In this photo taken Jan. 11, 2011, Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speak to the media at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Once President Barack Obama named Gene Sperling as his chief economic adviser, Sperling made an early call went to Donohue, who wasted no time. Come on over, he said. The President will speak at the Chamber on Monday, Feb. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (AP)

Democrats call for probe of top D.C. law firm

Hunton & Williams was involved in a dubious plot to attack critics of the Chamber of Commerce


Justin Elliott
March 1, 2011 7:15PM (UTC)

(UPDATED) More than a dozen Democratic members of Congress will today call for an investigation of a top law firm and three technology companies who were exposed last month as having plotted to attack critics of the Chamber of the Commerce through dubious tactics like creating false documents and researching labor activists' families.

The Washington Post got an early look at the Dems' letter, written by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), that asks Republican leaders to investigate Hunton & Williams, which is a law firm for the Chamber, as well as HBGary, Berico, and Palantir. A taste:

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[The lawmakers] wrote that the e-mails appear "to reveal a conspiracy to use subversive techniques to target Chamber critics," including "possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech."

The lawmakers say it is "deeply troubling" that "tactics developed for use against terrorists may have been unleashed against American citizens."

The firms also came up with a plan to go after WikiLeaks and its supporters in the press, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald. The work against anti-Chamber activists as well as WikiLeaks supporters was exposed after the hacker group Anonymous published thousands of internal emails from one of the tech firms, HBGary.

As I've written previously, Hunton & Williams is a leading international law firm with dozens of big corporate clients. Three Hunton attorneys connected to the episode were hit with an ethics complaint last week by one of the anti-Chamber activists targeted in the proposed plan. Unlike all of the other players, Hunton has not publicly commented on its role in the plot.

We will post the lawmakers' letter here as soon as it is made public. With the Republican majority in the House, it's unlikely that an investigation will be launched any time soon.

In a separate development Monday, HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr, who personally drafted memos calling for various kinds of disinformation tactics, has stepped down. “I need to focus on taking care of my family and rebuilding my reputation," he told Threat Post.

UPDATE: And here's the letter:

March 1, 2011

Honorable Darrell Issa Chairman, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform 

Honorable Lamar Smith, Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary

Honorable Mike Rogers, Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Honorable Howard McKeon, Chairman, Armed Services Committee

Dear Chairman Issa, Chairman Smith, Chairman Rogers and Chairman McKeon,

We ask that your Committee immediately begin an investigation with hearings into the issues raised by recent reports alleging that three federal defense and intelligence agency data security contractors, and a leading law firm, planned a “dirty-tricks” campaign that included possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech.

A series of email messages recently published on the Internet indicates that defense data security contractors HB Gary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies (collectively calling themselves “Team Themis”) and the law firm of Hunton & Williams planned a campaign to sabotage and discredit critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, including U.S. Chamber Watch, the union federation Change to Win, the Center for American Progress, the Service Employees International Union and other organizations.

The published correspondence appears to reveal a conspiracy to use subversive techniques to target Chamber critics. The techniques may have been developed at U.S. government expense to target terrorists and other security threats. The emails indicate that these defense contractors planned to mine social network sites for information on Chamber critics; planned to plant “false documents” and “fake insider personas” that would be used to discredit the groups; and discussed the use of malicious and intrusive software (“malware”) to steal private information from the groups and disrupt their internal electronic communications.

Given evidence of their proposal to infiltrate computer systems, discredit and disrupt the operations of U.S. advocacy groups, Team Themis and Hunton and Williams may have conspired to carry out or previously carried out actions in violation of federal law, including:

· Forgery under 10 USC §923

· Mail and Wire Fraud under 18 USC §1341 and 18 USC §1343

· Fraud and Related Activity in Connection with Computers 18 USC §1030

The possibility that any one of these crimes was committed warrants investigation. It is deeply troubling to think that tactics developed for use against terrorists may have been unleashed against American citizens. The central questions at issue here are:

· Did the government contractors violate any federal laws?

· Are there adequate laws in place to protect American citizens from intrusive and/or unethical electronic surveillance tactics?

· Were government resources inappropriately used to target American citizens?

Possible proof the defense and security contractors may have traded on their government work is inferred by a November 3, 2010, sales proposal from Team Themis to Hunton & Williams: “Who better to develop a corporate information reconnaissance capability than companies that have been market leaders within the [Defense Department] and Intelligence Community?”

We are prepared to assist the Committee in gathering the necessary and relevant information to conduct appropriate hearings. At a minimum, we submit that the Committee may wish to obtain any correspondence and documents from the parties concerning the planned campaign and any other similar activities, including the government contracts under which the contractors in question have been paid millions of dollars.

Particularly as events continue to develop around the world, we can all agree that free and open debate, discussion and criticism as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are absolutely necessary to a healthy and vibrant democracy. We must guarantee not just free spoken, print and broadcast media but unfettered Internet and electronic communication as well. Citizens who exercise their rights should not be the victims of illegal and insidious electronic attack any more than peaceful protesters should be the victims of intimidation or physical violence.

Enclosed you will find a packet of summary information describing the parties and recently revealed events in more detail.

The emails and documents that have come to light thus far provide a window into a deeply concerning set of circumstances, but not all of the facts are known. We believe it is therefore incumbent upon the Committee to investigate this matter thoroughly and with the utmost urgency. We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to working with you.

 

Sincerely,

_________________________

Hank Johnson

Member of Congress

_________________________

Keith Ellison

Member of Congress

_________________________

Luis Gutiérrez

Member of Congress

_________________________

Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Member of Congress

_________________________

Sheila Jackson Lee

Member of Congress

_________________________

Chris Murphy

Member of Congress

 

_________________________

Edolphus Towns

Member of Congress

 

_________________________

Betty Sutton

Member of Congress

_________________________

Peter Welch

Member of Congress

_________________________

Raúl Grijalva

Member of Congress

_________________________

Bruce Braley

Member of Congress

_________________________

Mike Honda

Member of Congress

_________________________

Barbara Lee

Member of Congress

_________________________

Jim McDermott

Member of Congress

_________________________

Tim Ryan

Member of Congress

 

_________________________

Pete Stark

Member of Congress

 

_________________________

Maxine Waters

 

 

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Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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