Last Thursday, ThinkProgress revealed that lawyers representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful trade associations for large corporations like ExxonMobil and CitiGroup, had solicited a proposal from a set of military contractors to develop a surreptitious campaign to attack the Chamber’s political opponents, including ThinkProgress, the Change to Win labor coalition, SEIU, StopTheChamber.com, MoveOn.org, U.S. Chamber Watch and others. The lawyers from the Chamber’s longtime law firm Hunton and Williams had been compiling their own data set on some of these targets. However, the lawyers sought the military contractors for assistance.
As ThinkProgress has reported, the proposals — created by military contractors Palantir, Berico Technologies, and HBGary Federal, collectively known as “Team Themis” — were discussed at length with the Chamber’s lawyers over the course of several months starting in October of 2010. The core proposals called for snooping on the families of progressive activists, creating phony identities to penetrate progressive organizations, creating bots to “scrape” social media for information, and submitting fake documents to Chamber opponents as a false flag trick to discredit progressive organizations.
In addition to the Team Themis plans that ThinkProgress and other outlets have reported on, a closer look at the proposals show that the firms had planned to use exploits to steal information from the Chamber’s opponents, or worse. On November 2, HBGary Federal executive Aaron Barr sent John Woods, a lawyer at Hunton and Williams representing the Chamber, two documents discussing tactics for assisting the Chamber (view the e-mail here). One presentation (click here to download) boasted of HBGary Federal’s capabilities in “Information Operations,” a military contractor term for offensive data extraction techniques typically reserved for use against terrorist groups. The slide includes sections on “Vulnerability Research/Exploit Development” and “Malware Analysis and Reverse Engineering.” View a screenshot below:
HBGary, the parent company of HBGary Federal, specializes in analyzing “malware,” computer viruses that are used to maliciously steal data from computers or networks. In other presentations, Barr makes clear that his expertise in “Information Operations” covers forms of hacking like a “computer network attack,” “custom malware development,” and “persistent software implants.” The presentation shows Barr boasting that he had knowledge of using “zero day” attacks to exploit vulnerabilities in Flash, Java, Windows 2000 and other programs to steal data from a target’s computer.
Indeed, malware hacking appears to be a key service sold by HBGary Federal. Describing a “spear phishing” strategy (an illegal form of hacking), Barr advised his colleague Greg Hoglund that “We should have a capability to do this to our adversaries.” In another e-mail chain, HBGary Federal executives discuss using a fake “patriotic video of our soldiers overseas” to induce military officials to open malicious data extraction viruses. In September, HBGary Federal executives again contemplate their success of a dummy “evite” e-mail used to maliciously hack target computers.
Some of the initial e-mails discussing the Chamber deal with Team Themis stress the fact that HBGary Federal would provide “expertise on ‘digital intellgence collection’ and social media exploitation.’”
Barr also sent another document to the Chamber’s attorney describing in greater detail Team Themis’ hacking abilities (download a copy here). In one section, Team Themis claims that “if/when Hunton & Williams LLP needs or desire,” they can use “direct engagement” to “provide valuable information that cannot be acquired through other means.” This cryptic pledge appears to be in reference to same malware data intrusion techniques proposed in the other Team Themis documents. View a screenshot below:
In an e-mail on November 9th, Barr sent Chamber attorney John Woods an e-mail about his data extraction capabilities (view a copy here). Barr had compiled a dossier on a top Chamber attorney, Richard Wyatt, and hoped to use it as an example of what they could do to the Chamber’s adversaries. However, in the e-mail, Barr claimed that he realized that Wyatt’s wife’s computer had core vulnerabilities that could be exploited to gain access to Richard’s personal data. “If I can exploit her account through one of her social connections I can exploit the home network/system,” he wrote. This explains why Team Themis devoted so much time to researching the families and children of progressive activists, to find vulnerabilities in their computer systems.
It should be noted that the Chamber’s attorneys and lobbyists were well aware of Team Themis’ plans. A sample demonstration of Team Themis work had “sold the Chamber” at one point. Throughout the conversations made available by the leaked e-mails, neither the Chamber or its attorneys ever raised ethical complaints.
View a timeline of the ChamberLeaks scandal composed by the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson here.