FBI said to gather data with hackers' assistance

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WASHINGTON -- An informant working for the FBI coordinated a 2012 campaign of hundreds of cyberattacks on foreign websites, including some operated by the governments of Iran, Syria, Brazil and Pakistan, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the attacks.

Exploiting a vulnerability in a popular Web hosting software, the informant directed at least one hacker to extract vast amounts of data -- from bank records to login information -- from the government servers of a number of countries and upload it to a server monitored by the FBI, according to court statements.

The details of the 2012 episode have, until now, been kept largely a secret in closed sessions of a New York City federal court and heavily redacted documents. While the documents do not indicate whether the FBI directly ordered the attacks, they suggest that the government may have used hackers to gather intelligence overseas, even as investigators were trying to dismantle hacking groups such as Anonymous and send computer activists away for lengthy prison terms.

The attacks were coordinated by Hector Xavier Monsegur, who used the Internet alias "Sabu" and become a prominent hacker within Anonymous for a string of attacks on high-profile targets including PayPal and MasterCard. By early 2012, Mr. Monsegur of New York City had been arrested by the FBI and already spent months working to help the bureau identify other members of Anonymous, according to previously disclosed court papers.

One of them was Jeremy Hammond, then 27, who, like Mr. Monsegur, had joined a splinter hacking group from Anonymous called Antisec. The two men had worked together in December 2011 to sabotage the computer servers of Stratfor Global Intelligence, a private intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

Shortly after the Stratfor incident, Mr. Monsegur, 30, began supplying Hammond with lists of foreign websites that might be vulnerable for sabotage, according to Hammond, in an interview, and chat logs between the two men. The New York Times petitioned the court last year to have those documents unredacted, and they were submitted to the court last week with some of the redactions removed.

"After Stratfor, it was pretty much out of control in terms of targets we had access to," Hammond said during an interview this month at a Kentucky federal prison, where he is serving a 10-year term after pleading guilty to the Stratfor operation and other computer attacks inside the United States. He has not, however, been charged with any crimes in connections with the hacks against foreign countries.

Hammond would not disclose the specific foreign government websites that he said Mr. Monsegur asked him to attack, one of the terms of a protective order imposed by the judge. The names of the targeted nations are also redacted from court documents.

But according to an uncensored version of a court statement by Hammond, leaked online the day of his sentencing in November, the target list was extensive and included more than 2,000 Internet domains. The document said Mr. Monsegur directed Hammond to hack government websites in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil and other government sites such as the Polish Embassy in Britain and the Ministry of Electricity in Iraq.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment, as did lawyers for Mr. Monsegur and Hammond.

The sentencing statement also said Mr. Monsegur directed other hackers to give him extensive amounts of data from Syrian government websites, including banks and ministries of the government of President Bashar Assad. "The FBI took advantage of hackers who wanted to help support the Syrian people against the Assad regime, who instead unwittingly provided the U.S. government access to Syrian systems," the statement said.

One expert said the court documents in the Hammond case are striking because they offer the most evidence to date that the FBI might have been using hackers to feed information to other U.S. intelligence agencies. "It's not only hypocritical but troubling if indeed the FBI is loaning its sting operations out to other three-letter agencies," said McGill University professor Gabriella Coleman, author of a forthcoming book about Anonymous.

Federal investigators arrested Mr. Monsegur in mid-2011, and his cooperation with the FBI against Anonymous members appears to have begun soon after. In a closed hearing in August 2011, a federal prosecutor told a judge that Mr. Monsegur had been "cooperating with the government proactively" and had "literally worked around the clock with federal agents" to provide information about other hackers -- whom he described as "targets of national and international interests."

"During this time the defendant has been closely monitored by the government," said prosecutor James Pastore, according to a hearing transcript. "We have installed software on a computer that tracks his online activity. There is also video surveillance in the defendant's residence."

Mr. Monsegur's sentencing hearing has been repeatedly delayed, leading to speculation that he is still working as a government informant. His current location is unknown.


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