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Is the Lulzsec coup a ‘Donnie Brasco’ PsyOp tactic?

Image: TriStar Pictures

Spoilers ahead

For those of you who have not seen the 1997 Mike Newell film based on the memoirs of FBI agent Joseph Pistone, who worked undercover in the New York mafia for six years, I should warn you that I am about to summarize one of the final scenes – for reasons that will hopefully make sense later.

Still with me? Good.

After six years with the mob, Pistone – alias ‘Donnie Brasco’ – is abruptly pulled from the operation, having provided enough evidence to the Bureau to begin convicting and dismantling the complex and notoriously secretive network of organized criminals.

Two federal agents walk brashly into a pool hall, the local mafia den, and hand the gang members a few glossy photos of ‘Donnie’ in police uniform, proving that he was an inside man all along, and that the FBI had effectively declared check mate.

The hoods, having been so assured of their system, immediately fall into a state of denial. Their eternal paranoia begins folding in on itself and, convinced of Pistone’s lengthy ruse, they assert that it must be a “bluff”.

So mistrustful are the gang members, and being so used to conning others, that they are willing to believe the law is attempting to divide their loyalty by making them question the loyalty of one of their own. Except, of course this isn’t a trick, and their game is in fact up.

Back in the real world

With the reported downfall of several influential members of the Lulzsec hacktivist group and the apparent ‘inside job’ of its own de facto leader Hector Xavier Monsegur (alias ‘Sabu’), it is only natural that theories instantly followed the news release.

Various comments and Twitter posts argued a number of possibilities – among them, claims that the real Sabu had not been arrested, but was still posting defiantly; that the authorities were faking Monsegur’s cooperation to divide the underground community; that the whole scenario was faked to push for wider governmental control of the internet and censorship laws; and that the FBI had threatened to remove Monsegur from his children unless he helped them. The latter is most likely to be true, considering the maximum sentence for the charges against his involvement with the group exceeds 124 years.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, the fact that the claim has gone public may be all that is needed in dismantling the remaining stability of the group because, like the portrayal of the ‘Donnie Brasco’ mafia, an inability to differentiate fact from fabrication is never a safe ground on which to conduct operations.

Likewise, a group seeded from mistrust and shrouded in anonymity, even amongst its own ‘family’, is almost destined to collapse in on itself over time.

Did the FBI win a campaign of intrusion or are they currently undertaking an elaborate PsyOp initiative? It makes no difference. The damage is done.

‘Sabu’ tweets about informants and feds less than 24 hours before the news broke


What now?

Lulzsec has since released a PasteBin statement acknowledging an acceptance of the story, along with deep sadness that they have been betrayed by their leader.

Undoubtedly, those associated – even loosely – with the group will remain a threat to cyber security, but as long as the authorities continue to publicize their achievements and play the case as a campaign of information above all else, the numbers of those involved looks likely to dwindle.

It’s no coincidence that the tools now being used to instigate cyber crime, activism and extremism are the same being used by governments to counter them. Online social media has become the knife of the modern era – the weapon more likely to wound those who use it than those it is employed to harm.

Other likely outcomes of the arrests are a fracturing of Lulzsec and Anonymous into new, more contained hacktivist groups, and at least for the immediate future, a temporary rise in retaliatory attacks. Panda Labs, the antivirus software company, has already had its website defaced over accusations that it colluded with the Bureau to trap hackers.

Of course, as those who pay attention to history and cinema will know, one loose brick can be all it takes to topple an empire. Just ask the New York mafia.

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