Congress eyes dirty tricks from HBGary, Chamber of Commerce

Air Force, Army are way ahead on manipulation and propaganda

One of the more satisfying morally indefensible hacktivist attacks in the wake of the most recent WikiLeaks scandal was the braggart CEO of a DC-area security company who taunted the Anonymous vigilante posse and was immediately hacked almost out of existence.

It turned out that not only was he kind of an empty braggart, claiming to know who the leaders of Anonymous were and that he'd sell their names to Bank of America, rather than going to the law, he was also a kind of weasel-for-hire.

Among the documents Anonymous swiped and posted were a set showing the company, HBGary Federal, was one of three hired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – a business-lobbying group, not a federal agency – to spy on political opponents and smear them with fake documents and communications.

The CEO, Aaron Barr, quit to save his company the bad publicity.

Nothing happened to the Chamber of Commerce, which denied it was involved in any such plot.

House Democrats called for investigations of the three security companies that were to do the dirty work.

Now 19 of them, led by Georgia Rep Hank Johnson, are calling for an investigation that includes both the security companies and the Chamber.

“We are deeply concerned by evidence that intelligence contractors may have engaged in a criminal conspiracy to target American citizens on behalf of powerful corporate interests,” Johnson said in a statement.

Meanwhile, in a completely clean and un-surveillance or propaganda-oriented effort to advance the technology the military must use to communicate with its own personnel and the American public, the U.S. Air Force is trying to buy software it would use to create and manage a virtual army of fake people populating social-media sites.

That tidbit, which also came from HBGary's stolen emails, implies the military is looking for ways to influence the opinion of the American public using fake personalities who would comment on social media sites in support of whatever policy its controllers want.

Coming on the heels of revelations that the Army's Psychological Operations (propaganda) squads were targeting members of Congress on visits to Afghanistan to help persuade them to support decisions of Army commanders, the revelation casts an ugly light on both services.

Both individual members of the military and organizations within it are forbidden to engage in anything that could be described as propaganda or persuasion in their efforts to keep members of Congress and the public informed of their actions.

They are required to keep both informed, however, and to use public-relations techniques to do it.

The line between public-information-spreading and propagandizing can be pretty thin, so it's not surprising there is some overlap.

Full-on PsyOp psychological evaluations of Congresspeople and information-delivery plans designed to form their opinions, and software designed to create fake people who can support your policies, are both pretty clear violations.

They're also clear signs that at least some elements in the U.S. military have given up restraint and are going in for flat-out manipulation in an effort to get their own way.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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