Glenn Greenwald 2/14 Interview Transcript

February 14, 2011

This is the full transcript of the great interview Sam Seder had with Glenn Greenwald today on the Majority Report about the “ChamberLeaks” scandal.

Listen to the whole interview here.

Read the transcript by clicking below.

Sam Seder: I’d like to welcome to the show Glenn Grenwald. Of course he writes at Salon.com and he’s the author of at least two New York Times best sellers that come to mind and he is in some respects part of this story. It’s a fascinating story that centers around… it essentially started with Anonymous this group that is part of the Hacktivist community going and taking, essentially releasing, now 77,000 emails from a private security company. Glenn take us through this story. There seems to be multiple elements that have come out of this huge email release.

Glenn Greenwald: Right. Well, the story essentially is pretty simple in terms of what actually happened which is that the CEO of this security firm, HBGary, whose name is Aaron Barr, basically conducted an investigation into this group called Anonymous which is basically a world-wide group of hackers who gained notoriety because they announced that they were going to retaliate against anyone who unfairly targeted WikiLeaks. So about two months ago they launched a bunch of cyber-attacks on companies that had terminated their services with WikiLeaks such as Amazon and MasterCard and PayPal and Visa, basic denial of service attacks that just slowed down those sites for a day or so and so this HBGary that touts itself as an internet security firm, they do work for the government, started boasting that they had investigated Anonymous, had infiltrated them and had uncovered the identities of numerous leading hackers who are part of this group.

SS: Now we will, for the time being, not talk about the arrogance that this guy showed in his process of tracking them down. But it turns out he was wrong and Anonymous basically struck back, and paraphrasing them, you have stuck your finger in the beehive and now you’re about to get stung.

GG: Right and get stung he definitely did. What they basically did was is they tricked, I think somebody at the company into providing them with the passwords to the email system and they were able to hack into the email account for which he, this Aaron Barr, was the administrator and download 50,000 or more now, 75,000 emails on HBGary’s server. They also hacked into his Twitter account and sent out all kinds of embarrassing and vulgar messages having annexed that account as well as other online accounts, and among the 70,000 emails that they were able to obtain and they were just randomly obtained them. They weren’t searching for anything in particular. They didn’t know that there was anything specifically incriminating, but among these emails were at least two proposals designed to, on behalf of perspective clients, basically discredit and attack and destroy people who were taking certain political positions that the perspective client disliked. In one case they wanted to propose to Bank of America targeting WikiLeaks and various supporters, including me, with all kinds of nefarious and potentially illegal schemes to discredit, attack and threaten those supporters out of advocating for WikiLeaks . And in another case, on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, they wanted to do the same to progressive groups and activists who are critical of the Chamber of Commerce and that’s what has kind of produced a lot of controversy is that the firms that were involved in these discussions, not just HBGary but also Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and most of all Hunton and Williams the very large and well connected DC law firm that represents both the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America. These are very serious and legitimate players and so to see all of them discussing an email on these kind of odious schemes to basically destroy the credibility of political adversaries is why this has become a news story.

SS: We’ll get into the separate cases in a moment, but the one thing that is apparent that when the Chamber of Commerce basically hired this law firm and the law firm in turn began to solicit proposals from HBGary and these two other entities Palantir and Berico in both instances – these are separate incidences brought together only by the fact that all the evidences of it happened to come in this one email leak. In both instances all three of these organizations were if not contracted at least solicited for ideas as a team. In fact in the Chamber of Commerce situation they are known as Team Themis. And I don’t know if that’s the same on the WikiLeaks end of it from Bank of America but this is clearly an ongoing relationship.

GG: It’s an ongoing relationship and beyond those three firms this is all being coordinated by and solicited from Hunton and Williams and specifically a partner there, John Woods, and Hunton and Williams is a serious player in Washington lobbying and legal circles and one of the emails specifically indicates that Hunton and Williams became in contact with Bank of America  because an official at the Justice Department, talking to Bank of America about what they should do about WikiLeaks, recommended Hunton and Williams, so it was the DOJ that put Hunton and Williams in touch with  Bank of America to do this kind of work and of course the Justice Department is obsessed with harming and otherwise prosecuting and otherwise impeding what WikiLeaks is doing. And this is really what sounds to me the most significant aspect of this story which is: it would be one thing if some conscientious whistleblower within one of these organizations decided that this was just a bridge too far, that this was patently illegal or improper and therefore disclose it because they learned about it and wanted the public to know what was going on. But that isn’t what happened. What happened is these were just 40,000 random emails grabbed by Anonymous and then published on the internet and it just so happened that these randomly selected emails contained at least two different very incriminating and disturbing plans, participated in, at least at the discussion level, by very serious and well-connected security firms and law firms on behalf of some of the most well funded clients in the country. Of course the Chamber of Commerce is one of the most political players in the country and Bank of America is the single largest bank. What this to me shows is that how common this is that basically if you just randomly grabbed 40,000 emails from any of these security firms or large corporations or their lawyers and investigators I think you’d likely find not necessarily identical but similarly pernicious proposals. This is what happens in that world.

SS: And I would add that, as of, I guess it was this morning, according to ThreatPost… I guess it was last night at 9:30pm another 27,000 emails are out there, so it brings the total to close to 70,000 emails and I got to imagine that these have not all been sifted through. It would strain the boundaries of law of averages that there aren’t another bunch of stories like this at this point in those emails.

GG: I think that’s right. Anonymous is not actually the ones who discovered the incriminating stories here. They were the ones who simply hacked into the email system and  then posted it. It was left to others to go through it and one person in particular found one of these incriminating emails and kind of followed the chain and then alerted this website that writes about technology issues called The Tech Herald to it and they then wrote the story. I know these emails as well where in a format that was very difficult to read and I know for example Firedoglake  would employ at least ten people over the last many days to put these emails in some kind of format that they can be gone through and looked at and read. And it took them a long time to do and they are not even done yet so I think you are absolutely right. I doubt very seriously that anybody has read through anywhere close to all of the emails so it is very possible that even more incriminating matters lurking and it just hasn’t yet been discovered especially in that new batch.

SS: Now we don’t know if any of these proposals were undertaken and now the players involved have.. the two security firms have distanced themselves from HBGary. No one is denying outright that these emails are legitimate. HBGary has tried to imply that they may be falsified. Of course I don’t know how you falsify 70,000 emails.

GG: You’re right. What they said was that because these were purloined or improperly obtained that it is possible that they may not be authentic but they didn’t say at all that these emails were. Remember it has now been a week since this story has erupted and not one of the players involved has remotely insinuated that these emails are anything but authentic. And in fact Palantir Technologies, which is a very large firm out in Palo Alto that relies a lot on the Palo Alto community which tends to be civil libertarians and progressives about internet freedom and very supportive of WikiLeaks, their quite petrified of the impact that this is going to have on their image as well as being sued. And the company contacted me and apologized profusely. The CEO has called me and has done the same and they emailed me several subsequent follow ups in which they are acknowledging that these emails are authentic so there is no question at this point about their authenticity.

SS: Is there anything that’s been found in these emails… Like I said all we have seen so far are proposals that have been solicited. From what has been found are you aware of any emails that suggest that anyone involved in this at all said, “Hey, you’re going too far. You shouldn’t do this type of stuff”?

GG: That definitely did not happen. There is no email of any kind, that I’m aware of or that anybody has pointed to in which anybody said this is excessive or this is improper. There are emails responding to these proposals that suggest that everybody involved was satisfied with what had been proposed.

SS: And one would also imagine that if these emails existed… if one of the players, whether it was at the law firm or whether it was one of the other security operations or whether it was at the Chamber or Bank of America, I would imagine if someone said, “Oh, I remember sending an email saying this is wrong,” they would have released it by now.

GG: Oh right. Remember Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce are very vigorously denying involvement in these proposals. And not only are they denying involvement but they have denounced them quite emphatically. Bank of America described it as abhorrent and said we have no interest in anything like this. The Chamber of Commerce said something quite similar. So I don’t think that they would have issued, those entities would have issued denials quite that emphatic if they had actually retained these firms to carry out their proposals. I think that what has happened is that it was Hunton and Williams, their law firms, that were essentially coordinated the efforts on their behalf. So it wouldn’t have been Bank of America or the Chamber of Commerce that would have directly retained HBGary or Palantir or Berico. It would have been Hunton and Williams retaining one of those firms as the coordinating firm to do it and Hunton and Williams has thus far refused to comment. Palantir says that to their knowledge that there was no effort to retain HBGary to carry out the WikiLeaks part of the plan. They haven’t said anything to me about the Chamber of Commerce part. But even there they’re saying that, the denial was very carefully worded and very narrow. They’re saying that the HBGary specific proposal that people have read was never retained by Bank of America but whether Hunton and Williams retained this consortium to do something similar either in regards to the WikiLeaks case or to the Bank of America case is something that we actually don’t know and I think the key party on which we should be focusing is Hunton and Williams because they were really the ring leaders of it.

SS: Right. This is the outfit when you want someone to do your dirty work this is the way that you keep plausible deniability and arms-length.

GG: Precisely. Everyone knows that large corporations when they want to do nefarious things don’t contract with the parties that are going to do it directly. They put all kind of intermediaries in-between whether it be law firms or private investigators or internet security firms. That’s how this always works. That’s how political dirty tricks are done and that’s how corporate dirty tricks are done as well. So the idea that Bank of America never directly retained HBGary is something that I don’t find surprising but I also don’t find significant. The question is what is the ultimate resolution, the ultimate disposition of the discussions between Hunton and Williams on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America and these firms, however it was they were identifying themselves and whichever of them was the coordinating party.  That we don’t know.

SS: Has there been any emails that have surfaced or that you’re aware of that indicate that this was a new relationship for Hunton and Williams in terms of dealing with these three security firms?

GG: No, and in fact there is to the contrary emails that indicate that they worked together in the past. That that’s how they basically came to be in contact. So I don’t know if specifically HBGary has worked with Hunton and Williams in the past but certainly there are emails suggesting some standing relationship between some of these parties and the individual executives at them and Hunton and Williams. That is how they came to be in contact.

SS: Now on the Chamber side, the HBGary proposal targeted entities like SCIU, StoptheChamber.org, TheVelvetUnderground.net, and I believe also the blogger Brad Freedman was also targeted in this one. And on the other side, on the WikiLeaks side, you were one of the members of the media, in fact ,as far as I can tell, the only one. I am looking at the PDF right now of the PowerPoint and I want to shift this a little bit to a broader issue that was exposed in this PDF because there is almost a certain amount of poetry here. Because I was on last night, the Virtually Speaking, to talk about this a little bit the last time I was there I used you as an example of the problems of our mainstream media, and I used you as a counter-example: something to the effect of Glenn Greenwald is a perfect example of someone who is fearless and will report on anything and will call anything out because he does not have the same incentive or seemingly seem to have the same incentive structure as establishment careerist journalists and sure enough in what is a bit of poetry, I am going to read from the bullet point and it has the Palantir logo on top of it. “Glenn has a sort of a social networking mapping of supporters of WikiLeaks. Glenn was critical in the Amazon to OVH transition.” What does that refer to?

GG: It refers to the time period where WikiLeaks was removed from the internet when Amazon terminated its contract to keep, to host WikiLeak’s site and that was when really the focus on the persecution of WikiLeaks began and they have to find a different hosting service to be able to stay on the internet. So I guess it’s saying that in that period I was somehow I played an important role in sustaining public support for WikiLeaks.

SS: Yes, and then it goes on to say, “It’s this level of support that needs to be disrupted.” And then the next bullet point which literally is almost poetic in its irony, “There are established professionals that have a liberal bent but ultimately, most of them if pushed, will choose professional preservation over cause such as the mentality of most business professionals.

GG: Right.

SS: Let’s talk about this in sort of the more abstract way because I think that is actually accurate. My sense, having read you since probably your second or third post on Unclaimed Territory back  I don’t know if it was 2004 or 2005, is that this is exactly what does not describe you. But let’s talk about this because this is an important incite that they are sharing with us.

GG: Right. That is the interesting part. As far as I’m concerned I’ve essentially devoted almost all of my conscious efforts in terms of how I would be a political writer to avoiding exactly that dynamic. So where I would have, in some situation, have a false choice presented between preservation of career and cause. I mean the whole reason why it is imperative to me to remain independent and not work within a corporate structure and not have any editorial oversight or anything like that, which I don’t, and to be accountable only to my readers is precisely because I never wanted to be in a position where I would have to choose between preservation of career and cause. And it is the same reason that I am insistent about doing what I do without relying upon access to political insiders or being forced to use anonymous sources who feed me information that I have to please or whose agenda I have to remain loyal. It’s exactly for that reason that I have set up my ability to write about politics in a way that the only thing I have to care about is keeping credibility with my readers and ironically the only way that I would actually damage my career, given the way I set it up, is if I did choose preservation of career over cause… that is the only thing that could really damage the credibility that I have built up with my readers and that’s the only thing that matters, but I think that they do have an important insight into how journalism works generally and the fact that they believe that by in some way threatening a journalist’s career they can deter them from engaging in advocacy or journalism and that most people in this profession will prioritize careerist objectives over conviction and belief. The fact that they think that is a reflection of what is true in the profession which is that most establishment journalists, by definition, work for large corporations. Their journalism depends upon maintaining favor with the very people that they are covering access and leaks and scoops and the like. And they position themselves so that they are dependent on the very system over which they are supposed to be exercising adversarial scrutiny and so I think in that regard this proposal provides some truth, some correct observations about the incentive scheme generally. But it is precisely because of my contempt for that incentive scheme that I don’t think that they would be very successful in trying to apply it to me. But the abstract notion I think is accurate.

SS: And it almost strains credibility to believe that this was simply a theory that had never gone tested with them. I mean, these are security firms that obviously work with one of the most powerful law firms in the country. One in fact that was recommended by the Department of Justice. And so when they say that that these are established professionals that have a liberal bent but ultimately, most of them, if pushed, will choose professional preservation over cause,  they probably, and we have no evidence of this, but they probably have experience which has developed this mentality.

GG: Well, that stands to reason right. This is what to me is such a striking point which is, there are aspects of their proposal that are definitely would become controversial if exposed but even more so are almost certainly illegal. I mean they are talking about fabricating forged documents and submitting them to WikiLeaks with the intent that they be published and then attacking WikiLeaks for having done it. I mean that is almost certainly forgery and fraud which are felonies under the US code, under criminal law. The idea of threatening the careers of journalists to deter them from writing about things or advocating what they believe in is certainly some form of extortion depending on what it entails. I mean they were talking about the synagogue to which one of the targets went in the Chamber of Commerce proposal, about the families of other people that could constitute blackmail and other forms of harassment. They are talking about compromising the website of WikiLeaks by cyber-attacking it and hacking it to find out who their confidential sources are in order to erode trust between WikiLeaks and their sources which is a violation of all kinds of serious cyber-laws. And yet here you have these highly experienced firms who are not only willing to propose these things, Hunton and Williams and the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America, but who all also feeling free to put them down on paper. You know, extremely pernicious and probably illegal proposals, why are they willing that so brazenly to do that and I think the obvious answer is that this is commonplace in that world. These were firm vying for very lucrative contracts and these are firms that have lucrative contracts with exactly these kind of parties so they have an understanding of what is and is not permissible and tolerated and encouraged in that world so that they are not just randomly and for the first time creating a proposal to threaten the careers of people and target them personally and their families personally and to pressure journalists out of saying and doing things that they don’t want to be done. This is obviously par for the course. This is how this world operates and that’s why they had no compunction about not just proposing it but doing it in writing. That to me is the most striking and revealing part.

SS: Yes, it’s incredibly stunning and now let me ask you this; Assuming that they never, ever, ever carried out any type of proposals like this in the past or up to this point. That they simply, coincidentally, have been teamed up with these two other firms in the past, were basically told by Hunton and Williams to pitch us proposals. They were brazen enough to put them into PowerPoints and present them in the same way you would if you were doing some type of event planning. If they had never engaged in this behavior but only essentially agreed to come around to work out these proposals, is there any type of charges just involved in that type of conspiracy at all?

GG: That’s a difficult question to answer. If all their doing is proposing it, but no steps were ever taken of any kind to execute it, it’s possible that they would have fallen short of the criminal law. In general, for instance, you can plot to commit a crime. Let’s say that you and I sit around one day and decide that we want to rob a bank and we even talk generally about how to do it. It doesn’t really become a conspiracy. We can commit the crime without actually having to rob the bank, just the conspiracy to rob the bank, but in order to do that, to be guilty of conspiracy you have to take at least one affirmative step towards executing the plan. And if all they did here is propose this and it never went anywhere it’s possible that it fell short. At the same time they didn’t just talk about it, they actually created a slide show, a plan, a very specific plan about how to go about doing it so it is possible that it could rise to the level of criminal liability. I mean that would be a difficult question.

SS: And if there’s any evidence that shows in this latest group of emails or in the emails that are yet to be sifted from that in fact they went ahead and created one of these false personas they were talking about, if they went ahead and got any of the information that they needed to carry out any of these proposals, that may be, in some ways, make them criminally liable.

GG: Right, in theory yes, but what is so interesting about this is that there was a 2008 report, a secret report prepared by the Pentagon ,about how to destroy WikiLeaks and it talked about how WikiLeaks has undermined the United States and needed to be crippled and this was even before the Apache helicopter video was released, before anyone really knew what WikiLeaks was the Pentagon had identified them as an enemy.  And the steps that the Pentagon discussed for how to cripple WikiLeaks credibility was quite similar to what these groups are talking about, which is creating false documents and submitting it to WikiLeaks to then make them publish it and that would destroy their credibility or compromising the confidentiality of their sources to destroy the trust between people who want to submit to WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks itself, so that’s what I mean. These are the mores that prevail in the world of government and corporations. And so it is almost impossible to imagine the Justice Department, the same Justice Department that is obsessed with destroying WikiLeaks prosecuting a bank like Bank of America or any of these entities, Hunton and Williams who they actually helped try to put this plan together at least by recommending to Bank of America that they hire Hunton and Williams, it’s impossible to image anybody, the DOJ prosecuting anybody for targeting WikiLeaks’ supporters or for targeting opponents of the Chamber of Commerce. The law in the United States just simply doesn’t work that way. And the example that I cited, which I don’t know, for me is just so unbelievable  even though it is so long ago now relatively speaking is that, as I started off by saying the cyber attacks that were unleashed by Anonymous on PayPal and Amazon and MasterCard and the like were pretty minor in the scheme of things. They were basically just routine denial of service attacks that didn’t even take down the websites, they just slowed them down. I think they might have taken one of them down for about an hour, but they were pretty trivial in the scheme of things in terms of the damage. By contrast there were cyber attacks launched at WikiLeaks that were very sophisticated and complex and dangerous that actually took WikiLeaks off line a couple of months ago and yet the Justice Department was very aggressive about announcing that it was going to investigate the attacks from Anonymous at PayPal and Amazon and Visa and they actually arrested a few of them just a couple of weeks ago but they never uttered a peep about how they were going to find the culprits that who did the sophisticated cyber attack launched at WikiLeaks  and that’s because the Justice Department is happy with attacks on WikiLeaks and thier supporters. They only care about attacks that target large corporations and are done on the behalf of WikiLeaks. That’s an extremely selective application of law by the government and so and even if in theory some of this rose to the level of criminal liability it’s impossible for me to see the Justice Department punishing somebody for target WikiLeaks and its supporters. I think the Justice Department would consider that to be a good thing, even if it violated the law.

SS: Right. Just finally, do you think there is any opportunity to any type of state attorneys general to get involved in this or is there any type of civil liability that someone like yourself or Brad Freedman or any of these organizations that were potentially targeted that there is some sort of civil liability in this case.

GG: That’s a good question about the state’s attorneys general -I haven’t thought about that. In general they are probably federal crimes. At the same time some of the individuals involved live in particular states and the state attorney general  could very well have an interest in protecting their citizens from these kind of smear campaigns. So that is possible. As far as civil liability is concerned, in general it is easier to sue somebody than it is to prosecute them for lots of different reasons. It’s very possible that targets of these campaigns, even if these campaigns didn’t end up being fully executed could nonetheless have a cause of action. Being able to sue would have the main benefit of enabling discovery. To find out who did what, get these documents, put people under oath, ask questions and compel them under the penalty of perjury to answer, and so I know there’s at least some people who are named in these proposals who are actively considering that.

SS: Right. I would imagine right now the EFF and the ACLU should be answering their phones or somebody should be funding some type of lawsuit to find out exactly what everybody in these outfits knew about it and when.

GG: I expect that to happen.

SS: Glenn Greenwald from Salon.com thank you so much for joining us.

GG: Thanks Sam. Always a pleasure. Bye bye.

Transcript by Avant.

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