It is ironic that a trio of defense contractors who concocted a high-tech plan to discredit liberal critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chose “Team Themis” as their moniker.
The Greek goddess of law and order, Themis personified good governance and justice, depicted by her familiar blindfold and pair of scales. Yet the plan that the contractors proposed last month to the law firm Hunton & Williams, which represents the chamber, was arguably lawless in the extreme. It involved privacy invasions, hacking, and creating fake “insider personas” and false documents to infiltrate and discredit watchdog groups like U.S. Chamber Watch and other liberal activists.
The plan was never carried out, but now 20 House Democrats are calling for a congressional investigation into whether the contractors conspired to commit forgery, wire fraud, or criminal defamation, and whether government-funded intelligence technologies pose a threat to U.S. citizens. The CEO of one of the firms, HBGary Federal, has stepped down. And the controversy has created a public-relations nightmare for the chamber, which has vigorously denied any knowledge of the plan.
“We see a clear possibility that people could be silenced through high tech, subversive means,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who’s leading the call for hearings by the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees, on which he sits, and by the Intelligence and Oversight and Government Reform panels. “And when these means were actually acquired at taxpayer expense, it makes it even more unsavory.”
The decision to dub the project “Team Themis” is only one of many ironies in a complicated saga that spotlights the intensifying, high-stakes clash between labor and business coalitions, both in statehouses and nationally. For one thing, the dirty tricks plot to undermine chamber critics was uncovered by activist hackers who used dirty tricks to publish some 40,000 HBGary Federal e-mails.
Hunton & Williams, moreover, is the same firm that sued the Yes Men for fraud on the chamber’s behalf last year, after the pranksters impersonated the business association at a press conference. Hunton & Williams officials did not respond to requests for comment. In another ironic twist, the chamber has long championed free speech and citizens’ right to organize anonymously—only to find itself linked with a plot to undermine both.
It all started when HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr reportedly boasted that he was poised to unmask the hackers known as Anonymous, who have helped the WikiLeaks website publish classified information. In response, Anonymous hacked HBGary Federal’s own computers and released its e-mails. These brought to light the proposal that HBGary Federal was putting together with two other contractors, Berico Technologies and Palantir Technologies. Both firms have now cut ties with HBGary Federal and have publicly denounced the “Team Themis” activities and tactics.
The three firms had shopped their plan to Hunton & Williams, proposing a $2 million payoff in return for discrediting U.S. Chamber Watch, along with liberal activists such as MoveOn.org and Public Citizen, among others. The “Team Themis” mockup featured profiles disclosing e-mail and home addresses, photos, and names of spouses and children of the activists, though not all details were accurate.
The plan featured “everything from damaging our credibility to actually damaging our office equipment,” said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for U.S. Chamber Watch, a group with a $1million annual budget originally launched by the labor organization Change to Win. The discovery that she had been targeted “was obviously alarming,” said Setzer, but she added that it was “flattering” to see her group taken so seriously.
Setzer said the chamber was most alarmed by a complaint her group and allied watchdogs lodged with the IRS last September, accusing the chamber of tax fraud. The complaint alleges that the chamber used its affiliated nonprofit, the National Chamber Foundation, as a pass-through organization to funnel some $18 million from another charity affiliated with American International Group, to underwrite chamber political activities. The chamber has denied any tax violations.
Chamber officials have responded with extreme caution, denouncing what they call “a smear campaign” on a special “Chamber Myths Debunked” website, and responding to questions in e-mails attributable only to “a senior chamber official.” These state that “HBGary’s proposal was not requested by the chamber, it was not delivered to the chamber, and it was never discussed with anyone at the chamber.” They add that the chamber was unaware of the planned “questionable actions” until the e-mails were leaked.
Democrats aren’t the only ones complaining about political tactics that allegedly go over the line. Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Steve King, R-Iowa, wrote with several colleagues on March 2 to ask Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether racially tinged and violent talk at a recent Common Cause demonstration challenging some Supreme Court justices posed “a threat to government officials and their families.” Common Cause officials have denounced any “hateful statements” at its rally.
The divine Themis would no doubt have frowned on today’s brass-knuckle politics. But Themis was also credited with foresight and prophesy. She might well predict more dirty tricks ahead, given how low some players now appear willing to stoop to destroy their enemies.
This article appears in the March 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.