There’s a very strange episode being widely discussed the past couple of days involving numerous parties, including me, that I now want to comment on. The story, first reported by The Tech Herald, has been written about in numerous places (see Marcy Wheeler, Forbes, The Huffington Post, BoingBoing, Matt Yglesias, Reason, Tech Dirt, and others), so I’ll provide just the summary.
Last week, Aaron Barr, a top executive at computer security firm HB Gary Federal, boasted to the Financial Times that his firm had infiltrated and begun to expose Anonymous, the group of pro-WikiLeaks hackers that had launched cyber attacks on companies terminating services to the whistleblowing site (such as Paypal, MasterCard, Visa, Amazon and others). In retaliation, Anonymous hacked into the email accounts of HB Gary, published 50,000 of their emails online, and also hacked Barr’s Twitter and other online accounts.
Among the emails that were published was a report prepared by HB Gary — in conjunction with several other top online security firms, including Palantir Technologies — on how to destroy WikiLeaks. The emails indicated the report was part of a proposal to be submitted to Bank of America through its outside law firm, Hunton & Williams. News reports have indicated that WikiLeaks is planning to publish highly incriminating documents showing possible corruption and fraud at that bank, and The New York Times detailed last month how seriously top bank officials are taking that threat. The NYT article described that the bank’s “counterespionage work” against WikiLeaks entailed constant briefings for top executives on the whistleblowing site, along with the hiring of “several top law firms” and Booz Allen (the long-time firm of former Bush DNI Adm. Michael McConnell and numerous other top intelligence and defense officials). The report prepared by these firms was designed to be part of the Bank of America’s highly funded anti-WikiLeaks campaign.
The leaked report suggested numerous ways to destroy WikiLeaks, some of them likely illegal — including planting fake documents with the group and then attacking them when published; “creat[ing] concern over the security” of the site; “cyber attacks against the infrastructure to get data on document submitters”; and a “media campaign to push the radical and reckless nature of wikileaks activities.” Many of those proposals were also featured prongs of a secret 2008 Pentagon plan to destroy WikiLeaks.
One section of the leaked report focused on attacking WikiLeaks’ supporters and it featured a discussion of me. A graph purporting to be an “organizational chart” identified several other targets, including former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8 Lee, Guardian reporter James Ball, and Manning supporter David House. The report claimed I was “critical” to WikiLeaks’ public support after its website was removed by Amazon and that “it is this level of support that needs to be disrupted”; absurdly speculated that “without the support of people like Glenn, WikiLeaks would fold”; and darkly suggested that “these are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause.” As The Tech Herald noted, “earlier drafts of the proposal and an email from Aaron Barr used the word ‘attacked’ over ‘disrupted’ when discussing the level of support.”
In the wake of the ensuing controversy caused by publication of these documents, the co-founder and CEO of Palantir Tech, Alex Karp, has now issued a statement stating that he “directed the company to sever any and all contacts with HB Gary.” The full statement — which can be read here — also includes this sentence: “personally and on behalf of the entire company, I want to publicly apologize to progressive organizations in general, and Mr. Greenwald in particular, for any involvement that we may have had in these matters.” Palantir has also contacted me by email to arrange for Dr. Karp to call me to personally convey the apology. My primary interest is in knowing whether Bank of America retained these firms to execute this proposal and if any steps were taken to do so; if Karp’s apology is genuine, that information ought to be forthcoming (as I was finishing writing this, Karp called me, seemed sincere enough in his apology, vowed that any Palantir employees involved in this would be dealt with the way they dealt with HB Gary, and commendably committed to telling me by the end of the week whether Bank of America or Hunton & Williams actually retained these firms to carry out this proposal).
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My initial reaction to all of this was to scoff at its absurdity. Not being familiar with the private-sector world of internet security, I hadn’t heard of these firms before and, based on the quality of the proposal, assumed they were just some self-promoting, fly-by-night entities of little significance. Moreover, for the reasons I detailed in my interview with The Tech Herald — and for reasons Digby elaborated on here — the very notion that I could be forced to choose “professional preservation over cause” is ludicrous on multiple levels. Obviously, I wouldn’t have spent the last year vehemently supporting WikiLeaks — to say nothing of aggressively criticizing virtually every large media outlet and many of their leading stars, as well as the most beloved political leaders of both parties — if I were willing to choose “career preservation over cause.”
But after learning a lot more over the last couple of days, I now take this more seriously — not in terms of my involvement but the broader implications this story highlights. For one thing, it turns out that the firms involved here are large, legitimate and serious, and do substantial amounts of work for both the U.S. Government and the nation’s largest private corporations (as but one example, see this email from a Stanford computer science student about Palantir). Moreover, these kinds of smear campaigns are far from unusual; in other leaked HB Gary emails, ThinkProgress discovered that similar proposals were prepared for the Chamber of Commerce to attack progressive groups and other activists (including ThinkProgress). And perhaps most disturbing of all, Hunton & Williams was recommended to Bank of America’s General Counsel by the Justice Department — meaning the U.S. Government is aiding Bank of America in its defense against/attacks on WikiLeaks.
That’s why this should be taken seriously, despite how ignorant, trite and laughably shallow is the specific leaked anti-WikiLeaks proposal. As creepy and odious as this is, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of smear campaigns. The only unusual aspect here is that we happened to learn about it this time because of Anonymous’ hacking. That a similar scheme was quickly discovered by ThinkProgress demonstrates how common this behavior is. The very idea of trying to threaten the careers of journalists and activists to punish and deter their advocacy is self-evidently pernicious; that it’s being so freely and casually proposed to groups as powerful as the Bank of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and the DOJ-recommended Hunton & Williams demonstrates how common this is. These highly experienced firms included such proposals because they assumed those deep-pocket organizations would approve and it would make their hiring more likely.
But the real issue highlighted by this episode is just how lawless and unrestrained is the unified axis of government and corporate power. I’ve written many times about this issue — the full-scale merger between public and private spheres — because it’s easily one of the most critical yet under-discussed political topics. Especially (though by no means only) in the worlds of the Surveillance and National Security State, the powers of the state have become largely privatized. There is very little separation between government power and corporate power. Those who wield the latter intrinsically wield the former. The revolving door between the highest levels of government and corporate offices rotates so fast and continuously that it has basically flown off its track and no longer provides even the minimal barrier it once did. It’s not merely that corporate power is unrestrained; it’s worse than that: corporations actively exploit the power of the state to further entrench and enhance their power.
That’s what this anti-WikiLeaks campaign is generally: it’s a concerted, unified effort between government and the most powerful entities in the private sector (Bank of America is the largest bank in the nation). The firms the Bank has hired (such as Booz Allen) are suffused with the highest level former defense and intelligence officials, while these other outside firms (including Hunton & Williams and Palantir) are extremely well-connected to the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government’s obsession with destroying WikiLeaks has been well-documented. And because the U.S. Government is free to break the law without any constraints, oversight or accountability, so, too, are its “private partners” able to act lawlessly. That was the lesson of the Congressional vesting of full retroactive immunity in lawbreaking telecoms, of the refusal to prosecute any of the important Wall Street criminals who caused the 2008 financial crisis, and of the instinctive efforts of the political class to protect defrauding mortgage banks.
The exemption from the rule of law has been fully transferred from the highest level political elites to their counterparts in the private sector. “Law” is something used to restrain ordinary Americans and especially those who oppose this consortium of government and corporate power, but it manifestly does not apply to restrain these elites. Just consider one amazing example illustrating how this works.
After Anonymous imposed some very minimal cyber disruptions on Paypal, Master Card and Amazon, the DOJ flamboyantly vowed to arrest the culprits, and several individuals were just arrested as part of those attacks. But weeks earlier, a far more damaging and serious cyber-attack was launched at WikiLeaks, knocking them offline. Those attacks were sophisticated and dangerous. Whoever did that was quite likely part of either a government agency or a large private entity acting at its behest. Yet the DOJ has never announced any investigation into those attacks or vowed to apprehend the culprits, and it’s impossible to imagine that ever happening.
Why? Because crimes carried out that serve the Government’s agenda and target its opponents are permitted and even encouraged; cyber-attacks are “crimes” only when undertaken by those whom the Government dislikes, but are perfectly permissible when the Government itself or those with a sympathetic agenda unleash them. Whoever launched those cyber attacks at WikiLeaks (whether government or private actors) had no more legal right to do so than Anonymous, but only the latter will be prosecuted.
That’s the same dynamic that causes the Obama administration to be obsessed with prosecuting WikiLeaks but not The New York Times or Bob Woodward, even though the latter have published far more sensitive government secrets; WikiLeaks is adverse to the government while the NYT and Woodward aren’t, and thus “law” applies to punish only the former. The same mindset drives the Government to shield high-level political officials who commit the most serious crimes, while relentlessly pursuing whistle-blowers who expose their wrongdoing. Those with proximity to government power and who serve and/or control it are free from the constraints of law; those who threaten or subvert it have the full weight of law come crashing down upon them.
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What is set forth in these proposals for Bank of America quite possibly constitutes serious crimes. Manufacturing and submitting fake documents with the intent they be published likely constitutes forgery and fraud. Threatening the careers of journalists and activists in order to force them to be silent is possibly extortion and, depending on the specific means to be used, constitutes other crimes as well. Attacking WikiLeaks’ computer infrastructure in an attempt to compromise their sources undoubtedly violates numerous cyber laws.
Yet these firms had no compunction about proposing such measures to Bank of America and Hunton & Williams, and even writing them down. What accounts for that brazen disregard of risk? In this world, law does not exist as a constraint. It’s impossible to imagine the DOJ ever, ever prosecuting a huge entity like Bank of America for doing something like waging war against WikiLeaks and its supporters. These massive corporations and the firms that serve them have no fear of law or government because they control each. That’s why they so freely plot to target those who oppose them in any way. They not only have massive resources to devote to such attacks, but the ability to act without limits. John Cole put it this way:
One thing that even the dim bulbs in the media should understand by now is that there is in fact a class war going on, and it is the rich and powerful who are waging it. Anyone who does anything that empowers the little people or that threatens the wealth and power of the plutocracy must be destroyed. There is a reason for these clowns going after Think Progress and unions, just like there is a reason they are targeting Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald, Planned Parenthood, and Acorn. . . .
You have to understand the mindset- they are playing for keeps. The vast majority of the wealth isn’t enough. They want it all. Anything that gets in their way must be destroyed. . . . And they are well financed, have a strong infrastructure, a sympathetic media, and entire organizations dedicated to running cover for them . . . .
I don’t even know why we bother to hold elections any more, to be honest, the game is so rigged. We’re a banana republic, and it is just a matter of time before we descend into necklacing and other tribal bullshit.
There are supposed to be institutions which limit what can be done in pursuit of those private-sector goals. They’re called “government” and “law.” But those institutions are so annexed by the most powerful private-sector elites, and so corrupted by the public officials who run them, that nobody — least of all those elites — has any expectation that they will limit anything. To the contrary, the full force of government and law will be unleashed against anyone who undermines Bank of America and Wall Street executives and telecoms and government and the like (such as WikiLeaks and supporters), and will be further exploited to advance the interests of those entities, but will never be used to constrain what they do. These firms vying for Bank of America’s anti-WikiLeaks business know all of this full well, which is why they concluded that proposing such pernicious and possibly illegal attacks would be deemed not just acceptable but commendable.
UPDATE: Several new items to note: (1) Salon‘s Editor-in-Chief, Kerry Lauerman, has an excellent response to all of this on behalf of Salon; (2) The CEO and COO of Berico — the third company whose name appears on the report (along with Palantir and HB Gary) — has now issued a statement [link fixed] condemning the proposal as “reprehensible” and also severed all ties with HB Gary; and (3) Bank of America has issued a carefully worded statement to USA Today, denying that they ever saw or have any interest in the proposal and claiming they never hired HB Gary to do this work (though they don’t say whether they hired Berico or Palantir, the firms that were coordinating the proposal, to do similar work, nor whether Hunton & Williams did); I’ll look forward to hearing from Palantir’s CEO, as promised, on those questions.
UPDATE II: The New York Times this morning has a fairly thorough account of this matter that is worth reading. While Bank of America continues to deny involvement in these proposals, its law firm, Hunton & Williams — one of the most well-connected law firms in Washington — refuses to comment, and that firm appears to be a key link in all of these efforts.