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FBI Authorized Cyberattacks

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The saying, “the devil is in the details,” is a wise rule in social analysis. Dramatic high points are well and good, but more indicative and convincing of basic trends are everyday ongoing practices and policies, in this case, FBI recruitment of hackers to do the dirty work of cyberwarfare. We know the FBI, in violation of its charter, is active overseas, as is the CIA, equally violative, within the US, a cross-jurisdiction handy in promoting repression, sometimes with a less traceable fingerprint. Find or create an informant, here, Hector Monsegur, let him work undercover (erecting a wall of deniability for the Bureau), charge him with responsibility for establishing a network of hackers which, turned loose on the computer systems of foreign governments, banks, etc., provides a vast wealth of data that, through Monsegur, is passed back to Washington. In return, the informant is given protection, although one of his assistants, Jeremy Hammond, is now serving a 10-year prison term. Part of this protection is that all documents in the case are still heavily redacted, and that sentencing him has been stalled probably indefinitely–typical FBI/CIA lese majesty, the cavalier disregard for the dignity and meaning of democracy.

Although small potatoes compared with the campaign of surveillance at home, eavesdropping abroad on foreign leaders, that has been mounted by NSA, also roaming the ranch scot-free, it’s useful to know that behind the headlines, our jackbooted bureaucrats are busy on numerous fronts. While Monsegur’s team probably was not involved in cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a task for the Real Pros, yet its ground-level activities may be a clearer sign of the gnawing away at democratic principles, which, we must be reminded, include respect for privacy. Under Obama, civil liberties have shrivilled, an inclusive negation of respect, so that cyberwarfare is inseparable from Espionage Act attacks on whistleblowers, both cut from the same cloth of unified totalitarian preemptive strikes against whatever USG deemed threatening. Transparency gone, the path is opened for taking the offensive, all for the sake of a global hegemony predicated on a compliant populace at home and the means for achieving the mastery of international markets!

Monsegur and Hammond are the minnows, Obama and his military-intelligence communities of minions the hammerhead sharks, in the fast-encroaching wholesale militarization of American capitalism and the society and culture in general. There is a clear interrelationship between this FBI venture into illegality (by that criterion, Monsegur stands far back in line to the provocateurs, inciters of violence, etc., in the Bureau’s employ) and Obama’s recent trip to the Far East, “friends and allies” being encouraged to form a united front against China. Both represent America’s TOTALIZATION of effort unilaterally to control the ground rules of world politics and the international system. Spy, repress, foment hostility, incite to violence, do whatever it takes to stay on top.

Mark Mazzetti’s New York Times article, “F.B.I. Informant Is Tied to Cyberattacks Abroad,” (Apr. 24), reports, “An informant working for the F.B.I. coordinated a 2012 campaign of hundreds of cyberattacks on foreign websites, including some operated by the governments of Iran, Syria, Brazil, and Pakistan, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the attacks.” Though he doesn’t say it, I sense blowback in light of the administration’s penchant for cyberwarfare. Like drone assassination, Obama’s rule of thumb is maximum damage with fewest boots on the ground whenever feasible. Even his Pacific-first strategy is intended, as evidence of US power, to overawe China primarily through naval forces and long-range strategic bombers. Here, cyberwarfare plugs into his and America’s fascination with high-tech weaponry, which, as in the case of the modernization of the nuclear arsenal, somehow is made to appear antiseptic and nonviolative of international standards. Carnage is the more chilling in seeming bloodless.

Mazzetti continues: “Exploiting a vulnerability in a popular web hosting software, the informant directed at least one hacker to extract vast amounts of data—from bank records to login information—from the government servers of a number of countries and upload it to a server monitored by the F.B.I., according to court statements.” This is persuasive evidence of F.B.I. involvement in foreign operations. Less known, or even imagined, the FBI was playing a double game. It simultaneously arrested hackers while encouraging the practice. However, the public is intentionally kept in the dark: “The details of the 2012 episode have, until now, been kept largely a secret in closed sessions of a federal court in New York and heavily redacted documents.” The situation has hardly changed. What emerges is damning: “While the documents do not indicate whether the F.B.I. directly ordered the attacks, they suggest that the government may have used hackers to gather intelligence overseas even as investigators were trying to dismantle hacking groups like Anonymous and send computer activists away for lengthy prison terms.”

Llike Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because that’s where the money was, the FBI attacked the group Anonymous because that’s where the hackers were, some who could be turned around under pressure of jail sentences. Enter Monsegur, “who used the Internet alias Sabu and became a prominent hacker within Anonymous,” attacking “high-profile targets, including PayPal and MasterCard.” In 2012, having been arrested earlier by the FBI, he “already spent months working to help the bureau identify other members of Anonymous,” a standard technique for turning potential informants: Have something on them to keep them in line and compel cooperation. He recruited Hammond and together, in December 2012, they worked “to sabotage the computer servers of Stratfor Global Intelligence” of Austin. From that point, Monsegur had his man, supplying him “with lists of foreign websites that might be vulnerable to sabotage.” We may never learn the why and wherefore of the Stratfor episode; the court documents remain heavily redacted. Hammond pled guilty “to the Stratfor operation and other computer attacks” inside the US, perhaps in exchange for a lighter sentence, in that “he has not been charged with any crimes in connection with the attacks against foreign countries,” no doubt the US being fearful their identities might come out.

I sense Hammond wanted to talk—yet he has been forbidden, “one of the terms of a protective order [in which he could not identify specific foreign government websites] imposed by the judge.” Mazzetti adds, “The names of the targeted countries are also redacted from court documents.” Yet “an uncensored version” of Hammond’s court statement “had been leaked online the day of his sentencing in November [2013],” a target list including “more than 2,000 Internet domains,” all under Monsegur’s direction, such as—actually, not small potatoes at all—“government websites in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Brazil and other government sites, like those of the Polish Embassy in Britain and the Ministry of Electricity in Iraq.”

The details in USG exploiting “major flaws in Internet security,” and how Monsegur and Hammond “had become aware of a vulnerability in a web-hosting software called Plesk that allowed backdoor access to thousands of websites,” so that Hammond could “gain access to computer servers without needing a user name or password,” help to explain the scope and success of the hacking operation. Monsegur continually gave Hammond “new foreign sites to penetrate.” The emails and databases once extracted were “uploaded to a computer server controlled” by Monsegur (himself careful not to get his hands dirty), a procedure also repeated with another hacker, from Brazil, who “was asked to attack Brazilian government websites.” (America demonizes Russia and China, and claims for itself an Exceptionalism of Innocence and Purity, in the act of criticizing them.)

Denouement: Hammond said in prison, “Sabu wasn’t getting his hands dirty.” Meanwhile, Monsegur, arrested in mid-2011, began his cooperation with the FBI soon thereafter, praised by a federal prosecutor in a closed hearing in August 2011 for “’cooperating with the government proactively’” and “’literally work[ing] around the clock with federal agents’” to finger others. Mazzetti concludes: “Mr. Monsegur’s sentencing hearing has been repeatedly delayed, leading to speculation that he is still working as a government informer. His current location is unknown.” He and Hammond are “in constant contact…through encrypted Internet chats,” using Jabber and aliases, Hammond in one conversation saying he hoped the information “would be put ‘to good use,’” the other reassuring him, “’Trust me. Everything I do serves a purpose.’” Hammond, Mazzetti writes, sitting in prison, “wonders if F.B.I. agents might also have been on the other end of the communications.”

Is there no honor among thieves? In any case, we instinctively know, as Americans, whom our heroes are, Edward Snowden not being among them. My New York Times Comment on the article, same date, follows:

More evidence of the National Security State under Obama as a threat to US civil liberties, in this case, the FBI, presumed to operate only domestically, conducting full-throat foreign operations, operations of cyberwarfare extremely disruptive of international relations. And where are Feinstein and Rogers, in their respective committees, excoriating the FBI the way they have already done to Snowden? This is incipient fascism becoming actualized.

Like the CIA, the FBI throughout its history has been a rogue operation expanding beyond jurisdictional lines. Even domestically it has been severely right-wing, as in Hoover’s attacks on Martin Luther King. And never chastised for its illegal and ruthless tactics. Why not? Why not, in this case, a thorough fumigation of the Augean stables?

As one who was in Mississippi during Freedom Summer I saw the young volunteers, constantly threatened with death (as happened with Schwerner-Goodman-Cheney), who, in making complaints, were then questioned by the FBI (I sat in on these at COFO headquarters in Jackson), browbeaten, more likely, so that the victim became the villain. A sorry record, in which the FBI to this day is synonymous with POLICE STATE. Thank you, Obama, for giving it the green light.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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