|For at least two years, the US has been conducting a secretive and immensely sophisticated campaign of mass surveillance and data mining against the Arab world, allowing the intelligence community to monitor the habits, conversations, and activity of millions of individuals at once.
And with an upgrade scheduled for later this year, the top contender to win the contract and thus take over the program is a team of about a dozen companies, which were brought together in large part by Aaron Barr — the CEO who resigned from his own firm earlier this year after he was discovered to have planned a full-scale information war against political activists at the behest of corporate clients.
Unprecedented surveillance capabilities are being produced by an industry that works in secret on applications that are nonetheless funded by the American public — and which in some cases are used against that very same public. Their products are developed on demand for an intelligence community that is not subject to Congressional oversight and which has been repeatedly shown to have misused its existing powers in ways that violate US law. And with expanded intelligence capabilities by which to monitor Arab populations in ways that would have previously been impossible, those same intelligence agencies now have improved means by which to provide information on dissidents to regional dictators viewed by the US as strategic allies.
The nature and extent of the operation, which was known as Romas/COIN (cointer-intelligence) and that is scheduled for replacement this year by a similar program known as Odyssey, may be determined in part by a close reading of hundreds of e-mails among the 70,000 that were stolen in February from the contracting firm HBGary Federal and its parent company HBGary. Other details may be gleaned by an examination of the various other firms and individuals that are discussed as being potential partners.
Although military contractor Northrop Grumman had long held the contract for Romas/COIN, such contracts are subject to regular “recompetes”. In early February 2010, HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr emailed Al Pisani, an executive at the much larger federal contractor TASC, a company that until recently had been owned by Northrop and that was now looking to compete with it for lucrative contracts:
Pisani agreed, and in conjunction with Barr and fellow TASC exec John Lovegrove, the growing party spent much of the next year working to create a partnership (TASC and HBGaryFederal’s NDA ishere) of firms capable of providing the “client” — an unspecified US agency — with capabilities that would outmatch those being provided by Northrop, SAIC, or other competitors.
In a later e-mail from Lovegrove to Barr and some of his colleagues at TASC, he announces the following:
From these and dozens of other clues and references, the following may be determined about the nature of Romas/COIN:
The firms that had been assembled by Barr and TASC never got a chance to bid on the program’s recompete. In late September, Lovegrove told Barr and others that he’d spoken to the “CO [contracting officer] for COIN”. “The current procurement approach is cancelled, she cited changed requirements. They will be coming out with some documents in a month or two, most likely an updated RFI [request for information]. There will be a procurement following soon after. We are on the list to receive all information.”
On January 18 this year, Lovegrove provided an update: “I just spoke to the group chief on the contracts side (Doug K). COIN has been replaced by a procurement called Odyssey. He says that it is in the formative stages and that something should be released this year.” Another clue is provided in the ensuing discussion when a TASC executive asks, “Does Odyssey combine the Technology and Content pieces of the work?”
The unexpected change-up didn’t faze the partnership. Later e-mails indicate a meeting between key members of the group and the contracting officer for Odyssey at a location noted as “HQ”, apparently for a briefing on requirements for the new program, on February 3, 2011. But two days after that meeting, the servers of HBGary and HBGary Federal were hacked by a small team of Anonymous operatives; 70,000 e-mails were thereafter released onto the internet. Barr resigned a few weeks later.
It is inevitable that such capabilities as form the backbone of Romas/COIN and its replacement Odyssey will be deployed against a growing segment of the world’s population. The powerful institutions that wield them will grow all the more powerful as they are provided better and better methods by which to monitor, deceive, and manipulate. The informed electorate upon which liberty depends will be increasingly misinformed. No tactical advantage conferred by the use of these programs can outweigh the damage that will be done to mankind in the process of creating them.
Revealed: US program to spy on Arab social media and mobile users
Thursday, 23 June 2011
by Barrett Brown, author, online activist and founder of Project PM