Hacked e-mails show Web's usefulness in dirty-tricks campaigns

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 7:42 PM

Although much of K Street spends its time plying the halls of Congress on behalf of well-heeled clients, there is a growing dark side to Washington's lobbying and public-relations industry: figuring out new ways to undermine and sabotage opponents.

This little-discussed aspect of the influence business came into view in recent weeks with the release of thousands of hacked corporate e-mails, which detail a pair of high-tech dirty-tricks campaigns aimed at supporters of WikiLeaks and foes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The plans were pitched by three federal contractors to lawyers at Hunton & Williams, a top-flight D.C. law and lobbying firm that works for the chamber. Proposed tactics included creating fake personas online to fool chamber critics; planting false electronic documents to undermine the credibility of activists; and using powerful computer tools to "scrape" Facebook and other social media sites for personal information about chamber foes, according to the e-mails.

Opposition research and assorted dirty tricks have long been a staple of politics in this country, from a smear campaign - backed by Thomas Jefferson - against John Adams in the 1800 presidential race to Richard Nixon's notorious efforts to steal Democratic Party secrets in the 1970s.

But many experts say the shadowy political intelligence business has become larger and more sophisticated as corporations, trade groups and political parties increasingly turn to computer sleuths to monitor and, in some cases, harass their detractors. The work almost always goes undetected and has been made easier with the rise of computer networks and social media sites with relatively lax safeguards.

"It's classic opposition research in the digital age," said Cindy Cohn, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. "Whether they understand the ramifications or not, people are revealing a lot more about themselves on the Internet. It makes compiling information much less difficult."

Kenneth S. Springer, a former FBI agent and founder of Corporate Resolutions, said "technology has rewritten the book" on how to conduct background research, though he stressed that his company and other reputable investigative firms are careful to operate within the law.

"Investigations used to end with computers," Springer said. "Now that's where they begin."

The chamber has said it had no knowledge of the spying proposals, calling them "abhorrent." Officials at HBGary Federal security firm, whose e-mails were hacked, and with the law firm Hunton & Williams have declined to comment. Two other technology businesses, Berico Technologies and Palantir Technologies, have condemned the plans and severed ties with HBGary Federal.

The legal terrain surrounding cyberspying tactics is unclear: Although federal privacy law appears to broadly prohibit unauthorized access to computer services, many recent court cases have set a high bar for proving wrongdoing.

Actions that might break the rules of Facebook or other services do not necessarily violate federal law, legal experts said. Google, for example, technically bars anyone under 18 from using its search tool - a rule clearly defied by millions of teenagers each day.

Alleged shady tactics

Several cases involving allegations of corporate-style espionage and other shady tactics have come to light in Washington in recent months. The Bonner and Associates lobbying firm sent more than a dozen forged letters to Capitol Hill on behalf of a pro-coal group last summer; it said at the time that the letters were sent by a temporary employee who acted without authorization and was fired.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company