By Andy Bichlbaum and Joseph Huff-Hannon. Mike Bonanno contributed to this story.
Defendants had a common plan to engage in acts... that deceived the press and public....These infringing and fraudulent acts are antithetical to public debate on important issues, because they prevent the public and the press from knowing the true position.... In short, such conduct is destructive of public discourse, and cannot be tolerated under the law.
—Chamber of Commerce lawsuit against the Yes Men and "John and Jane Doe 1 through 20," Nov. 2009
How the mighty have fallen. Corrupt regimes long reviled by their populace are being brought down left and right, thanks to the brilliant and untiring efforts of democracy activists. And a wave of technology-assisted leaks is helping this process along by providing tranche after damning tranche of evidence, proving what everyone already knows—as in Tunisia, where Wikileaks revelations offered incontrovertible proof of the misdeeds and corruption of “an already discredited and reviled regime” (CNN).
Late last week, another, still-unfolding leak story revealed a shocking conspiracy of misdeeds and corruption implicating a “discredited and reviled regime” in our own capital city.
Until just a couple of years ago, the work of the United States Chamber of Commerce was unknown to most Americans. Aren’t they mom and pop’s small-business lobby in Washington? Now, thanks in large part to the work of Chamber opponents, we’ve come to learn that the biggest business lobby in the world is also one of the biggest impediments to real democracy in the U.S., and that they're a huge force in opposing health care reform, employee free choice and other labor legislation, veterans' rights, banking regulations, and, of course, transparency. The Chamber is nothing less than the public face of a corporatism that is hijacking our democracy, and dramatically limiting any chances of meaningful reform.
Even local chambers, fed up, have been leaving the U.S. Chamber en masse. But what might it take for the “Facebook generation” in the U.S. to topple, Tunisia- or Egypt-style, this arrogant and destructive force in American politics?
Maybe we’ve just been waiting for the right leak.
Last week’s remarkable story revealed that a consortium of private “cyber-security” firms were developing a $2 million proposal—apparently with the knowledge of Chamber representatives—to use a variety of sophisticated disinformation techniques to destroy the reputations of Chamber opponents, including public-interest, consumer-advocate and worker-rights groups like US Chamber Watch and Change to Win. (The same firm was also proposing, for Bank of America, a plot to destroy Wikileaks, and to "neutralize" constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com.)
Despite reports on the Center for American Progress blog suggesting that contacts took place between representatives of the Chamber of Commerce where such proposals were made, the Chamber has denied all knowledge of them and has described such reports as a "smear campaign". Yet the Chamber and its allies have for a while now seemed set on exploring ever more brazen (and silly) ways of trying to silence their critics.
In 2009, the Yes Men, an activist group that satirizes powerful foes, posed as Chamber reps and announced, to a room of reporters, that the Chamber was doing an about-face on their dangerous opposition to climate-change legislation. The media had a good laugh at the Chamber’s expense (thanks in large part to a real Chamber representative who barged into the press conference in a rage), but the Chamber found the whole thing distinctly unfunny, and promptly filed a lawsuit.
It turns out that one of the “cyber-security” firms at the heart of the leaks proposed to (in their own words) “create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if US Chamber Watch acquires it.” To help make this happen, they’d “create a fake insider persona and generate communications” with Change to Win, a labor group the firm theorized might be allied to Chamber Watch. Maybe they’d even “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.” But it didn’t stop there: the security firms proposed passing off the faked documents they’d created as the fabrication of Change to Win.
We wish we could credit these jokesters with some originality—especially given the fees they were planning to charge—but there's actually nothing new here. These dirty tricks are straight out of the playbook of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s notorious 1960s program of psychological warfare that, among other things, planted false reports and forged letters to destroy reputations.
Lately, COINTELPRO tactics have been making a comeback on the right, inspiring a whole new generation of shady ideologues and their patrons in the right-wing media and in Congress. But as Chambergate highlights, it isn’t just “gross and offensive” kids who are taking up old right-wing traditions. It’s actually a very big business.
According to a security expert quoted in a recent New York Times article, “the ‘competitive intelligence’ industry had 9,700 companies offering these services, with an annual market of more than $2 billion.” What that industry does is (in the words of one firm) to “discredit, confuse, shame, combat, infiltrate, fracture” opponents, whether those opponents are rival businesses or, as in this case, groups standing up for democracy, free speech, and government transparency.
Why now? Dirty tricks aren’t new, so why have they only now hit the corporate mainstream? And why might the most cashed-up big-business lobby in the world, with a daily budget nearing $400,000, be interested in these kinds of tactics, when they can just buy much of the media, not to mention a good chunk of Congress?
Desperation pushed the Egyptian government to resort to a battery of increasingly nasty techniques. They didn’t work, of course, and just a few days ago the Egyptian people won their chance to achieve true democracy.
Can it be done here too? With Chambergate serving to highlight the crass, anti-democratic, criminal, and increasingly desperate quality of our current version of corporate rule—and with the Department of Justice showing no signs of investigating—perhaps the Facebook generation in the U.S. can learn a thing or two from their brave counterparts in the Middle East.
Tom Donohue, the head of the Chamber, need not really fear. There are parts of the Gulf Coast that are nearly (though not quite) as lovely as Sharm al-Sheikh, where a certain billionaire ex-president is currently cooling his heels.
A shorter version of this piece appeared at The Guardian.