Engaged in a high-profile political fight during the midterm elections with President Barack Obama and other Democratic adversaries, the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce seemed to have little time for the attacks coming its way from a scrappy union-backed nonprofit group called U.S. Chamber Watch.
But a cache of thousands of leaked e-mails and documents made public by a group of hackers suggests that the Chamber’s allies apparently saw Chamber Watch as something more than a mere nuisance. “All of US Chamber Watch’s tactics have had varying degrees of success and have hindered the CoC’s efforts, but their messaging campaigns continue to be the most effective,” read one document. “To degrade [Chamber Watch’s] messaging capabilities and credibility would represent a huge win for the CoC and should be a focus,” concluded the document.
That and other documents and e-mails seem to show that over the past few months, the Chamber’s law firm, Hunton & Williams, was working with a task force of three cyberintelligence firms that called itself Team Themis on a multimillion-dollar plan to discredit critics of the Big Business group.
Chamber officials have disavowed all knowledge of the Themis plan, describing it as “abhorrent.” Hunton & Williams has not commented on the controversy. But for liberal opponents of the Chamber and its pro-business agenda, the aggressive push-back described in the documents served both as confirmation of the hardball tactics employed by conservatives and as a backhanded validation of the kind of guerrilla strategy they hope to employ to undercut the Chamber and other big-spending, corporate-funded groups in the next election cycle.
To counteract the influx of corporate money, liberals envision a more robust and sustained campaign using tactics similar to — but more aggressive than — those deployed by Chamber Watch, including public pressure, private investigations of donors and complaints to law enforcement alleging violations of tax and campaign finance laws.
“It’s the only alternative to getting clobbered, demolished by Citizens United,” said Leo Hindery, a New York venture capitalist and major Democratic donor, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporate-funded groups like the Chamber, as well as unions, to air more pointed election ads.
Chamber Watch and a forthcoming project being launched by the same team called CorporateDisclosure.org, which will focus on corporate money in politics, can expect a substantial cash infusion shortly, said Hindery, who has contributed at least $2.9 million to primarily liberal politicians and causes. Like the chamber, itself, the groups are not required to publicly reveal their donors, but Hindery said he has met with the leadership behind them and “will be there for them.” Chamber Watch, which was started last year with $200,000 in seed funding from the union coalition Change to Win, indicated on its application to the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofit status in May that it hopes to raise $1.2 million in 2011.
Chamber Watch has mostly focused on filing legal complaints against — and generating negative press for — the Chamber. But Hindery and top liberal operatives see an expanded role for such groups, including investigating whether their conservative adversaries have accepted foreign money for their election activities (which Obama and his allies alleged during the midterms without providing proof) and applying pressure on corporate directors and large institutional shareholders to withhold contributions from groups that use corporate funds to air political ads.
“The only way to beat it is through corporate responsibility, where you in effect go after the board for irresponsibly using corporate resources,” Hindery said. “I’d like the board of directors to be responsible for a claim of almost unpatriotic behavior. You may not win it, but I think the issue is to raise it,” said Hindery.
Other liberal groups also have recently launched, or are preparing, campaigns using Chamber Watch-like tactics to shame corporate funders of political activity. The nonprofit campaign finance watchdog group Common Cause this year initiated an uncharacteristically aggressive initiative that has succeeded in casting harsh scrutiny on the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers and their increasing political fundraising, which is expected to reach $88 million in 2012.
Another left-leaning watchdog group, Public Campaign (whose cooperation with Chamber Watch was highlighted in the Themis documents) intends to step up efforts to link corporate political spending to legislative action, said its president, Nick Nyhart. He called the strategy “a little bit of David versus Goliath.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) described the effort to reveal and combat the anonymous funding behind conservative groups in an interview last month with POLITICO.
“There are going to be some folks that are beginning to research who’s behind a lot of these groups and try to expose them for supporting special interests … making it clear that they did not have the public interest at heart,” Van Hollen said. “The last election, these things were just springing up like weeds everyday. Now, there’s a little bit more time to focus some sunshine on these organizations.”
In the closing weeks of the midterm campaign, Obama, Van Hollen and other Democrats pressed a line of attack reminiscent of Chamber Watch’s on campaign spending, alleging that groups that supported Republicans, such as American Crossroads and the Chamber — which had pledged to spend $75 million on its midterm campaign effort — were using anonymous corporate cash to try to drown out the voices of average voters.
While there was little evidence suggesting such rhetoric resonated with voters during the midterms, the e-mails that leaked this month — which were hacked from the network of one of the cyberintelligence firms working with Hunton & Williams — seem to prove the attacks at least struck a nerve.
The document proposing to “degrade [Chamber Watch’s] messaging capabilities and credibility” was attached to an e-mail that also included detailed attachments such as a PowerPoint presentation providing biographical information about Chamber Watch employees, their allies and families.
Also included was a six point plan to “discredit” Chamber Watch by highlighting its links to unions deemed particularly adversarial to the Chamber, as well as creating both “a false document” and “a fake insider persona” with the goal of getting Chamber Watch to publicize false material, then exposing them in an effort to “prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.”
Some of the documents contain obvious errors in the biographical sketches of Chamber foes, such as erroneously listing Nyhart’s employer as MoveOn.org, and appear to have been intended as a template to demonstrate capabilities, rather than a finished product. But the e-mails seem to show that Hunton & Williams was in contact with the Chamber about the Themis project.
On Feb. 3, for instance, an official at one of the three intelligence firms wrote his colleagues from the other firms that Hunton & Williams partner Bob Quackenboss believes “there is a high likelihood of selling the Chamber” on their plan and had offered to set up a “brief demo to the Chamber on 14 Feb (or potentially a few days later … based on confirming schedule for meeting with Chamber)” for them to outline their plans to the Chamber.
The e-mail also suggested that the team’s work had already been presented to the Chamber, boasting that a previous demonstration on “Iranian shipping … is what Bob Q said sold the Chamber in the first place.”
The e-mails and documents apparently were obtained and posted by a hacking collective calling itself Anonymous that casts itself as defending Internet freedom, partly by targeting opponents of the nonprofit group WikiLeaks’s effort to gather and release often sensitive government and corporate documents. Anonymous targeted the computers of HBGary Federal, one of the intelligence firms involved in Team Themis, after its CEO, Aaron Barr, boasted publicly of the ability to lift the veil of the hacking collective.
The Chamber issued statements disavowing all knowledge of Team Themis’s plans, as did Bank of America, which had been targeted by Anonymous and — like the Chamber — was a client of Hunton & Williams and apparently an intended beneficiary of Themis’s plans.
In a statement, the Chamber said the Themis plan “was not requested by the Chamber, it was not delivered to the Chamber, and it was never discussed with anyone at the Chamber. … No money, for any purpose, was paid to any of those three private security firms by the Chamber, or by anyone on behalf of the Chamber, including Hunton & Williams.”
The firm’s lawyers who corresponded with Team Themis didn’t respond to e-mailed questions about the firm’s involvement in the plot, nor did a firm spokeswoman.
The other two data intelligence firms involved in Team Themis — Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies — issued statements distancing themselves from HBGary Federal, and Palantir placed its employee most involved in the e-mail conversations on leave pending a review.
News of the leaks drew so much attention to Chamber Watch, which promptly dubbed the episode “Chamber Gate 2011,” that its website crashed. Christy Setzer, the group’s spokeswoman, said her initial reaction to being targeted in the Themis plans was “alarm,” though she later said she allowed herself some measure of professional satisfaction.
“Given the size of our budget and staff, we should be a gnat on the Chamber’s windshield, and they are using a hand grenade to try to squash us,” said Setzer.
Chris Frates, Ben Smith and Laura Rozen contributed to this report.