Representative Johnson refuses to sweep Team Themis under the rug

During an Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia, 4th District) pressed the Dept. of Defense (DOD) for an update on his request to review contracts signed with Team Themis. After having his questions deflected and earning a non-committal agreement to hand over the contracts, Rep. Johnson remarked that he isn’t going to let the situation be swept under the rug.

Collectively, Team Themis consists of HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies. Along with lobbyist law firm Hunton & Williams, the three are tied to a plot to help the U.S Chamber of Commerce target political critics. This is in addition to a plan to target supporters of WikiLeaks, including private citizens and journalists. The WikiLeaks plot was exposed here on The Tech Herald [link], and the ChamberLeaks plot was exposed by Think Progress [link].

Last week, Rep. Johnson sent a letter to the DOD, as well as the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), asking that any information regarding contracts signed with Team Themis be returned to his office within 10 business days.

Rep. Johnson is seeking, “in their entirety”, all past and present contracts held by Team Themis, in addition to a written explanation of what safeguards are in place to restrain federal contractors from using technologies for official use against American citizens. Moreover, he asked for a written explanation of who owns and controls the tools developed by contractors for the government.

This last request is important when you consider that the persona management software developed for the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), also known as MetalGear, isn’t owned by the government, it’s owned by developer Ntrepid [link]. If contractors can sell to anyone with enough money, then critics say the chance for their technologies to be abused will skyrocket.

Rep. Johnson is looking to determine, given the public exposure of previous plans, if Team Themis “violated the law and/or their federal contracts by conspiring to use technologies developed for U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism purposes against American citizens and organizations on behalf of private actors.”

However, his mission is an uphill battle. During Wednesday's subcommittee hearing, his questions to the DOD's Teri Takai (CIO) and Elizabeth McGrath (deputy CMO) were deflected and he was given no solid information.

When asked about the proposals by Team Themis to turn counter terrorism and intelligence techniques in the private sector against critics of Bank of America or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Takai said she was “not familiar with that specific proposal,” noting that the DOD would be happy to gather the information and get back to Rep. Johnson with it.

After that, Rep. Johnson referenced his previous request for the information, which was given to General Keith Alexander and Dr. James Miller, Jr. He asked if Takai knew what happened with regard to that previous request, whether it was being complied with, or if any attempts had been made by the DOD to comply with it.

 

Takai said she did not have that information, and, instead of supplying an answer that was incorrect, she said she would have her office look into things and make sure that “we get back to you...”.

Johnson pressed further, questioning Takai about technologies developed by HBGary Federal, targeting the rootkit software it is known for, and asking if it was the kind of capability provided to the DOD. Again, Takai said she was not familiar with “that company” and she would have her staff get the information ahead of getting back to Rep. Johnson.

The non-committal responses contunied when Takai was asked if a contractor would be violating the provisions of their contract for using technologies developed for the government against private citizens.

Specifically, she wouldn’t comment on any HBGary federal provisions or other contractors in general, opting instead to again get back to Johnson with those answers. It’s an interesting circumstance considering Takai's role within the DOD. While she might not know of every contract, she would have certainly heard about Team Themis and seen some of the press coverage surrounding it.

Clearly bothered by the lack of answers, Rep. Johnson remarked that the contracts and Team Themis’ actions are a very important issue, “that I’m not planning on sweeping under the rug.”

For her part, McGrath said she would help Takai get the information to Rep. Johnson and saw no issues with providing the contracts for review. The game of wait and see will continue, it seems.

We’ll keep watching and report on any new developments as and when they happen.

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