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Government contractors targeted Chamber of Commerce's critics

Three data security firms submitted a plan to the Chamber of Commerce's law firm to monitor and discredit the chamber's critics, e-mails show. A proposal to help Bank of America was also requested.

February 15, 2011|By Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Hoping to win a lucrative agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, three data security contractors for federal defense and intelligence agencies developed a proposal to monitor and manipulate the chamber's left-leaning critics, according to recently released e-mail correspondence.

Employees of the firms compiled short dossiers on a few activists that included photographs, references to their families and charts of their relationships with other liberal and labor leaders.

A review of the correspondence, dating from late October through last week, suggested that the surveillance and intelligence gathering had begun only on a superficial basis in anticipation of a coming meeting with chamber officials.

The proposals were received by Hunton & Williams, a law firm that represents the chamber.

The firm, which also represents Bank of America, solicited a separate proposal from the security firms to help the bank deal with a threat by WikiLeaks, the international hacker organization, to release some of the bank's internal data.

Chamber officials as well as a spokesman for Bank of America said they knew nothing of the surveillance proposals until the e-mails were released Friday by Anonymous, a group that is sympathetic to WikiLeaks.

"No money, for any purpose, was paid to any of those three private security firms by the chamber, or by anyone on behalf of the chamber, including Hunton & Williams," the chamber said in a statement.

Hunton & Williams did not respond to requests for comment.

But in some of the e-mails, employees of the security firms and lawyers at Hunton & Williams refer to contacts they had made with the chamber about the proposed intelligence gathering.

The revelations in the e-mails triggered anxiety among some of those who were targeted.

"We are appalled at the allegations that have come to light in these e-mails," said Inga Skippings, communications director of the Service Employees International Union, some of whose allies were the subject of the intelligence gathering project. "The chamber should immediately come clean about its involvement with Hunton & Williams and the private security firms that allegedly planned these underhanded tactics."

ThinkProgress, an arm of the liberal Center for American Progress and a consistent critic of the chamber, first reported on the e-mails on its blog last week.

In a statement, the chamber accused its critics of "perpetrating a smear campaign by trying to create the illusion of a connection" between it and the security firms.

Officials for two of the security firms, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies, confirmed the authenticity of the e-mails sent by their employees but said top executives had no previous knowledge of them.

A spokeswoman for the third company, HBGary Federal, said executives could not address the details of the proposed work for Hunton & Williams, citing a nondisclosure agreement covering all parties.

Copies of the e-mails were provided to the Los Angeles Times by the labor and activist groups.

The correspondence shows that starting last fall, Hutton & Williams lawyers discussed with the security companies a project to be pitched to the chamber.

The three security firms, all of which are government contractors with secret clearances, proposed coming together as "Team Themis," apparently named after a Greek goddess of law and order, to monitor and possibly disrupt chamber opponents.

"Who better to develop a corporate information reconnaissance capability than companies that have been market leaders within the [Defense Department] and Intelligence Community," the companies wrote in a pitch to Hunton & Williams.

At one point, those working on the project estimated it could be worth $2 million.

A Team Themis report e-mailed to two Hunton & Williams attorneys in December by a Berico Technologies analyst suggested planting a "false document" in hopes it would be publicly released by anti-chamber groups. The plan also called for creating "two fake insider personas" inside the activist organizations that could then be used to discredit the groups.

Other sample reports included mock dossiers of activists, some with false information about their marital state and address but with actual photographs of them.

There is no evidence that the firms carried out those plans or used secret data to compile their dossiers.

Palo Alto-based Palantir Technologies and Arlington, Va.-based Berico Technologies have moved swiftly to distance themselves from the tactics described in the e-mails, severing their relationship with Sacramento-based HBGary Federal and saying that company proposed the aggressive tactics.

Alex Karp, chief executive of Palantir Technologies, a data integration software company, said in a statement Monday that it "never has and never will condone the sort of activities recommended by HBGary."

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