US Chamber Linked to Shady Companies In Effort to Smear Political Opponents

The Right Wing

An investigation by ThinkProgress has revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce explored employing three "private security" firms to surreptitiously investigate the Chamber's political foes (and even their families and children), and to wage an underhanded cyber-campaign against them. According to emails obtained by ThinkProgress, the Chamber hired the lobbying firm Hunton & Williams, which in turn solicited work from three computer security firms -- HBGary Federal, Palantir, and Berico Technologies (collectively dubbed Team Themis, after the Roman goddess of law and order).

Hunton asked Team Themis to develop tactics for damaging or discrediting progressive groups and labor unions, in particular ThinkProgress, the labor coalition Change to Win, the SEIU, US Chamber Watch, and The Chamber's efforts to target opponents began after a ThinkProgress investigation last year raised questions about whether the business lobby was using money from foreign corporations to fund its political attack ads. 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 in an attempt to mislead and undermine them. Even more disturbingly, emails reveal that HBGary, which spearheaded the work for the Chamber, apparently thought families and children were fair game, as an executive with the firm  circulated numerous emails and documents detailing information about political opponents' children, spouses, and personal lives, such as where they attended religious services.

EMAILS LEAKED:   ThinkProgress acquired the emails after they were leaked by the pro-WikiLeaks  hacktivist community "Anonymous," which was responsible for taking down websites of oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and those of American corporations that have censored WikiLeaks. Anonymous   leaked the emails after HBGary executive Aaron Barr bragged to the Financial Times that he had identified the members of Anonymous, and planned to sell the information about them to Bank of America, which has supposedly been targeted by WikiLeaks, and to federal law enforcement officials investigating the "hacktivists" for their cyber attacks. Barr claimed that he had penetrated Anonymous; in response, Anonymous hacked into Barr's email and published more than 40,000 company e-mails last week. Another 27,000 emails were published this weekend. Last week, it was revealed that Team Themis, on behalf of Bank of America, had planned to target proponents of WikiLeaks, such as blogger Glenn Greenwald, who has been an outspoken defender of WikiLeaks. Themis planned "actions to sabotage or discredit" Greenwald, a PowerPoint presentation contained in the emails showed. 

UNDERHANDED TACTICS:   The emails, from late 2010 and early 2011, illuminate the espionage project as it developed. Members of Team Themis bragged to each other about exploiting vulnerabilities in social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook -- likely in violation of   terms of use policies  -- to collect information about their targets. In one November 24 email, after a conference call with Hunton & Williams, one team member wrote, "We need to blow these guys away with descriptions of our capabilities, IP, and talent. Make them think that we are [James] Bond, Q, and money penny all packaged up with a bow." Disturbingly, this spying included target's families. One target was Mike Gehrke, a former staffer with Change to Win. Among the information circulated about Gehrke was the purported "Jewish church" he attended in Washington and a link to pictures of his wife and two children. Barr's profile of Brad Friedman, co-founder of The Brad Blog, included information about his life partner and his home address. This tactic of targeting opponents' personal lives and family, it seems, was not simply a random event. Rather, it was a  concerted and deliberate effort to use anything possible to smear the Chamber's political opponents. Ironically, Barr had complained about the invasion of his own privacy after the emails were leaked, and Hunton & Williams was just named the "top firm for privacy" this week by Computerworld.

A 'CAREFULLY WORDED NONDENIAL DENIAL':  On Friday, the Chamber released its second denial of involvement in the controversy, calling our investigation "baseless" and claiming that HBGary's proposal "was never discussed with anyone at the Chamber" and that "the Chamber was not aware of these proposals until HBGary's e-mails leaked." However, as FireDogLake's Marcy Wheeler wrote, their response is a "carefully worded nondenial denial."

Using Hunton & Williams -- the same law firm/lobby shop which the Chamber hired  last year to sue the  Yes Men -- as a middleman allows the Chamber to hide behind the firm, but that doesn't mean they were not involved. First, the emails clearly indicate that the "client" whom Team Themis was assisting was indeed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The reason why the Chamber can claim not to have "hired" HBGary is because until as recently as a week ago, the security firm was working on spec. As Wheeler pointed out, a February 3 email shows that Hunton & Williams simply got "HBGary to do a month of work for free to decide whether they want to hire them." They were expected to be paid $250-300 thousand per month, and the deal was very close to being complete when the emails were leaked. The emails also reveal that lawyers from Hunton & Williams met with the Chamber numerous times in order to brief them on the status and progress of Team Themis. A  January 13 email shows that the private security firms assumed the project was "a go." An email from February 3 showed that Hunton & Williams wanted the firms to work on spec "and then present jointly with H&W to the Chamber" on or around February 14. It's unclear whether that meeting will be still be taking place today.

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