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There’s been a very strange episode being written about 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 been written about in numerous places (seeMarcy Wheeler, Forbes,The Huffington Post, BoingBoing, Matt Yglesias, Reason, Tech Dirt, andothers), so I’ll provide just the summary.
Last week, Aaron Barr, a top executive at computer security firm HB Gary, 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, includingPalantir 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 whistle-blower 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 nowissued 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 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).
It’s been a long week for security firm HBGary.
First the loose hacker group Anonymous retaliated against one of the firm’s employees investigating Anonymous byhacking into the corporation’s servers and spilling 50,000 emails onto the Web. Then a string of those stolen emails revealed a proposal by the firm and two others to launch a campaign of illegal cyberattacks and calculated misinformation against WikiLeaks and its supporters.
Now, just a few days later, one of those firms, Palo Alto-based Palantir, has publicly cut ties with HBGary and apologized for its role in the WikiLeaks response plan, essentially verifying the reality of that plan and isolating HBGary further.
In a statement to the press, Palantir chief executive Alex Carp writes, “I have directed the company to sever any and all contacts with HBGary.” Karp adds that “Palantir Technologies does not build software that is designed to allow private sector entities to obtain non-public information, engage in so-called ‘cyber attacks’ or take other offensive measures. I have made clear in no uncertain terms that Palantir Technologies will not be involved in such activities.”
On Thursday, the Tech Herald reported that hacked emails from HBGary revealed a PDF document outlining a proposal to Bank of America to sabotage WikiLeaks on multiple fronts, a response plan to what some believe may be a release of Bank of America’s internal documents by WikiLeaks in coming months. The PDF suggested launching cyberattacks on WikiLeaks servers, spreading misinformation about its insecurity, and even pressuring journalists who support the site, specifically focusing on Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com.