by Tom Burghardt
We live in an age where insider deals, conflicts of interest, revolving doors between “regulators” and the “regulated” (lubricated with oceans of cash) accompanies the generalized looting of social wealth by deviant capitalist elites.
That such behavior by our corporate masters no longer raise an eyebrow, let alone elicit action by authorities charged with stopping criminal miscreants destroying other people’s lives, is an unmistakable sign that the much-vaunted “free market” system, staring into an abyss of its own creation, has entered a terminal phase.
It now appears that insiders at Standard and Poor’s or the Treasury Department, take your pick, may have leaked information to privileged clients on the recent U.S. credit downgrade, with confirmation coming from a surprising source.
Last week, AntiSec cyber-guerrillas (a loose alliance amongst individuals affiliated with LulzSec and Anonymous) released a 1GB cache of emails filched from security contractor Vanguard Defense Industries (VDI).
Previously Anonymous and LulzSec have wrapped their keyboards around defense grifters Booz Allen Hamilton, ManTech International, NATO, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, InfraGard (a “public-private” security alliance amongst corporate heavy-hitters and the Bureau), the CIA, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (a so-called “fusion center” staffed by cops, federal agents, private contractors and the U.S. military), the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART), Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, PBS, Fox News, and repressive governments such as Egypt, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.
Their latest campaign targeted VDI, a Texas-based firm, which specializes in the “development and deployment” of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, killer drones). VDI “draws on specialized experience of senior aerospace engineers, former military special operations officers, military instructor pilots as well as retired Senior Executive Service Federal Agents,” claiming their “background and operational knowledge has afforded us the unique vision to provide a platform that will extend the security and response capabilities of any organization,” according to a blurb on their web site.
While VDI touts their ability to offer “support” to the “military, local, state and federal law enforcement as well as the private sector,” the firm also offers “a full scope of consulting services independent of our aerial technology.”
That “unique vision” however, didn’t prevent AntiSec from spiriting away thousands of emails from VDI’s Senior Vice President Richard T. Garcia, a former FBI Assistant Director in Los Angeles who recently left a well-paid position as Global Security Manager for the environment-killing Shell Oil Corporation (can you say Niger Delta?) for “greener” pastures.
A press statement from AntiSec announced that the leak “contains internal meeting notes and contracts, schematics, non-disclosure agreements, personal information about other VDI employees, and several dozen ‘counter-terrorism’ documents classified as ‘law enforcement sensitive’ and ‘for official use only’.”
“Vanguard Defense Industries,” AntiSec writes, “manufactures unmanned ‘ShadowHawk’ drones which cost $640,000 and are equipped with grenade launchers and shotguns. ShadowHawks are currently in use by law enforcement, military, and private corporations deploying them in the US, the Horn of Africa, Panama, Columbia [sic], and US-Mexico border patrol operations. These emails contain contracts, schematics, non-disclosure agreements, and more. Additionally we found evidence of a Merrill Lynch wealth management advisor giving private advance notice to Garcia about upcoming S&P US credit rating downgrades.”
In an April 25, 2011 email from Garcia to Gloria Newport, Cindy Cook, a Wealth Management Advisor with Bank of America-owned Merrill Lynch “advised that Standard and Poors, may lower the credit rating of the US Government which could cause a run on US Banks that will affect the Federal Reserve. They give the US Govt. 2 years to correct the current situation, which they believe both the Republican and Democratic solutions do not do enough and both parties may make this a political situation for the 2012 Presidential election and never come up with a answer to correct the situation within the two years set by Standard and Poors. She did not see any real Cyber issue that could change the situation.”
Investigative journalist Steve Ragan, writing at The Tech Herald (the publication that broke the story on Anonymous’s HBGary hack) informs us that “the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating whether there was any sort of insider trading done by S&P employees before the downgrade was official. The story hinged on comments made to the paper by sources close to the investigation itself.”
“On the day S&P cut the U.S.’s credit rating” Ragan writes, “Wall Street was flooded with downgrade rumors. These rumors started earlier in the day while trading was active. It turned out they were true.”
According to Bloomberg News the SEC “is scrutinizing the method Standard & Poor’s used to cut the U.S.’s credit rating and whether the firm properly protected the confidential decision, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.”
Reporter Joshua Gallu wrote August 14 that SEC staff are “looking into whether certain market participants learned of the downgrade before its announcement.”
Downplaying speculation that S&P employees may have breached SEC rules by leaking sensitive information to privileged clients, The New York Times, as is their wont, claimed “it is arguable whether S.&P.’s announcement on Aug. 5 of the rating change was all that confidential, given the speculation about it.”
“Assuming information about the downgrade was confidential,” the Times pontificates, “it must also be material, which means a reasonable investor would consider it important. This seems to be an easy element to establish because the wild gyrations in the market on the first trading day after the downgrade shows how investors viewed it.”
But Cook’s email to Garcia didn’t arrive in his in-box “on the first trading day after the downgrade” but nearly four months earlier, long before July’s political shenanigans over raising the federal debt ceiling, the ostensible reason why S&P downgraded America’s credit worthiness.
Maxine Waters (D-CA), wrote to SEC chairwoman, cover-up specialist Mary Schapiro, demanding that the commission “conduct an investigation into whether S.&P. selectively disclosed information related to the U.S. government debt downgrade to any financial institutions, and whether any institutions that had that nonpublic information traded on that information prior to the official announcement.”
It appears that Cook’s email to Garcia would confirm that S&P insiders did just that, providing information to Merrill Lynch and one can assume other financial firms.
Throwing cold water on charges that the rating’s agency acted improperly, the Times argues that “even if if the S.E.C. finds that the information was improperly disclosed, proving insider trading will be difficult.”
Why might that be?
According to the Times, “while S.&P. and other credit rating agencies are required to adopt policies to prevent such disclosure, it is questionable whether just leaking information violates any federal regulations, even if it breaches a corporate confidentiality policy.”
Lest readers believe however, that the SEC will mount a comprehensive investigation of leaks by S&P insiders, they would do well to read Matt Taibbi’s latest piece for Rolling Stone.
According to congressional testimony by an SEC whistleblower, which sparked an investigation by that agency’s Inspector General, the commission’s enforcement division, under orders from higher-ups, who went on to secure well-paid positions with the firms they were charged to regulate, shredded a mountain of incriminating evidence detailing wrongdoing by some of the world’s top financial firms.
How many files, called “Matters Under Investigation” or MUI were destroyed? According to whistleblower Darcy Flynn, the SEC’s enforcement division “disappeared” some 18,000 files, including those of convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff, accused swindler, suspected CIA banker and drug money launderer R. Allen Stanford, as well as accusations that top-tier Wall Street investment banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase had engaged in insider trading.
Taibbi writes that “under a deal the SEC worked out with the National Archives and Records Administration, all of the agency’s records–‘including case files relating to preliminary investigations’–are supposed to be maintained for at least 25 years. But the SEC, using history-altering practices that for once actually deserve the overused and usually hysterical term ‘Orwellian,’ devised an elaborate and possibly illegal system under which staffers were directed to dispose of the documents from any preliminary inquiry that did not receive approval from senior staff to become a full-blown, formal investigation.”
It’s a nice deal if you can get it, which of course firms like Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, AIG and Lehman Brothers (before their 2008 collapse) managed to get in spades.
“We’ll never know,” Taibbi avers, “what the impact of those destroyed cases might have been; we’ll never know if those cases were closed for good reasons or bad. We’ll never know exactly who got away with what, because federal regulators have weighted down a huge sack of Wall Street’s dirty laundry and dumped it in a lake, never to be seen again.”
In this light, AntiSec’s hack of VDI is instructive. If for nothing else, it demonstrates that well-connected insiders reap billions from the collapse of the global economy, divvying-up the spoils amongst privileged friends and clients, including those inhabiting the nethermost regions of the secret state.
Cyberwar: Bringing it All Back Home, and Waging War on the Global Economy
As global elites scramble to seize as much advantage as possible over their rivals as the economy craters, intelligence methods deployed as part of imperialism’s endless “War on Terror” have migrated with a vengeance onto Wall Street.
Revelations by Anonymous earlier this year that a passel of Pentagon-linked security contractors had joined forces to run covert ops on whistleblowers and journalists set alarm bells ringing.
February’s release of some 75,000 emails filched from servers controlled by security grifters HBGary Federal and HBGary, uncovered a sordid scheme by the Bank of American and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to target supporters of WikiLeaks and left-wing corporate critics.
That hack, in addition to exposing BofA’s illicit “Team Themis” gambit, a co-production of white shoe law firm Hunton & Williams, HBGary Federal, HBGary, Palantir Technologies (a recipient of CIA slush funds from its venture capital arm In-Q-Tel) and Berico Technologies, also revealed that the Pentagon and giant defense contractors such as General Dynamics had teamed up with HBGary to develop undetectable malware or “rootkits” for America’s emerging Cyberwar-Intelligence Complex, according to a series of documents published by the secrecy-shredding web site Public Intelligence.
Additional files revealed that HBGary and ManTech International had partnered-up with the National Security State for what they described as “Internet Based Reconnaissance Operations” that use “non-attributable internet access” methodologies (approved hacking by the secret state) for “operating system and network application identification,” “identification of possible perimeter defense” for “intelligence gap fill” and “counterintelligence research.” In other words, broad based internet spying on an array of “adversaries” (e.g., political dissidents, antiwar activists, anticorporate campaigners and other enemies of the state).
Further research by Project PM’s OpMetalGear revealed that defense giant Northrop Grumman and other firms such as HBGary Federal, TASC and ManTech International were engaged in a bidding war to spear the Pentagon’s Romas/COIN program (since renamed Odyssey).
That program, researcher Barrett Brown writes, is “a secretive and immensely sophisticated campaign of mass surveillance and data mining against the Arab world, allowing the intelligence community to monitor the habits, conversations, and activity of millions of individuals at once.” (For additional background see: “Security Grifters Partner-Up on Sinister Cyber-Surveillance Project,” Antifascist Calling, July 3, 2011)
We can assume that once intelligence sources and methods intended to target external enemies are turned inward and attack the American people, financial insiders too, would find such tools an exemplary means to crush their competitors and adversaries, the global working class.
Bankrupting and Criminalizing the State
“Economic warfare,” economist and researcher Michel Chossudovsky, writing in The Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century, “consists in destabilizing countries and impoverishing their respective populations.”
Chossudovsky argues that “the manipulation of market forces through the imposition of strong ‘economic medicine’ under the helm of the IMF supports U.S.-NATO strategic and geopolitical objectives.”
Similarly,” Chossudovsky observes, “the speculative attacks waged by powerful banking conglomerates in the currency, commodity and stock markets are acts of financial warfare,” one in which the “financing of an oversized U.S. war economy triggers imbalances in the U.S. monetary system, destabilizes the U.S. fiscal structure and creates imbalances in the allocation of human and material resources.”
This tragedy is playing out today. The on-going market meltdown in the wake of the U.S. credit downgrade and the crisis in the Eurozone has affected tens of millions of workers who saw their retirement funds gobbled up by speculators. Additionally, states and municipalities “carrying debt tied to federal creditworthiness,” The Tech Herald avers, “each took a hit.”
Hard hit cities and states struggling under an enormous debt burden due to falling revenues, are held hostage by the credit rating agencies. As economist Michael Hudson points out in Global Research credit rating agencies such as Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch “are playing the political role of ‘enforcer’ as the gatekeepers to credit, to put pressure on Iceland, Greece and even the United States to pursue creditor-oriented policies that lead inevitably to financial crises.”
Hudson writes that these “crises in turn force debtor governments to sell off their assets under distress conditions. In pursuing this guard-dog service to the world’s bankers, the ratings agencies are escalating a political strategy they have long been refined over a generation in the corrupt arena of local U.S. politics.”
As the World Socialist Web Site observes, “the crisis of the world’s stock exchanges and financial markets is increasingly spiraling out of control. Governments are being driven by developments which they are unable to influence.”
Socialist critic Peter Schwarz notes that “the panic on the stock markets shows that traders are expecting a deep recession, already heralded by stagnating growth and rising unemployment rates,” and that “corporations will respond with new waves of layoffs, governments with further budget cuts.”
In a climate stoked by fear, war and those all-purpose boogeymen, “debt,” “terror” and now, “cyberwar,” the cost of bailing-out a looted capitalist economy are shouldered by the working class. These pressures in turn increase the downward spiral as employment, wages, manufacturing and consumer spending go into a tail-spin, a self-destructive feed-back loop that further exacerbates levels of unemployment, home foreclosures and generalized misery. The tentacles of this manufactured “debt crisis” reach everywhere–from the smallest town to the largest city.
Hudson avers that “localities are pressured when their rising debt levels lead to a financial stringency. Banks pull back their credit lines, and urge cities and states to pay down their debts by selling off their most viable public enterprises.”
And waiting in the wings are a new class of corporate vultures and rentier vampires who swoop down to reap the rewards gleaned by gobbling-up (looting) public assets at fire sale prices.
The rating agencies who profit at both ends of any transaction according to Hudson, “offer opinions” that have become a “big business” for the agencies. “So it is understandable why their business model opposes policies–and political candidates–that support the idea of basing public financing on taxation rather than by borrowing. This self-interest colors their ‘opinions’.”
Accordingly, “to acquiescence in such economically destructive financial behavior is the opposite of fiscal responsibility. Cutting federal taxes and Social Security payments to obtain a more positive S&P ‘opinion,” Hudson writes, “would give banks an ability to ‘pull the plug’ and force privatization and anti-labor austerity plans by refraining from rolling over the U.S. debt–and cutting taxes Tea-Party style rather than funding spending by taxation on a pay-as-you-go-basis.”
In this light, one can certainly understand why a Merrill Lynch “wealth management advisor” would offer her “knowledgeable judgement” (clubby insider info) to a dodgy security outfit such as VDI.
Working classes across Europe have not “gone gently into the night” of impoverishment; the great fear here in the heimat amongst corporatists and militarists alike, is that once working people realize the game is up they just might impose some “shock therapy” of their own!
As Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald (a target of “Team Themis’s” dirty tricks campaign) avers, speaking out about “the sprawling Surveillance State and the attempted criminalization of WikiLeaks and whistleblowing are so vital” to the defense of democracy.
“The free flow of information and communications enabled by new technologies–as protest movements in the Middle East and a wave of serious leaks over the last year have demonstrated–is a uniquely potent weapon in challenging entrenched government power and other powerful factions,” Greenwald writes.
“And that is precisely why those in power–those devoted to preservation of the prevailing social order–are so increasingly fixated on seizing control of it and snuffing out its potential for subverting that order: they are well aware of, and are petrified by, its power, and want to ensure that the ability to dictate how it is used, and toward what ends, remains exclusively in their hands.”
This is why actions by disparate groups such as AntiSec, Anonymous and WikiLeaks are informational beacons in an otherwise homogenized media landscape, one characterized by celebrity gossip, sex scandals and “crimes” carried out by poor and marginalized populations–never the filthy rich or the warmongers who murder millions as they launch resource wars that steal other people’s social property.
While firms such as VDI, Boeing, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin hawk drone technologies that transform human beings into red mist, and do so as their “patriotic” (and highly-profitable) duty as the Pentagon wholeheartedly embraces hypermodern forms of robotized mass murder, the bill for American hubris, long past due, is coming faster than most people think.
Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to publishing in Covert Action Quarterly and Global Research, an independent research and media group of writers, scholars, journalists and activists based in Montreal, he is a Contributing Editor with Cyrano’s Journal Today. His articles can be read on Dissident Voice, The Intelligence Daily, Pacific Free Press, Uncommon Thought Journal, and the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. He is the editor of Police State America: U.S. Military “Civil Disturbance” Planning, distributed by AK Press and has contributed to the new book from Global Research, The Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century.