How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

One of the many pressing stories that remains to be told from the Snowden archive is how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction. It’s time to tell a chunk of that story, complete with the relevant documents.

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four  classified  GCHQ  documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance.

Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.”

By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses.

But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.

To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.

Here is one illustrative list of tactics from the latest GCHQ document we’re publishing today:

Other tactics aimed at individuals are listed here, under the revealing title “discredit a target”:

Then there are the tactics used to destroy companies the agency targets:

GCHQ describes the purpose of JTRIG in starkly clear terms: “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).”

Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.

The title page of one of these documents reflects the agency’s own awareness that it is “pushing the boundaries” by using “cyber offensive” techniques against people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security threats, and indeed, centrally involves law enforcement agents who investigate ordinary crimes:

No matter your views on Anonymous, “hacktivists” or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption.

There is a strong argument to make, as Jay Leiderman demonstrated in the Guardian in the context of the Paypal 14 hacktivist persecution, that the “denial of service” tactics used by hacktivists result in (at most) trivial damage (far less than the cyber-warfare tactics favored by the US and UK) and are far more akin to the type of political protest protected by the First Amendment.

The broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.

As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anything terrorist or violent in their actions.”

Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, [co-author of “Nudge”], a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was recently named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).

But these GCHQ documents are the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is the use of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds. Today’s newly published document touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption”:

Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”:

The documents lay out theories of how humans interact with one another, particularly online, and then attempt to identify ways to influence the outcomes – or “game” it:

We submitted numerous questions to GCHQ, including: (1) Does GCHQ in fact engage in “false flag operations” where material is posted to the Internet and falsely attributed to someone else?; (2) Does GCHQ engage in efforts to influence or manipulate political discourse online?; and (3) Does GCHQ’s mandate include targeting common criminals (such as boiler room operators), or only foreign threats?

As usual, they ignored those questions and opted instead to send their vague and nonresponsive boilerplate: “It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”

These agencies’ refusal to “comment on intelligence matters” – meaning: talk at all about anything and everything they do – is precisely why whistleblowing is so urgent, the journalism that supports it so clearly in the public interest, and the increasingly unhinged attacks by these agencies so easy to understand. Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.

Documents referenced in this article:

41 thoughts on “How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

    1. I’ve no doubt that Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden are telling the truth, and I have seen evidence of this kind of infiltration online, and the discrediting techniques have been used against several bloggers, as well as organisations, including myself. For me, the discrediting took the form of a highly personal smear and rumour-mongering campaign, involving some pretty outrageous claims.

      It’s amazing how quickly people forgot what happened to Glenn Greenwald, too. I think he is very brave and principled, as is Snowden. There’s the little matter of jackbooted officals marching on the Guardian office in London in 2013 and destroying the Snowden hard drives, they also arrested Greenwald’s partner at the airport on suspicion of “terrorism” to intimidate Greenwald, confiscating his laptop, phone, games and so on. This is the UK, a supposedly 1st world liberal democracy, not Stalinist Russia.

      Glad to hear you’re doing okay, and lecturing is a fab line of work, especially when it’s in a subject you love 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve partly personally experienced this when a facebook group was set up dealing with a certain aspect of welfare reform just after the coalition came to power. I can’t go into too much detail for obvious reasons.

        I was doing a lot of research at the time, trawling through pages of DWP DM guidance/publications and other things, to obtain accurate information to help people. Every time I posted anything, within an hour, a certain person in this group posted at least 10 or more useless posts so that the helpful info I had posted was obscured. It happened so many times that it couldn’t have been coincidence. I looked into the background of this person, and from what I could gather this person was in employment, a professional, with nothing to do with claiming benefits; it seemed strange. At one point this person tried to discredit a prominent political blogger on the site, but I kindly posted that this political blogger was genuine and was a professional writer.

        Another poster on there sent me a friend request; I didn’t normally take friend requests from people that I didn’t know, but I reckoned that because this person was a regular poster on issues it would be ok. This person started messaging me, telling me to be careful of certain members on the group; apparently they were infiltrators and only out to dismantle the group. This person directed me to an article about how a certain person involved with supporting a family gaining justice over a matter had been targeted just like the above article explains. The outcome was horrific to that activist. I was again warned to be very careful. At that point I actually felt quite scared, so I decided to remove myself from the group and to stop posting.

        Within a week of doing so, the person that had given me all the warnings became a moderator for that group: I was absolutely flabbergasted to say the least, but there were further sinister things to happen. There was a very important welfare event that members of the group were going to; unfortunately they didn’t arrive. No one was badly hurt but I truly believe that the person I first spoke of caused the incident. I was deeply shocked. It can’t have been a coincidence.

        It’s one of the reasons why I stopped going on facebook. There were a lot of weird things happening like that. I just decided to do what I could in my own locality, advising people where I could on housing and welfare matters. I didn’t use fb to keep in touch with friends or family in any case, just to find info from the various groups.

        What it does prove is that the genuine activists are very brave indeed to stick their necks out; GCHQ can do a lot of damage to an innocent individual. Edward Snowden revealed that via the internet they can plant material in your email and on your computer to make it look as if you’re a terrorist or a child abuser for example. They can also plant false messages on your phone as well as false phone logs. It made me start to wonder just how many court cases there are where evidence has been falsified like this just to get certain people out of the way. This article shows how further dirty tactics are used to destroy a person’s life, doing unimaginable damage. I wonder how many suicides have occurred due to it?

        I really don’t recognise this world any more.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am sorry to hear about your terrible experiences. I recognise and have also seen some of the tactics you’ve outlined here, which are horrific, have very real consequences on people’s lives. No, I don’t recognise this country any more. This is no longer a liberal democracy: it is far more akin to a totalitarian regime.

        In some cases where accounts have been set up with the clear role of spying on key activists, and discrediting them, it’s been difficult to work out if they are just obsessives with a personal issue and a severe personality disorder, or state plants. I found individuals who i do not know or interact with following mine and one other account – another activist and friend. This stranger was a woman who lives in London, she had no FB friends and followed no-one else. Another “stranger” account simply posted about me, with the sole purpose of discrediting me. She quickly became friends with many of my facebook friends, but not me. She privately messaged friends of mine on FB, again to discredit me. My friends sent me screenshots of her horrible posts about me. But when it happens LOTS, you can generally deduce that the targeting is in fact political rather than simply personal.

        I’ve seen aggressive bullying individuals take over welfare groups, organise attacks on key activists. Some of these shared malicious posts about me, claiming I am working for the Labour Party as a paid PR, that I work for British Intelligence as a “snout” to discredit the Left, that I am on a “retainer for the nuclear industry” amongst other bizarre claims. All of which doesn’t hang together coherently. But the fact that there is a clear anti-labour agenda gave them away. More personal posts from the same individuals claim I am a bully and a martyr, that they have phoned the police because of myalleged actions, amongst other things, implying I fake my disability, and that I have many fake profiles on facebook myself. This is a psychologcal process called projecton – the target is accused of doing what the perpetrator is doing. The chilling part is these state thugs do profile people and use what they find to engage in psychological warfare and to intimidate you until you become silent.

        Won’t ever stop me.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Couldn’t reply again to you for some reason.

    The things you spoke of in relation to yourself is exactly what happened to the other activist.

    I just wanted to thank you because you’re very brave to have continued despite all of the things that you face. I’m so ill now that I can barely get through each day, and I wish that I could do more, but I have to think about my wider family in all of this, because we went through a horrific period as a family that has had lasting and continuing severe consequences, so I felt that I couldn’t subject them to any more trouble by becoming a target myself in this way. That said, things are going to get so bad now that we’ll all lose everything anyway. The old saying that those without hope are the most dangerous may hold true.

    I’m just glad that there are people out there who will stand up for what is right. I try to help in my own way, but many people are very scared to challenge authority. A mum of an adult with severe learning difficulties for example, wouldn’t challenge the local authority regarding the ‘non-dependents’ rent payment that she shouldn’t be paying. He is severely disabled with learning difficulties and she’s a full time carer with middle-rate care, so she shouldn’t be paying any rent; even her housing association told her so. It took me 2 years to persuade her to sign the letter of her appeal, but unfortunately the local authority replied and said that she wasn’t eligible, which was completely wrong. I got a disability organisation involved but when it came to it, she wouldn’t move forward. Although bright, she’s under-educated and doesn’t understand everything; she felt that she would get into trouble, that the local authority would make trouble for her if she continued in the fight.

    The point I’m making is how people have been affected by a sense of fear, so they don’t act in their best interests. In a way, I’m acting out of fear, though I’ve personally put myself on the line challenging baliffs for people and other things. I just despair though because for all the campaigning, this infestation of the grass-roots organisations is ruining any chance of us all coming together as one, which is what we desperately need to do now more than ever. It’s sad that we find it hard to trust due to all of this, but I suppose that this is the very point of what these infiltrators try to do.

    Well, you have my email address now, and I just want to say that if there is something that I can do to help in any way then I will try. I can’t do much; I can’t even travel more than half an hour before becoming very ill and I’m generally in my pjs. I don’t have much of a social group nowadays either, but most of those I do know feel the same as we do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on wgrovedotnet and commented:
    This is now “probably” a reality as there are now several political activists of non Conservative ideology who are being cyber attacked, threatened and having their sites hacked. If you know of anyone being targeted let others know. If you know how to trace back these people, tell others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is going to sound a bit naive but Veterans today is a really big site as is Russia Insider, Russia Today, Council for Foreign Relations, Global CCS Institute, Newsthump, Project Syndicate, Politico, Global Citizen, Moscow Times Global research, and many more. All of them have guest authours and some may be very interested in the stories mentioned here, but also other blogs. Certainly Politics and Insights has turned out some brilliant work as have many other good bloggers and they could reach audiences that would not normally be aware of these blogs. Then make people aware that your blogs are getting out and to the site address that has published. If you get published embed the link and you would all be protected by the big sites and people would have them in their news feed just as I do. If you have any further problems Kitty Sue, why not send them something “cognitive dissonance” to Veterans today explaining the situation. They have been hacked and had to sort it out so will likely be amenable, especially as they are devoted to looking after war vets and have a socialist leaning. They might actually be very pleased to have you guest with some of your reports – a way of letting Americans know that the same thing is happening over hear. I’d love to see you on any of these sites as a guest blogger, just a thought.


  4. Targeting an individual and trying to break down their mental resolve and integrity is a very old game, made even easier by digital tracking and access into people’s lives. All I will say here is that I personally understand…. Please don’t let your self become isolated in anyway and screenshot any ‘unusual’ activity. Strength to you to keep writing. Sending you a big hug.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Kitty,

    Just in case you hadn’t seen this article: ““Networked deterrence” requires the US intelligence community to develop “deep understanding and specific knowledge about the particular networks involved and their patterns of linkages, including types and strengths of bonds,” as well as using cognitive and behavioural science to help predict patterns. His paper went on to essentially set out a theoretical architecture for modelling data obtained from surveillance and social media mining on potential “adversaries” and “counterparties.” ref:

    Liked by 1 person

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