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100 Years Worth of Federal Prison Charges for Alleged 'Hactivist'?

The federal government is on a rampage to punish Anonymous-style hackers.

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A Private Government

In a nation operating under the rule of law, one might presume that exposure of the “Team Themis” conspiracy would prompt official investigations of some sort, even if the proposed activities were in the planning stages. But the e-mails reveal a different role for the Department of Justice (DOJ).

At issue was the cache of documents from Bank of America that WikiLeaks was allegedly sitting on. BoA was understandably desperate to prevent their release, or at least mitigate the fallout from any revelations they contained. The big bank had a lot at stake: as of 2010, when these events were unfolding, Forbes ranked BoA as the world’s third-biggest corporation.  It was also one of the Big Four publicly-insured “too big to fail” banking monoliths that dominate American finance (and politics).

As recipients of over $45 billion in the 2009 bank bailout via TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program) and given a federal insurance guarantee for nearly $120 billion, BoA was already facing a PR nightmare. It’s unclear what was in the cache of documents obtained by WikiLeaks, but it was enough to rattle BoA’s legal department, who approached the Justice Department on what to do next.

DOJ, under the supervision of Attorney General Eric Holder, recommended that BoA solicit the services of, you guessed it, Hunton & Williams.

The discussions between Team Themis and H&W involved some sordid and possibly illegal pursuits. One proposed method of undermining WikiLeaks was to “submit fake documents and then call out the error,” seemingly a plan to commit forgery and fraud—both felonies under the US code. Similar tactics to destroy WikiLeaks’ credibility were delineated in a 2008 Pentagon memo, which labeled the whistleblowing website an “enemy of the state.”

A ProjectPM researcher, Lauren Pespisa, told WhoWhatWhy in correspondence, “Team Themis was a collection of government intelligence contractors…hired by private clients to go after WikiLeaks, as well as labor unions who opposed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—using offensive cyberwar techniques. They targeted many journalists and supporters of Wikileaks in order to discredit the organization, using methods most Americans would find reprehensible, and threatening to individual privacy.”

Indeed, in an e-mail from Aaron Barr of HBGary Federal to Matthew Steckman of Palantir Technologies, Barr makes the case for subverting WikiLeaks and its supporters in the “liberal” media–and discusses plans to “attack” then- Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald.

Other tactics discussed in the e-mails include “cyber attacks against the [ WikiLeaks] infrastructure to get data on document submitters,” noting that it “would kill the project.” Thus, the corporate representatives were advocating precisely the behavior the federal government has been on a crusade to prosecute—when others are doing it.

The conspiracy also called for “sustained pressure” through a “media campaign” to create “concern and doubt amongst moderates,” while discouraging whistleblowers by generating “concern over the security of the infrastructure,” and creating “exposure stories.”

Coordinating a propaganda campaign on behalf of clients is what firms like Hunton & Williams get paid for. But H&W explicitly solicited companies that have the technological means to violate the privacy of their targets, and quite possibly the law. The ability to “discredit” a journalist, as proposed, presumably hinges in part on blackmail material—just the type one can find in a substantive hack.

The Team Themis firms solicited by H&W all do sensitive military and intelligence contracting work for the government, and in many cases are creations of the government sectors for which they work. Berico Technologies, founded in 2006 by military veterans, lists among its products the Biometric Automated Toolset (BAT), the “Army’s flagship product for biometrics.”