From the NYT - Private intell agencies war on reality
- The Stone June 14, 2013, 12:00 pm 210 Comments
The Real War on Reality
By PETER LUDLOW
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
Classified Information and State Secrets, Cyberattacks and Hackers, Mercenaries and Private Military Contractors, Philosophy, Surveillance of Citizens by Government
If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks
it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the
stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived.
The revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM data
collection program have raised awareness — and understandably, concern
and fears — among American and those abroad, about the reach and power
of secret intelligence gatherers operating behind the facades of
government and business.
Surveillance and deception are not just fodder for the next “Matrix” movie, but a real sort of epistemic warfare.
But those revelations, captivating as they are, have been partial
—they primarily focus on one government agency and on the surveillance
end of intelligence work, purportedly done in the interest of national
security. What has received less attention is the fact that most
intelligence work today is not carried out by government agencies but by private intelligence firms and that much of that work involves another common aspect of
intelligence work: deception. That is, it is involved not just with the
concealment of reality, but with the manufacture of it.
The realm of secrecy and deception among shadowy yet powerful forces
may sound like the province of investigative reporters, thriller
novelists and Hollywood moviemakers — and it is — but it is also a
matter for philosophers. More accurately, understanding deception and
and how it can be exposed has been a principle project of philosophy for the last 2500 years. And it is a place where the work of journalists,
philosophers and other truth-seekers can meet.
In one of the most referenced allegories in the Western intellectual
tradition, Plato describes a group of individuals shackled inside a cave with a fire behind them. They are able to see only shadows cast upon a
wall by the people walking behind them. They mistake shadows for
reality. To see things as they truly are, they need to be unshackled and make their way outside the cave. Reporting on the world as it truly is
outside the cave is one of the foundational duties of philosophers.
In a more contemporary sense, we should also think of the efforts to
operate in total secrecy and engage in the creation of false impressions and realities as a problem area in epistemology — the branch of
philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. And philosophers
interested in optimizing our knowledge should consider such surveillance and deception not just fodder for the next “Matrix” movie, but as real
sort of epistemic warfare.
To get some perspective on the manipulative role that private
intelligence agencies play in our society, it is worth examining
information that has been revealed by some significant hacks in the past few years of previously secret data.
Important insight into the world these companies came from a 2010
hack by a group best known as LulzSec (at the time the group was called Internet Feds), which targeted the private intelligence firm HBGary
Federal. That hack yielded 75,000 e-mails. It revealed, for example,
that Bank of America approached the Department of Justice over concerns
about information that WikiLeaks had about it. The Department of
Justice in turn referred Bank of America to the lobbying firm Hunton and Willliams, which in turn connected the bank with a group of information security firms collectively known as Team Themis.
Team Themis (a group that included HBGary and the private
intelligence and security firms Palantir Technologies, Berico
Technologies and Endgame Systems) was effectively brought in to find a
way to undermine the credibility of WikiLeaks and the journalist Glenn
Greenwald (who recently broke the story of Edward Snowden’s leak of the
N.S.A.’s Prism program), because of Greenwald’s support for WikiLeaks.
Specifically, the plan called for actions to “sabotage or discredit the
opposing organization” including a plan to submit fake documents and
then call out the error. As for Greenwald, it was argued that he would
cave “if pushed” because he would “choose professional preservation over cause.” That evidently wasn’t the case.
Team Themis also developed a proposal for the Chamber of Commerce to
undermine the credibility of one of its critics, a group called Chamber
Watch. The proposal called for first creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” giving it to a
progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing
the document as a fake to “prove that U.S. Chamber Watch cannot be
trusted with information and/or tell the truth.”
(A photocopy of the proposal can be found here.)
In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to
infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the
legitimacy of the second.”
Psyops need not be conducted by nation states; they can be
undertaken by anyone with the capabilities and the incentive to conduct
The hack also revealed evidence that Team Themis was developing a “persona management” system — a program, developed at the specific request of the United
States Air Force, that allowed one user to control multiple online
identities (“sock puppets”) for commenting in social media spaces, thus
giving the appearance of grass roots support. The contract was
eventually awarded to another private intelligence firm.
This may sound like nothing so much as a “Matrix”-like fantasy, but
it is distinctly real, and resembles in some ways the employment of
“Psyops” (psychological operations), which as most students of recent
American history know, have been part of the nation’s military strategy
for decades. The military’s “Unconventional Warfare Training Manual”
defines Psyops as “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives,
objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” In other words, it is
sometimes more effective to deceive a population into a false reality
than it is to impose its will with force or conventional weapons. Of
course this could also apply to one’s own population if you chose to
view it as an “enemy” whose “motives, reasoning, and behavior” needed to be controlled.
Psyops need not be conducted by nation states; they can be undertaken by anyone with the capabilities and the incentive to conduct them, and
in the case of private intelligence contractors, there are both
incentives (billions of dollars in contracts) and capabilities.
Several months after the hack of HBGary, a Chicago area activist and
hacker named Jeremy Hammond successfully hacked into another private
intelligence firm — Strategic Forcasting Inc., or Stratfor), and
released approximately five million e-mails. This hack provided a
remarkable insight into how the private security and intelligence
companies view themselves vis a vis government security agencies like
the C.I.A. In a 2004 e-mail to Stratfor employees, the firm’s founder and chairman George Friedman
was downright dismissive of the C.I.A.’s capabilities relative to their
own: “Everyone in Langley [the C.I.A.] knows that we do things they
have never been able to do with a small fraction of their resources.
They have always asked how we did it. We can now show them and maybe
they can learn.”
The Stratfor e-mails provided us just one more narrow glimpse into
the world of the private security firms, but the view was frightening.
The leaked e-mails revealed surveillance activities to monitor protestors in Occupy Austin as well as Occupy’s relation to
the environmental group Deep Green Resistance. Staffers discussed how one of their own men went undercover (“U/C”) and inquired about an Occupy Austin General Assembly meeting to gain insight into how the group operates.
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Stratfor was also involved in monitoring activists who were seeking reparations for victims of a chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, including a group called Bophal Medical Appeal. But the targets also
included The Yes Men, a satirical group that had humiliated Dow Chemical with a fake news conference announcing reparations for the victims.
Stratfor regularly copied several Dow officers on the minutia of
activities by the two members of the Yes Men.
One intriguing e-mail revealed that the Coca-Cola company was asking Stratfor for intelligence on PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with Stratfor vice
president for Intelligence claiming that “The F.B.I. has a classified
investigation on PETA operatives. I’ll see what I can uncover.” From
this one could get the impression that the F.B.I. was in effect working
as a private detective Stratfor and its corporate clients.
Stratfor also had a broad-ranging public relations campaign. The e-mails revealed numerous media companies on its payroll. While one motivation for the partnerships was presumably to have
sources of intelligence, Stratfor worked hard to have soap boxes from
which to project its interests. In one 2007 e-mail, it seemed that Stratfor was close to securing a regular show on NPR: “[the producer] agreed that she wants to not just get George or
Stratfor on one time on NPR but help us figure the right way to have a
relationship between ‘Morning Edition’ and Stratfor.”
On May 28 Jeremy Hammond pled guilty to the Stratfor hack, noting
that even if he could successfully defend himself against the charges he was facing, the Department of Justice promised him that he would face
the same charges in eight different districts and he would be shipped to all of them in turn. He would become a
defendant for life. He had no choice but to plea to a deal in which he
may be sentenced to 10 years in prison. But even as he made the plea he issued a statement, saying “I did this because I believe people have a right to know what
governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors. I did what I believe is right.” (In a video interview conducted by Glenn Greenwald with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong this week, Snowden expressed a similar ethical stance regarding his actions.)
Given the scope and content of what Hammond’s hacks exposed, his
supporters agree that what he did was right. In their view, the private
intelligence industry is effectively engaged in Psyops against American
public., engaging in “planned operations to convey selected information
to [us] to influence [our] emotions, motives, objective reasoning and,
ultimately, [our] behavior”? Or as the philosopher might put it, they
are engaged in epistemic warfare.
The Greek word deployed by Plato in “The Cave” — aletheia — is
typically translated as truth, but is more aptly translated as
“disclosure” or “uncovering” — literally, “the state of not being
hidden.” Martin Heidegger, in an essay on the allegory of the cave,
suggested that the process of uncovering was actually a precondition for having truth. It would then follow that the goal of the truth-seeker
is to help people in this disclosure — it is to defeat the illusory
representations that prevent us from seeing the world the way it is.
There is no propositional truth to be had until this first task is
This is the key to understanding why hackers like Jeremy Hammond are
held in such high regard by their supporters. They aren’t just fellow
activists or fellow hackers — they are defending us from epistemic
attack. Their actions help lift the hood that is periodically pulled
over our eyes to blind us from the truth.
Peter Ludlow is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern
University and is currently co-producing (with Vivien Weisman) a
documentary on Hacktivist actions against private intelligence firms and the surveillance state.
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