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

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In a federal lawsuit filed last fall, Greenpeace alleges that Dow Chemical, Sasol North America and their contractors waged a two-year campaign of illegal corporate espionage against the environmental group and its allies. The alleged tactics included break-ins, surveillance, infiltration of community groups and rifling through garbage, according to the lawsuit. The defendants have not commented on the case.

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The tangled tale of the HBGary e-mails began amid the heated debate over WikiLeaks, the stateless organization that has released tens of thousands of U.S. military and diplomatic documents. The organization has found support among a rebellious group of unidentified hackers called Anonymous, which has periodically attacked the Web sites of WikiLeaks critics. Hackers claiming to be operating under the group's banner also launched assaults last weekend against Web sites connected to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who help fund many conservative causes.

Enter Aaron Barr, then-chief executive of Sacramento-based HBGary Federal, who boasted publicly in January that he had unmasked the identities of Anonymous leaders by exploiting data from Facebook, Twitter and other social media. The hacker collective responded by systematically attacking HBGary Federal's computer system and Web site in early February, obtaining tens of thousands of e-mails from Barr and other senior executives and then releasing them on file-sharing sites for the world to see.

Nearly a month later, the company's Web site is still offline.

Getting laid low by hackers was only the first problem for Barr, who announced his resignation Monday. The next problem was the contents of the stolen e-mails, which revealed details of sensitive talks with Hunton & Williams lawyers about potential disinformation projects. The ideas were being pitched by HBGary Federal, Berico and Palantir, who together called themselves "Team Themis."

The hacked e-mails come only from the accounts of HBGary Federal and its parent company, leaving unclear how involved each party was in shaping the particulars of the proposed strategies.

The e-mails show Barr enthusiastically demonstrating his company's ability to investigate, using as an example a sample dossier assembled on Richard Wyatt, head of Hunton & Williams's litigation practice. Barr amassed details about Wyatt's wedding, political donations and family - including a photo culled from the Internet apparently showing his two young children enjoying a snow cone.

"I am not sure I will share what you sent last night," one of Wyatt's colleagues responded in a November e-mail. "He might freak out."

Two proposals in particular stood out from the hacked data. One outlined strategies for sabotaging, on behalf of Bank of America, the WikiLeaks site, including launching cyberattacks, spreading misinformation and pressuring journalists such as Salon's Glenn Greenwald. (Bank of America, a Hunton & Williams client, said it had no knowledge of the plans.)

The second was a similar sales pitch aimed at the chamber, which employs Hunton & Williams as outside counsel. Urged by a lawyer at Hunton & Williams to "impress" Wyatt by gathering data on chamber foes, the companies compiled profiles and other details about a host of liberal anti-chamber activists, including family details and photos, the e-mails show.

As they developed their proposal for a "corporate information reconnaissance cell," the firms laid out ever more aggressive ideas, including monitoring the communications of chamber opponents and planting false information to embarrass them, the e-mails show.

An executive with one of the firms, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the case, said another suggestion to create false personas to infiltrate social media sites "was a red flag. That to me is where it crossed the line and shouldn't have happened."


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