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Democrat urges investigation into federal security contractors

Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia is seeking an investigation into whether government money was used by three data security firms involved in a proposal to harass liberal critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

March 27, 2011|By Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
  • Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) at President Obama's State of the Union address in January.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) at President Obama's State of the Union… (Molly Riley / Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — A Democratic congressman is seeking an investigation into whether government money was used by three security contractors involved in a proposal to track and harass liberal critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia plans to send letters Monday to the Defense and Justice departments, as well as the head of the intelligence community, requesting a review of the companies' federal contracts. All three firms are government contractors with security clearance.

Johnson wrote that he was concerned the companies "may have violated the law and/or their federal contracts by conspiring to use technologies developed for U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism purposes against American citizens and organizations on behalf of private actors."

The inquiry stems from email correspondence between the three data security firms — HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies — proposing surveillance and sabotage of liberal and labor activists in an effort to win a contract with Hunton & Williams, a law firm representing the Chamber of Commerce.

The security firms came together in a group they dubbed "Team Themis," apparently after the Greek goddess of law and order.

Details of the proposal, which included planting false information to embarrass anti-chamber groups and creating dossiers on activists, complete with photographs and family references, were leaked this year by the hacker group Anonymous.

The chamber said it was not aware of the proposals and called the tactics "abhorrent."

HBGary Federal declined to comment. A company source said Palantir was aware of the congressman's request and believed the agencies would do what they could to comply. Neither Berico nor Hunton & Williams returned calls seeking comment. In the past, all have denied wrongdoing.

Johnson and 19 other Democrats this month called on Republican leaders to investigate Hunton & Williams and Team Themis for possible violations of federal law, including forgery and computer fraud.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declined to pursue the matter, saying in a statement, "While I appreciate Mr. Johnson's letter, it is the role of the Justice Department to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted."

Johnson said an investigation was necessary to determine whether Americans were sufficiently shielded from technologies meant to target enemies abroad.

"This is uncharted territory when we're dealing in the cyber world," Johnson said. "It's a dangerous place. It can be a place where liberties of American people are threatened or taken away."

melanie.mason@latimes.com

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