When former HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr bragged to the Financial Times about having unmasked the "leaders" of the hacktivist Anonymous in February, he probably had no idea what he was about to unleash.
Increasingly concerned with the revelations regarding the federal contractor and its partner's plans to discredit and take down WikiLeaks and other groups, members of Congress grilled military and intelligence officials for details about what services the federal agencies had received, according to Wired's Threat Level blog.
The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities asked on March 16 for all contracts the Defense Department and the National Security Agency may have signed with HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies.
Dr. James Miller, Jr., deputy under secretary of defense for policy, said he would first need to check with the DoD's general counsel to "make sure that the provision of that type of information is allowed contractually."
When Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia asked whether this meant the contracts might have provisions barring Congress from seeing them, Miller said he'd just meant that it would take time to identify all the agencies with contracts with the companies in question.
The Congressional probe does not come as any surprise. Johnson and more than a dozen members of Congress urged Republican leaders in a letter on March 1 to investigate what HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico were doing for the government.
Anonymous had hacked into HBGary's network early February and posted more than 60,000 internal e-mails for public viewing. The e-mails outlined disturbing plans to launch cyber-attacks against WikiLeaks servers to obtain information about the sources, submitting fake documents to discredit the site's reliability, and using intimidation tactics against a journalist who writes for Salon for supporting the organization.
Even though Palantir and Berico distanced themselves from this particular proposal after it became public, other e-mails revealed other strong-arm tactics the company proposed for its other clients, including a plan to target the critics of the United States Chamber of Commerce.
The e-mails appear "to reveal a conspiracy to use subversive techniques to target Chamber critics," including "possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech," the lawmakers wrote in the March 1 letter.
The lawmakers said it was "deeply troubling" that "tactics developed for use against terrorists may have been unleashed against American citizens."
Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, told the congressional subcommittee he wasn't sure how many contracts the government had with the companies or the nature of them.
The headline of this post was corrected to clarify the identity of the company that is subject to a Congressional investigation.
YouTube video of the hearings: