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Monday, July 22, 2013

Uncle Sam's hackers: A new theory of the death of Michael Hastings

(Yes, this is a long and discursive post. Bear with me. At the end, I'm going to introduce a new theory of the death of Michael Hastings.)
Barack Obama falsely called Ed Snowden a "hacker," even though Snowden's whistleblowing has nothing to do with hacking. If our beloved President really wants to meet a hacker, he should visit CIA headquarters. Policymic has the story:
In a detailed account on Foreign Policy, the Central intelligence Agency, in concert with the National Security Agency, has been demonstrated to conduct what is referred to as "black bag" operations, or the manual hacking of a target's computer by uploading spyware onto anything ranging from personal laptops to large-scale servers. When a specific target is out of the NSA's reach, it calls on the CIA to do, in its own parlance, a "surreptitious entry."

In such an operation, a crack CIA team breaks into the place of interest and does one of the following, depending on the situation: install spy-ware, bug phones, hack data switching centers, and copy backup files and disks. It is a procedure often used when hacking remotely is not possible.

Having already conducted over 100 such operations, it is a rate that, according to Matthew Aid, has not been seen since the Cold War. And the targets are not as narrow as one might think; in addition to foreign governments and militaries, multinational corporations and individuals with terrorist ties have been hacked as well.
Uploading spyware? Hm. I'm thinking Stuxnet and Flame. Remember those two ultra-fun pieces of malware? They may be on your computer right now. Or how about Magenta, a new-generation malware brought into this world by HBGary?

At any rate, I think the CIA's hacking capabilities go way beyond the sort of stuff indicated in the article referenced above. By the time you finish reading this post, you may agree.

In short and in sum: I think that Michael Hastings may have been killed because he had discovered a network of hackers lurking within the American intelligence community.

As noted in an earlier post, Hastings was looking into a mysterious spooked-up company called Endgame. The same company was also on the radar of Hastings' friend Barrett Brown, an expert in the realm of hacking. Brown was tossed into the pokey on charges that, to my nostrils, reek of bullshit.

Endgame is run by one Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine whose story formed the basis for the HBO series Generation Kill. My earlier piece on Endgame quoted from an excellent article by Patrick Maguire.
Brown began looking into Endgame Systems, an information security firm that seemed particularly concerned about staying in the shadows. “Please let HBGary know we don’t ever want to see our name in a press release,” one leaked e-mail read. One of its products, available for a $2.5 million annual subscription, gave customers access to “zero-day exploits”—security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies—for computer systems all over the world. Business Week published a story on Endgame in 2011, reporting that “Endgame executives will bring up maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The executives then create a list of the computers running inside the facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of attacks that could work against those particular systems.” For Brown, this raised the question of whether Endgame was selling these exploits to foreign actors and whether they would be used against computer systems in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the hammer came down.
HBGary? Oh-ho. Why was Endgame in communication with HBGary?

In case you've forgotten, HBGary is yet another mysterious cyber company. Nowadays, it's run by a "former" CIA guy.

In fact, it's fair to say that HBGary is spookier than the Winchester Mystery House. The company is now owned by ManTech, an intel-linked firm with ties to MZM. Remember MZM? It was run by Mitchell Wade, who made a plea bargain arrangement in 2006 after he was caught bribing congressman Duke Cunningham. I had Wade pegged as a spook early on.

ManTech employs Amit Yoran, the former Director of National Cyber Security (part of Homeland Security); he also ran In-Q-Tel, the CIA's investment firm. The Yoran connection should give you a pretty clear idea of just what kind of company we're dealing with.

Not long ago, HBGary was run by Aaron Barr. Remember him? He was the target of the Anonymous hackers collective.

Odd thing about Aaron: The Breitbart crowd always loved the guy. For more on the HBGary/Breitbart connection, see here.

The Breitbart bloggers also despise Barrett Brown.

The Economic Policy Journal has published an interesting piece on Hastings, Endgame, and HBGary. I want to fixate on one interesting detail in that article.

Just before he died, Hastings offered this tweet:
@ronbryn @BarrettBrownLOL working on it. there was an election, and still a few wars going on. but get ready for your mind to be blown.
— Michael Hastings (@mmhastings) January 24, 2013
The tag "ronbryn" refers to former Raw Story editor Ron Brynaert, who used to contribute the occasional friendly comment to this very blog. He was a very good journalist. Then he got involved with the Anthony Weiner story and...

Well. How to put it? He kind of went off the deep end -- as did a number of other people.

Long after the rest of the world stopped caring about Anthony Weiner and his famous peepee, a small group of right-wingers and left-wingers remained fixated on certain unsolved aspects of that scandal. We've talked about this group in previous posts. The die-hard "Weinergaters" engaged in a very weird twilight war, forever accusing each other of hacking and identity theft and impersonation and sockpuppetry and worse sins. They often claimed that the FBI was going to arrest their enemies any day now -- on God-only-knows what charge.

Ron Brynaert took part in that twilight war. He was deep into the Weinergate subculture -- and yes, I think "subculture" is the appropriate word. Brynaert seemed convinced that one could find a much more important story lurking just below the surface of the (ultimately rather silly) Weinergate scandal.

This earlier Cannonfire post tells the long, strange tale of my own unhappy interactions with Ron Brynaert. Those interactions occurred months after Weiner left office. Here are a couple of samples from that earlier piece:
But a couple of weeks ago, I had my own unsettling run-in with this Ron Brynaert character, who fancies himself to be the expert on Weinergate. He also loves to make wild, paranoid claims about everyone who ever had more than ten words to say about the matter. Brynaert has gone beyond left and right; he's off the map and zooming through the fourth dimension.
Brynaert's obvious psychological pain helped me to keep my composure. I politely told him that I couldn't really follow what he was going on about, but that he might do better if he stepped back and took some time off. The message was simple: "Time to chill, dude." Sweartagod, that was all.

That was enough.

Ron Brynaert became convinced that I was part of the Great Conspiracy Against Ron Brynaert. This, despite the fact that he originally wrote me; I had wanted nothing to do with the guy or with any of the "twilight warriors." According to Brynaert, other members of the Great Conspiracy Against Ron include the Breitbart crew, Neal Rauhauser, blogger Brad Friedman, Brett Kimberlin, maybe Glinda the Good Witch -- and, oh, hell, just everyone.
Brynaert sent me an email warning that "You're definitely going to be contacted by NYPD detectives and lawyers." Needless to say, I have not heard from anyone connected with law enforcement or the legal profession.

Naturally, I walked away from this odd email exchange convinced that Ron Brynaert was something of a...well, "kook" is such a strong word, so let's not use it. But you take my point.

And yet. And yet...

Months later, Michael Hastings had latched onto what he claimed was the big story of his career. It seems to have involved Endgame and HBGary. And who were his ultimate confidantes? Barrett Brown and Ron Brynaert.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that a heavy hitter like Hastings took Brynaert seriously.

And now I'm thinking: Maybe Brynaert was really on to something. True, the guy had acted pretty wacky during our email exchange -- but once upon a time, he had been a good writer. The Breitbarters seemed to consider him a genuine threat. Maybe he had retained enough of his old journalistic skills to dredge up something truly important.

But if so, what did he find?

At this point, I can only engage in surmise. As I've said on many previous occasions, I don't mind the occasional bit of speculation, as long as it comes clearly labeled as such. And now that I've posted that label where everyone can see it, let me jot down a few scattered thoughts -- thoughts which may congeal into a full-fledged theory:

1. I presume that Brynaert is still completely obsessed with Weinergate and all of its ramifications.

2. Although the right scoffs at my quaint belief that Weiner's Twitter and Facebook accounts really were hacked (yes, I still hold to that theory, for reasons we can get to in another post), the "twilight warriors" all lived in Hackerland. That is to say: They seemed to know a lot about the subject, and they were forever accusing each other of being "black hat" hackers. Some of you may recall that Mike Stack (one of the guys who went after Weiner) bragged that he was an expert "cyber detective" who had the ability to "find out anything about anyone." Moreover, he said that he was working with other experts -- and with unnamed tech firms.

3. The Breitbart-related bloggers who went after Weiner so zealously -- and who created a sockpuppet army to whip up hysteria all across blogland -- were also staunch defenders of Aaron Barr and HBGary. I never understood why HBGary mattered to those guys so much. They also hate-hate-hate Barrett Brown.

4. HBGary and Endgame worked together. Both firms are strongly linked to the intelligence community. These companies know a thing or two about sockpuppetry.

5. Ed Snowden has repeatedly said it is easier than you might think for lower-level NSA guys to access private emails, chats and other data -- even if the target is a politician. Russ Tice (another NSA whistleblower) has said that, back in 2004, he did that kind of cyber-spying on an up-and-comer named Barack Obama.

6. To repeat a point made in previous Cannonfire posts: If Snowden is right, the NSA now has the ability to gather blackmail information on the very congressfolk who supposedly oversee the intel community.

Hm. Yes. A theory does indeed begin to congeal.

Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?

Here are a few more clues. Then I'll spell it all out.

We know that Breitbart got the Anthony Weiner "dick photos" long before the scandal broke. We know that Breitbart's accomplices only pretended to be shocked when one of those photos showed up in Weiner's Twitterstream, which broadcast the image to the world. (And yes, Weiner did know how the system worked; he had never made such a mistake before.) And we know that, as part of the "Get Weiner" project, there was a very sophisticated deception operation directed against Tommy Christopher of Mediaite. I refer, of course, to the ultra-bizarre "Betty and Veronica" affair. That elaborate imposture is one of the main reasons why I continue to believe that Weiner really was hacked.

Now let's put it all together. Again: What I'm about to say is speculative. But what if....what if...

What if someone at the NSA got Weiner's passwords? What if this same "someone" found out about the guy's naughty online activities?

(After Tice revealed what he revealed, the notion doesn't seem as outlandish as it once might have.)

And what if that same NSA guy gave the incriminating data to Breitbart (or to folks around Breitbart) in order to set a sting into motion?

What if Barrett Brown, Ron Brynaert and Michael Hastings got wind of what really happened to Anthony Weiner? (In this context, you may want to scan the comment from Starroute here.)

Only one of those three men had credibility: Barrett Brown is in jail, and Ron Brynaert is -- well, he's Ron Brynaert. But Hastings was dangerous. He had a killer resume, he wrote well, and he looked good on teevee.

What if that same unknown NSA guy knew how easy it is to take over the controls of a modern car?

Maybe the person who got the goods on Weiner was not precisely an "NSA guy." HBGary does contract work for NSA. And HBGary keeps showing up in this story.

Am I saying that this is all about Weiner? No. If I'm right, then Weinergate was simply a proof-of-concept operation. I am suggesting that ideologues working within the intelligence community have come up with a new way to control the American government.

I am convinced that every human being -- and certainly every politician -- has a secret weakness. The intelligence community has developed new ways of discovering those secrets. Once the dirt is found, the intelligence community (in order to maintain deniability) must work through cut-outs in order to make the secrets public. That's where the right-wing's "alternative" media infrastructure comes into play.
Interesting theory Joseph, especially how you tie in Weiner-gate (which is bound to bring out some crazies in your comments section, of course).

I agree with most of it, especially given what we have learned about NSA surveillance (I suspect there is a great deal we still aren't aware of regarding their capabilities).

Whenever I see someone mention the ubiquitous, "I've got nothing to hide" (which I seem to see a lot more these days), my reaction is always....."no, you just don't think the government will care about what you are hiding". But someone, somewhere, probably will. Your insurance company, the IRS, your employer, your ex-wife, you name it. I'm certain we ALL have things we want hidden. Maybe nothing that the feds will come knocking about, but remember if the feds can see it, so can any number of technologically savvy people. Just because you're not paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
Gus, that "I've got nothing to hide" attitude always bugs the hell out of me. EVERYONE has something to hide. Including politicians. All of which means that modern surveillance technology gives the intelligence community (which has, within its folds, many factions) broad blackmail power.
Did some reading up on some aspects of this... Hastings was driving a 2013 car. Great, our new technology is being used to kill our own citizens. They can mix in more car crashes with all the "suicides."
if a car can be hacked and remotely controlled, with the addition of the new dashboard cam and the reverse camera/screen, vehicles can act as drones, not only to target passengers in the cars but also any pedestrians nearby, or passengers in other vehicles...sounds like a hollywood script...
Still waiting for a demonstration -- proof of concept -- where someone announces "I am going to remotely seize control of this vehicle and cause it to crash/burn/explode" and then does it before credible witnesses.
Great post Joseph. Ive always thought that Wiener was actually hacked and was basically trapped when it came to confirming/denying the photos. He couldnt come out and say 'no i didnt send a dick pic to THAT girl' without admitting at some point he had sent dick pic's to somebodys.
I have been sad all day, thinking about Aaron Schwartz, Edward Snowden, Barrett Brown and Michael Hastings...and I'm sure many more.
Sure, Stickler, it's not as if cars can now park themselves or as that gawdawful commercial explains...brake for itself when it deems necessary. Anyone who views that commercial with anything except horror is...well, someone like you.
1) What cameras did Michael Hastings's 2013 Mercedes C250 have fitted? My understanding from the owner's manual is that at least two are admitted to be fitted as standard.

2) If Wikileaks say Michael Hastings contacted their lawyer Jennifer Robinson shortly before he died, that doesn't make it true.

Do you know what? I don't trust Jennifer Robinson. She is a director of the Bertha Foundation, an organisation which supports the Britdoc Foundation, to the extent of having a presence on its board of directors and giving it money. Take a look at Britdoc. That group has 'worked with' Saatchi and Saatchi and Nokia, and admits to being supported by the Wellcome Trust. It absolutely stinks to high heaven.
If late model mercedes can be remote controlled via hacking, what else can be remote controlled? Perhaps boeing 777airplane instrumentation (retribution for SF's role in samesex marriage) or small planes like Wellstone's can be overridden? There is a good reason why the FAA doesn't require FAA pilot alert systems--so they can blame pilot error when a plane needs to be taken out from time to time. Also before Weinergate, what about John Edwards? or perhaps John Kerry was warned to quickly concede?

My guess is that all big dem politicians have big secrets, including Obama. Hence Obama's strange jan 1 2012 signing statement of NDAA: “"I have signed the Act chiefly because it authorizes funding for the defense of the United States ... I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists."

What say you supersleuth Joseph?
"Surveillance leads to control".
Ian Tillium's 1994 article on capitalism's technofascist revolution.
I will believe a car's computers systems can be hacked into remotely thereby allowing an off-site operator to drive a targeted car.. when an unmanned airplane takes off in the US and successfully lands in Australia.
April, 2001, really?
Just an FYI on Weiner:

Weiner acknowledges more lewd messages -- New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner acknowledged Tuesday the existence of inappropriate texts between him and a woman not his wife that occurred after his departure from Congress in 2011.
Anonymous -- as always, guys like you are anonymous.

You seem to be under the impression that I was arguing that Weiner never flirted online. Read my words again.

The present case seems to be a Facebook thing. I don't the details at this point. The only question that interests me is not "Did the chats happen?" but "How were they made public?"

In my book, spying on sin is worse than sin -- certainly when the sin is so trivial.
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