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Spy Bloggers Not ‘Friending’ U.S. Targets, Centcom Says

by Jeff Stein

The U.S. Central Command says its new “Persona” social media "infiltration" software is designed to cozy up to extremist bloggers overseas, not law-abiding Americans chatting on Facebook or similar sites.

Earlier this month, the Web buzzed with a report that the software was designed to “manage ‘fake people’ on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues,” implying that the Defense Department was targeting critics of the war in Afghanistan and other conflicts.

Further compounding a sinister view of the software was the discovery of e-mails from the head of a company implicated in “dirty tricks” against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and a pro-labor organization, which discussed how such technology could be used.

"There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas...” wrote Aaron Barr, the chief executive officer of HBGary Federal, a Colorado Springs company whose hacked e-mails revealed plans to attack critics of Bank of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Barr resigned Feb. 28 “to allow the company to move on after an embarrassing data breach,” according to the technology Web site ThreatPost.

Centom's June 22, 2010, contract, offered through the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, specified that “Individual applications will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries…while hiding the existence of the operation…and provid(ing) excellent cover and powerful deniability.”

“Individuals can perform static impersonations, which allow them to look like the same person over time,” the contract added. It “also allows organizations that frequent same site/service often to easily switch IP addresses to look like ordinary users as opposed to one organization.”

The fake Internet personas, the contract specified, “must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms.”

Centcom spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks acknowledged in an interview last week that the Air Force had a contract for the Persona Management Software, but denied it would be deployed against domestic online protesters.

“The contract, and the Persona management technology itself, supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language Web sites to enable CENTCOM to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the U.S.,” Speaks told SpyTalk. “The contract would more accurately be described as supporting U.S. Central Command, rather than the Air Force -- the Wing here at MacDill provides contracting support for us -- efforts.”

Speaks said the software would "absolutely" not be used against law-abiding Americans.

Former CIA director and retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden called the technology cutting-edge but “developmental.”

“Operationally developmental, technologically developmental and legally developmental,” he told Washington Times reporter Shawn Waterman.

But in testimony last June, then-Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus suggested the use of such technology was well underway.

“Operation Earnest Voice (OEV) is the critical program of record that resources our efforts to synchronize our Information Operations activities, to counter extremist ideology and propaganda, and to ensure that credible voices in the region are heard,” Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“OEV provides Centcom with direct communication capabilities to reach regional audiences through traditional media as well as via Web sites and regional public affairs blogging,” Petraeus said.

The FBI has also used fictitious identities for years to infiltrate jihadist Web sites.

Sometimes touted as "America’s first online operative in the War on Terror," the FBI's Shannen L. Rossmiller, a former Montana municipal judge, is said to have "created 30 fictitious male Islamist undercover identities...for purposes of communicating and tracking the enemy [in] Arabic language Internet forums."

"Since 9/11, Judge Rossmiller has delivered more than 200 cases of actionable intelligence and stings -- including two of the largest convictions in the War on Terror," her Web site claims.

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