Watch out, governments and massive corporations: The Internet and social media have broken your stranglehold on power. I'm not talking about the revolutions abroad. I'm talking about a corporate dirty tricks scandal that's been exposed in the U.S.
After a security firm's CEO boasted that he had the information to take down Anonymous, a Wikileaks-defending hacker collective, the hackers responded by thoroughly infiltrating his company's computers. Some of the more than 70,000 emails Anonymous stole outlined a plot by Hunton & Williams, a storied Washington, D.C., law firm, to carry out dirty tricks against opponents of the Chamber of Commerce and against Bank of America's (BAC) reported nemesis, Wikileaks.
A Corporate Conspiracy?
At the time of the emails' exposure, three security firms working together had developed a complete pitch for the campaigns. The entire operation was overseen by Hunton & Williams, which was in contact with the chamber and with a big bank -- purportedly BofA -- that wanted to take on Wikileaks. Neither the chamber nor BofA had hired the firms, and both deny any link to the plot. Nonetheless, Hunton & Williams seemed confident that the plan would ultimately prove successful and, as the stolen emails indicate, would make the law firm a lot of money.
Hunton & Williams has consistently had no comment on the story.
ThinkProgress, a liberal blog and one of the plot's targets, has uncovered emails showing that the Chamber of Commerce's denials aren't credible. Despite the group's claims that it learned of the plot through the leaked emails, it had scheduled a meeting in November to hear a pitch for the plan.
While there's some question about the legal status of Wikileaks, many have noted that the outspoken opponents of the Chamber of Commerce were merely exercising their free speech rights. In context, the anti-terrorism and COINTELPRO tactics used by the security firms, under the supervision of Hunton & Williams, appear potentially illegal.
Reminiscent of the Dan Rather Affair
According to one leaked document, the plot against chamber enemies ChamberWatch and the Change to Win coalition included an attempt to disseminate disinformation. Among other things, the security firms discussed plans to:
"Create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if US Chamber Watch acquires it. Afterward, present explicit evidence proving that such transactions never occurred. Also, create a fake insider persona and generate communications with CtW. Afterward, release the actual documents at a specified time and explain the activity as a CtW contrived operation. Both instances will prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth."
The plot is oddly reminiscent of the 2004 Dan Rather debacle over then-President George W. Bush's service record. In this context, the ultimate effect of the plan seems clear: Just as the service record scandal cost Rather his job and reputation, ChamberWatch would likely be irreparably damaged by a similar public relations disaster.
Another document includes tactics for the Wikileaks campaign:
"...Cyber attacks against the infrastructure to get data on document submitters. This would kill the project. ...Media campaign to push the radical and reckless nature of wikileaks activities. Sustained pressure. Does nothing for the fanatics, but creates concern and doubt among the moderates..."
One target of the anti-Wikileaks effort was Salon's Glenn Greenwald, who supports the organization. In response, Greenwald has a running blog post tracking new details as they come out. Meanwhile, FireDogLake has mapped out the key players in the scandal. Perhaps the most disturbing detail is the fact that the Department of Justice recommended that the unnamed bank contact Hunton & Williams for help with Wikileaks.
Anonymous has posted the email database online, in a searchable format. It's unclear what else will surface and what the longer-term consequences will be. In the meantime, however, one thing is clear: In the Internet age, power flows from computer skills at least as much as it flows from corporate checkbooks.
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