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Posted at 1:31 PM ET, 03/ 2/2011

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.

[Update: Speaks adds, "The phrase [law-abiding] suggests that we might use it against Americans who are not law-abiding. The truth is that these activities are not directed towards Americans, without qualification."]

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.

By Jeff Stein  | March 2, 2011; 1:31 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Media, Military  | Tags:  Gen. David Petraeus; Aaron Barr; HBGary Federal; Gen. Michael V. Hayden; Shannen L. Rossmiller  
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Isn't all this stuff supposed to be going through CYBERCOMM now, instead of CENTCOMM?

Additionally, Jeff, I would love to hear what guidelines they are operating under if they feel they are operating in a legal gray area.

Posted by: jhmil2 | March 2, 2011 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I beleive the question should be asked is it being used against Law breaking Americans? Since they specifically addressed it as not going after law-abiding Americans.

Posted by: dcinmd1 | March 2, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Well they'ld have to call it a spam-bot just like Google says its pagerank and news filter runs without human control. People would be upset to learn that they are paying humans to act as trolls on foreign and domestic sites.

Posted by: blasmaic | March 2, 2011 4:39 PM | Report abuse

wapo hacks keep busy finding fault in our country. complete A.......

Posted by: pofinpa | March 2, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I happen to have read three or four, Brad Thor thrillers, as of late. His fiction dovetails with the fact, the bad guys are supposed to be among us, waiting for a handler to give them instructions. Some time back the name " sleeper cells was popular" All these bad guys use two things all the time cell phones and the internet. Hope somebody is listening in. I keep a eye out a 7-11's.

Posted by: dangreen3 | March 2, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

dcmd1: Pls note update: CENTCOM'S Speaks added, "The phrase [law-abiding] suggests that we might use it against Americans who are not law-abiding. The truth is that these activities are not directed towards Americans, without qualification."

Posted by: Jeff Stein | March 2, 2011 6:57 PM | Report abuse

jhmil2: Good question. All I can say for now is that CENTCOM spokesman Wm. Speaks added that, "The phrase [law-abiding] suggests that we might use it against Americans who are not law-abiding. The truth is that these activities are not directed towards Americans, without qualification."

Posted by: Jeff Stein | March 2, 2011 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Even if these capabilities are not being directed against Americans, what mechanisms are in place to ensure that they won't be in the future? For example, do the FISA courts, weak as they area, have any oversight? What about the House and Senate Intelligence Committees?

Posted by: apn3206 | March 2, 2011 7:21 PM | Report abuse

We have mechanisms in place to prevent anyone from using this on citizens, there's not just laws & oversight, there's also intent. Just because HBGary and their ilk wanted to use this sort of tech inside the private sector illegally doesn't mean for a second that anyone in the government would fund their efforts. In fact a lot of HBGary's bad ideas along those lines show just how deluded they are.

When the military wants to convince the American people of something, it openly talks about it. The struggle is getting the clown parade in Congress to care more about wars we are fighting than lining their own pockets. There's also another struggle with finding honest and decent press in an era when we're paying the price of tossing out the fairness doctrine.

Posted by: Nymous | March 2, 2011 9:37 PM | Report abuse

So persona management software just creates sock puppet accounts? If only there was a way to create these accounts without spending millions of $$ on "persona management software".

Posted by: DarthVader | March 2, 2011 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Right Jeff. Just like the NSA was Staying within it's legal mandate to monitor Overseas Communications when it built those secret rooms in telco central offices around the country and patching ALL the Internet Traffic into them as detailed by Mark Klein INSTEAD of at the actual overseas fiber terminal stations like Los Osos, Ca. Of course, it took Anonymous to responding to the blatant statements of Mr. Barr by shutting his websites down, hacking and releasing ALL his companies internal e-mails and even taking over his cell phone. Oh, well. When you bait the Bear in his den...

What IS true is that this so-called Themis Group WAS using the SAME software to spy on and discredit POLITICAL opponents under the urging of the Hunton & Williams Law firm for Bank of America and the US CofC, sprcifically recommended TO BofA by the Holder Justice Dept. There's more info on that here:

from one of the targets of this disinformatsya campaign.

As for the Pentagon, if they'll use intelligence techniques to bamboozle Congress, why should we trust them to tell US the truth?

Posted by: Ishmael932 | March 3, 2011 2:41 AM | Report abuse

I think that Jeff Stein, who claims he is a journalist, should act like one. (PBS appearances notwithstanding.)

Rather than interviewing a DoD spokesmodel about the subject, perhaps Stein should actually engage in some in-depth investigation...which he has not done.

This "blog-o-fart" posted here by Stein should've only been the beginning of an article--not the article itself. Take what the DoD says, and then look in-depth as to if they are telling the truth.

No such thing happened here. This isn't Washington-Post-quality material. Maybe Woodward or Bernstein should have a "Come to Jesus" meeting with Stein about what constitutes good journalism....

Any fifth grader (properly trained) could have written this article that Stein posted here. With the same egregious lack of context, or reality check that is needed when writing about "intelligence matters."

Two thumbs down, way down.

Too many journalists working today in the alleged "Pentagonal People sphere" or "Intelligence beat" do not do their homework, and have become--to the detriment of the body politic--mere court-like stenographers. No real (just an appearance of a shallow, veneer) interpretation of what is going on, just regurgitate what they are spoon fed by their contacts.

"Spoon Feed me!" "Spoon Feed me!"

Don't have more than one contact to actually write a credible story, Jeff Stein?

Come on.

Posted by: zippyomicron | March 3, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need to be closed down and many Generals fired.

Posted by: Maddogg | March 3, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

The nice Mr. Jeff Stein wants us all to believe the nice spies at the spying agencies haven't been using this exact tactic of multiple fake personalities in comment sections on blogs they do not like.

The nice Mr. Jeff Stein is a tool: I've noticed that exact thing and commented on it for years.

No, they wouldn't lie to us!

Hahahaha, whatever Stein.


Posted by: farang | March 3, 2011 12:05 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: fregameeate | March 3, 2011 9:28 PM | Report abuse

Have to wonder exactly where they tested the software, and exactly how much de-bugging went into the process don't you?

Its not like people on social media sites don't lie, misrepresent, or shade the truth a bit, especially in the realm that this "program" is designed to penetrate.

One could just as easily look on ebay, or in art auctions, or in julia childs first cookbook for places in which transactions and instructions could be taking place, I mean seriously. It could just as easily be an outing to a sports event.

To become so enamored by what the technology might do, and to ignore the glaring simplicity of the tactics that have been used in the past, the fact that the individuals being sought have been forced to move out of direct communications (if the reports on TV are true), and that the leadership and decision makers that administer these efforts on our behalf, seem a bit distracted and programs like this are bottlenecked as the next "cure all", simply7 because someone has a product to sell, or so and so needs to have something by the Tuesday morning meeting.

I guess that is the culture of corporatised and privatised anti-terrorism though, just another industry that costs a lot, has to keep spending shadowed, and keeps evry body in a big SUV, a gas expense account, and the mortgage paid, right?
On the positive side, it keeps the rate of unemployment falling - or at least stable.

Posted by: cooney_colin | March 5, 2011 1:16 AM | Report abuse

Only a few posters have commeneted about what appears to be trolls on the alternate media sites. With this story, I have a better idea of where these trolls come from. They are a combination of insulters and then the types that love your argument so much, or lastly, the person who advocates blowing up something.

Posted by: Aarky | March 7, 2011 6:48 PM | Report abuse

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