Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Yes, we should be alarmed by documentation that shows spy agencies could be involved in dirty tricks
I notice that people are complaining about Glenn Greenwald's latest piece about the spy agencies' ratfucking operations because of its "tone" and I realize that it's time to remind people of this little episode in case anyone's gotten it into their heads that this is just some paranoid conspiracy theory:
How Spy Agency Contractors Have Already Abused Their Power
by Lee Fang on June 11, 2013
Could the sprawling surveillance state enable government or its legion of private contractors to abuse their technology and spy upon domestic political targets or judges?
This is not a far off possibility. Two years ago, a batch of stolen e-mails revealed a plot by a set of three defense contractors (Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal) to target activists, reporters, labor unions and political organizations. The plans— one concocted in concert with lawyers for the US Chamber of Commerce to sabotage left-leaning critics, like the Center for American Progress and the SEIU, and a separate proposal to “combat” WikiLeaks and its supporters, including Glenn Greenwald, on behalf of Bank of America— fell apart after reports of their existence were published online. But the episode serves as a reminder that the expanding spy industry could use its government-backed cybertools to harm ordinary Americans and political dissident groups.
The episode also shows that Greenwald, who helped Snowden expose massive spying efforts in the United States, had been targetted by spy agency contractors in the past for supporting whistleblowers and WikiLeaks.
Firms like Palantir—a Palo Alto–based business that helps intelligence agencies analyze large sets of data—exist because of the government’s post-9/11 rush to develop a “terror-detection leviathan” of high-tech companies. Named after a stone in the Lord of the Rings that helps both villains and do-gooders see over great distances, the company is well-known within Silicon Valley for attracting support from a venture capital group led by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel and Facebook’s Sean Parker. But Palantir’s rise to prominence, now reportedly valued at $8 billion, came from initial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, and close consultation with officials from the intelligence-gathering community, including disgraced retired admiral John Poindexter and Bryan Cunningham, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice.
While Palantir boasts that its government-backed technology is geared towards helping the military track terrorists, stolen e-mails from HBGary Federal show the firm and its senior executives were eager to use its platform on behalf of the Chamber, one of the largest corporate lobbying associations. In the fall of 2010, the Chamber had received unflattering attention, first from a New York Times piece about allegedly laundered money from AIG, and then from my reporting at the Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress blog about foreign funds flowing to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) entity used to run campaign advertisements. The Chamber’s attorneys at the firm Hunton & Williams, at the time already busy prosecuting a group of activists for impersonating the Chamber, sought out the help of Palantir to develop a team to go after the Chamber’s critics. As I reported later for TheNation.com, Palantir eventually connected with Berico and HBGary Federal, and along with the Chamber’s attorneys, the group began plotting a campaign of snooping on activists’ families and even using sophisticated hacking tools to break into computers:
The presentations, which were also leaked by Anonymous, contained ethically questionable tactics, like creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” to give to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing 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, a federation of labor unions that sponsored the watchdog site, US Chamber Watch.
Even more troubling, however, were plans by the three contractors to use malware and other forms of malicious software to hack into computers owned by the Chamber’s opponents and their families. Boasting that they could develop a “fusion cell” of the kind “developed and utilized by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC),” the contractors discussed how they could use “custom malware development” and “zero day” exploits to gain control of a target’s computer network. These types of hacks can allow an attacker not only to snoop but to delete files, monitor keystrokes and manipulate websites, e-mail archives and any database connected to the target computer.
In January of 2011, Hunton and Williams, which had met with the Chamber to discuss the proposals, sent by courier a CD with target data to the contractors. The targets discussed in e-mails included labor unions SEIU, IBT, UFW, UFCW, AFL-CIO, Change to Win, as well as progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, Courage Campaign, the Ruckus Society, Agit-Pop, Brave New Films and others.
Fang goes on to describe their emails targeting Greenwald for allegedly helping Wikileaks and looking forward to using their spying capabilities for the private sector in the future to rake in the big bucks. Unfortunately, this particular scheme was exposed when Anonymous discovered it and dumped their emails online.
Nothing happened to any of these people, needless to say. Indeed, the government has subsequently stepped up its actions against the "hactivists." A handful of Democrats made a desultory call for an investigation but nobody bothered.
In the wake of the scandal, HBGary Federal shut down, but its sister firm, HBGary, was later sold to another military contractor, ManTech International for $23.8 million. Berico retained an influential DC lobbyist; Palantir increased their spending on lobbyists. Both companies managed to escape much scrutiny.
Fang's story concludes with an aside which wasn't much addressed at the time of the Snowden revelations:
Although some media outlets have reacted to the Snowden story with apprehension that such a young employee of a government contractor would have such wide-ranging spy capabilities, the disclosure presents other questions. Journalist Tim Shorrock, who also blogged recently about the rise of Palantir, reported that some 70 percent of the nation’s intelligence gathering budget is spent on private contractors. Could any of these firms, which number in the hundreds, use their terrorist-seeking espionage weapons against their fellow Americans? If what Snowden claimed is true, he could have spied upon judges and journalists and sold that information to powerful domestic or foreign interests. At one point during the discussions about how to use their technologies to attack activists, Barr had met with Booz Allen Hamilton senior vice president Bill Wansley. The disclosure of the Palantir-Berico-HBGary proposals suggest other abuses could be lurking out there, from a rogue employee to a carefully planned effort to spy on activists.
Indeed. And I found that very interesting in light of this recent comment from James Clapper:
“In the end,” he says, “we will never ever be able to guarantee that there will not be an Edward Snowden or another Chelsea Manning because this is a large enterprise composed of human beings with all their idiosyncrasies.”
Or another Palantir or another HBGary either. As Conor Friederdorf put it:
Consider the implications of that admission.
Yes, a foreign spy could get access. Or a blackmailer. Or the Chamber of Commerce! They already tried! And when it was revealed that they wanted to ratfuck left wing activist groups, nobody gave a damn. (Meanwhile, the right wing is still crying victimhood over an IRS program that targeted both left and right...)
The NSA has collected information about the communications of millions of Americans. Nefarious actors, given access to metadata from the phone dragnet alone, could blackmail countless citizens and quietly manipulate the political process. The NSA doesn't deny that. They just insist that they're not nefarious actors, that safeguards are in place, and that we should trust them as stewards of this data.
Well, here is Clapper telling the truth: Despite regarding Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as having done grave damage to the United States with their data thefts, he can't guarantee the same thing won't happen again. And if a future whistleblower could gain access to the most sensitive data, so could a blackmailer.
So could a foreign spy.
Data retention of this sort, whether carried out by the NSA or telecoms, poses a grave threat to privacy, in part because neither the NSA nor the telecoms can guarantee that the highly sensitive information they collect on us won't be stolen. "To this day," Lake writes, "the U.S. government doesn’t know the full extent of what Snowden revealed or whether more documents that have yet to be published in the press have made their way into the hands of Russian or Chinese intelligence."
But they expect us to keep trusting them with our data. Why?
If they could give us even one good reason beyond "because we can" and "maybe we might find it useful some day" perhaps people would be less alarmed. But when you have documented misuse of the data by private organizations, documented plans to use propaganda and dirty tricks to discredit dissenters along with not even one example of how these programs have been helpful, it's just beyond my ken as to why people are still defending the government's ongoing insistence that this is perfectly above board.
Clapper even goes so far as to clutch his pearls over Edward Snowden's "betrayal" wondering how anyone who has access to all this information could find fault with the NSA. As Friedersdorf says:
Granted, no one but Snowden himself can know his motivations with 100 percent certainty. Still, he has offered what strikes me, and millions of other Americans, as a perfectly plausible explanation: earnest alarm at the scale of NSA spying.
It isn't as if no one else has felt this alarm. Snowden's revelations alarmed masses in multiple countries, including heads of state, legislators in both American political parties, professionals at some of the world's leading IT companies. Clapper can't even imagine what might've inspired Snowden? The answer is everywhere. Maybe he should get outside the SIGINT bubble.
I truly believe that lies at the center of this issue. The national security apparatus and, in particular, the spy agencies, are like a cloistered cult at this point, completely oblivious to the real world implications of what they are doing or how it's being perceived. They seem to be stunned that anyone would question them --- a very bad characteristic for any institution with the kind of power they have. You don't have to be an oracle to see how that can go sideways very easily. Indeed, all you have to do is look at that Chamber of Commerce gambit to see exactly how it can happen.
digby 2/25/2014 01:30:00 PM