

1. they can make the disprovable part pretty much impossible to detect, since no-one can check everything (otherwise why do they need a leak?) and a single clearly refutable detail, however peripheral, does the job. If the leak is a document, that is even easier since tiny details that no-one would even notice, say watermarks or something, can be made inaccurate.

2. they can rely on the improbability of anyone finding it worth their while to concoct such an elaborate hoax for no reason other than mischief-making, which tends to lead to the conclusion that the hoax was concocted as a smear, which in turn tends (with less but still considerable justificiation) to lead to the conclusion that those publicising it had a hand in falsifying it.

The benefits of the tactic do not end with discrediting the opposition – the apparent existence of a smear tends to cast doubt on future leaks, and also makes people think that the true part of the strawman information is in fact false – and an informal analogue of the autrefois acquit principle tends to apply even if more and better evidence for the same facts should be discovered in the future, making this an effectove defensive tactic as well as an offensive one.

Annie Machon (who I consider a trustworthy witness, which is not the same thing as an authoritative analyst) reports that she detected an apparent strawman operation against Al-Fayed in the shape of documents purportedly originating with state security forces, but containing hard-to-detect infelicities of terminology, etc. (The data she testifies to is, though, consistent with a money-making hoax on the part of the dodgy character who offered the documents, who may have included the spoilers in order to avoid getting in trouble with his mates in state security. And even if, as seems more probable than not, it was a strawman operation, that doesn’t mean that the bulk of the information contained in the documents was true, nor that Al-Fayed was on the right track. Ugly rumours about state misdeeds are to be quashed whether true or not.)

I fairly strongly suspect that the faked images of prisoner abuse that put paid to Piers ‘Moron’ Morgan’s career as outspoken anti-war editor of the Mirror newspaper were part of a a strawman operation.

IIRC, which I may not, the fakes were pretty bad in some ways, for example not having proper uniforms (but one might think lack of insignia might be expected, like cops’ habit of removing their id numbers in situations where they might be of any adverse evidential relevance), but rather good in others, such as including an actual military vehicle, real rifles, etc.

35

maidhc 02.14.11 at 9:01 am

Remember the Dan Rather investigation into Bush’s National Guard record. The possibility that a small number of documents may have been forged entirely derailed the discussion of all the other evidence.

I don’t know about the details of that particular incident, but it illustrates the utility of getting your opponent to accept fake evidence. I’m sure quite a few people took notice of that.

36

polyorchnid octopunch 02.15.11 at 1:05 am

The real meaning of this incident is that it gives you a view into the guiding ethics and morals of the business elites of the United States. It’s the firms’ very banality that reveals the culture that’s being produced by America’s business schools and is rampant among the executive class.

I’d like to recommend that people go and read the IRC chat log of the conversation between <penny> (Penny Leavey, the CEO of HBGary (as opposed to HBGary Federal, the firm that was actually hacked)) and the various folks in the Anonymous channel, including a couple of journalists (BarretBrown and c0s). You can find it at pastebin. It’s long, and lots of stuff is irrelevant, but it’s totally worth reading. I suspect this particular piece of history is going to be studied hard for what it reveals in the negotiations between HBGary and Anonymous. It’s a really remarkable record of a meeting between people who are worlds apart.

37

PHB 02.15.11 at 7:15 pm

I am at the RSA show. Palantir has a booth here that has a staircase to a second floor. They have probably spent about a quarter million dollars being here. They are not a small concern.

What was proposed in the presentation appeared to me to be likely to be criminal. Palantir sell into corporate accounts, it would be idiotic for them to get involved in that type of scheme.

Barr and Hoggland are bottom feeders. Their rate card shows it. $2000 a day might seem a lot but in this industry principals pull down at least $3k on corporate contracts. Some pull down a lot more. And we dont have to break the law to make that money.

I have no idea how the chamber of commerce would be expected to have millions for this type of activity. If anyone was going to pay it would be the companies involved. They would use a different cutout.

Lots of folk in our business tend to end up believing their own conspiracy fantasies and acting on them. And most of us know to avoid such people.

Attacking wikileaks seems a very odd choice. Back in the day there was a group known as the cypherpunks that was essentially a group of libertarians who saw crypto as a vehicle for setting information free, ver mus ant government and pro wikileaks ethos. The proposal was nuts, it was bound to involve, be known to people who would leak.

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