HBGary faces Congressional probe

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A subcommittee consisting of 19 members of Congress is seeking to launch an investigation into the activities of security firm HBGary Federal following revelations that the company, together with two other security firms, Berico Technologies and Palantir Technologies, may have conspired to sabotage opponents.

In a letter sent to four members of the House of Representatives, the Congressional subcommittee said HBGary and its partners "planned a 'dirty-tricks' campaign that included possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech."

Because HBGary Federal has contracts with the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, the Congressional probe is looking into suspicions that the company may have used tools paid for by U.S. tax dollars to launch private attacks on citizens and groups who foot the bill. They request to see the company's contracts with the U.S. military and the National Security Agency (NSA).

"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," Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said in a statement posted on his website. Johnson penned the letter and serves on the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees. "We believe a full Congressional investigation is warranted to determine whether laws were broken and whether existing laws are sufficient to protect Americans from high-tech dirty tricks."

The trouble began last month when HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr went public with his research into the hacker group Anonymous. Subsequently, the group claimed that HBGary Federal was preparing to sell a document containing the identities of several Anonymous members to the FBI. The hacker group then defaced the HBGary website, posting a taunting letter on it, and also stealing at least 50,000 emails belonging to the firm and posting them to torrent sites.

In those HBGary emails, the company is seen proposing a plan to law firm Hunton & Williams to discredit whistleblower website WikiLeaks. It was later revealed that other plans called for similar attacks against foes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, including watchdog group U.S. Chamber Watch, the union-based Change to Win, think tank Center for American Progress, the Service Employees International Union and other organizations.

Specifically, the HBGary plan called for obtaining information on WikiLeaks sources by launching cyberattacks against the site's servers. It also planned to discredit the organization by planting phony documents on the site and then calling into question its legitimacy. It also sought to intimidate Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for investigative news website Salon, who has been a vocal champion of WikiLeaks.

HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr resigned on Feb. 28 following these initial disclosures.

According to the lawmakers, these activities might be illegal, violating mail and fraud, forgery and computer fraud statutes.

The lawmakers are seeking answers to whether the government contractors violated any federal laws, whether there are adequate laws in place to protect American citizens from intrusive and/or unethical electronic surveillance tactics, and whether government resources were inappropriately used to target American citizens.

In their request for an investigation, the lawmakers cite the need for "free and open debate, discussion and criticism as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution." And this pertains to internet activities as well, the lawmakers said, claiming no citizen should be the target of "illegal and insidious electronic attack any more than peaceful protestors should be the victims of intimidation or physical violence."

In an interview on Thursday with Foreclosureblues, Johnson stated he has requested documents from the Department of Defense, the director of national intelligence and the Justice Department.

Whether the Congressional probe into the activities of security firm HBGary lead to prosecutions or follow a trail to nowhere, it is too soon to tell. But, Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS institute, believes its chances are slim.

"Since the Democrats cannot call hearings in the House because they are in the minority, I don't think this one will move forward," he told SCMagazineUS.com on Friday.

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