The Hack That Wasn’t: Sec. Clinton and Operation AdWords

When news outlets recently quoted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming that State Department operatives hacked the websites of al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen, we didn’t know whether to be proud of the feds’ leet skills or appalled at the administration’s hypocrisy regarding hacking.

Turns out the hacks who wrote the stories got it wrong – though Danger Room’s David Axe, who was on the scene, got the story right the first go-around. And now, with the hyped headlines dialed back, we’re just disappointed.

Turns out the team simply purchased anti-al-Qaida ads on the websites to counter anti-American ads the sites were running.

Call it Operation AdWords, if you like.

Clinton was delivering a keynote speech at the Special Operations Command gala dinner in Tampa, Florida, when, as the Associated Press reported, she described how State Department specialists attacked sites tied to al-Qaida, which were trying to recruit new members by “bragging about killing Americans.”

“Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people,” Clinton said, according to the AP. “We can tell our efforts are starting to have an impact because extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the internet.”

The AP rushed out a story with the headline “Hillary Clinton: U.S. Hacked Yemen al-Qaida Sites,” only to revise the story with a more demure headline later, reading “Clinton: US wars with al-Qaida on the web.”

The latter story included new quotes from a State Department official clarifying that the specialist didn’t actually hack the sites. Instead, he said, they challenged extremists in open forums.

“We parody and poke holes in what they do,” the unnamed official said. He also explained that after al-Qaida supporters launched a new series of banner ads focusing on fighting Americans that depicted U.S.-flag-draped coffins, the State Department team countered the ads with their own.

They essentially launched a counterterrorism-by-AdWords campaign by purchasing anti-al-Qaida ads on the same site, featuring the coffins of Yemeni civilians killed in terrorist attacks.

Smart diplomacy in the internet era, but at best it’s a clever hack, not clever hacking.

UPDATE 2:40pm: A State Department spokeswoman has muddied the waters even further by now indicating that the ads weren’t even ads. She refers to them as “posts” and says they were free. No government funds were paid out to the web site in question. Below is an exchange the State Dept. spokeswoman had with reporters:

MS. NULAND: … So the specific case that the Secretary mentioned was a case where there was a nasty piece of al-Qaida propaganda, and we did our own counter-spoof of that as an effort to try to get our own message across. Whenever we do this, we make clear that we identify ourselves clearly as part of the State Department’s digital outreach team, so it’s always clear who the sponsors of the alternative posts are.

And let me also just make clear that we don’t hack. We don’t engage in covert activities. All of the work is attributed, as I said. In general, we usually do it on free sites and we do it in a free manner. Obviously, if we use YouTube, everybody pays on YouTube, so we do that, too.

QUESTION: So this was not hacking as such?

MS. NULAND: Correct. It was not. It was an alternative.

QUESTION: And can you describe a little bit more, I mean, what – in the timeframe, when this was happening? Was it only Yemen or are there other places?

MS. NULAND: No, the center operates anywhere that – in cyberspaces in particular, where we see propaganda that is put up by al-Qaida, by its affiliates. It posts on any sites where it finds this stuff. In this case, it was countering a site that was based or affiliated with Yemeni terrorists. But it does that anywhere in the world where it finds this kind of thing.

QUESTION: Can you just describe a little bit about what kind of – what your posts look like, what they said, versus what people were reading there?

MS. NULAND: My understanding of this particular post that the Secretary shouted out, the Yemeni site had put up pictures of coffins draped in American flags. We put up a counter-post of coffins draped in Yemeni flags to indicate that it is Yemenis who are dying at the hands of al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen.

QUESTION: Is that in good taste?

QUESTION: Okay. I just want to –

MS. NULAND: This is a matter of countering propaganda that is in the absolute worst taste.

QUESTION: But that’s – but my question is: Why is putting up what you described as a spoof with flags of – with Yemeni flags on top of coffins to try to make the point that it is Yemenis who are dying? You could easily look at that and think, well god, we’re – they’re just talking about killing Yemenis for example. So –

MS. NULAND: No, I appreciate your question, Arshad. The original post took pride in the killing of Americans. The point that we were trying to make in parallel was that, in fact, through this kind of activity, through this kind of propagation of violent extremism, through the kind of violent acts that groups like this are engaged in, it is actually more Yemenis who are meeting their death.

QUESTION: And do you regard it as a tasteful and proper use of U.S. Government funds to – just because somebody else puts out an image that you find offensive doesn’t necessarily mean that you should put up an image to make a point that others may find or may interpret offensively. And I just wonder if a lot of thought was given to the appropriateness and tastefulness for the U.S. Government to be putting up a photograph of coffins with Yemeni flags up.

MS. NULAND: Again Arshad, this is a site that is endeavoring to incite violence. We are simply making the point that the violence that they are inciting is ricocheting back against the local population and is not in service to a strong, stable, peaceful Yemen, but in fact is having the opposite effect.

So we are countering propaganda with a counter-narrative that we believe is closer to the truth of the situation.


QUESTION: I want to clarify: So in this instance, these – posting of these alternative ads was free and you could just post them up on the website, or was this an instance where they were paid for to be posted?

MS. NULAND: The information that I have at the moment is that particular one was one that was – that we did not have to – that was not paid for.


MS. NULAND: There are instances where we do have to pay for it.

QUESTION: Okay. And then, in those instances where you do have to pay for them, what kind of vetting goes into these websites in terms of where those funds for the ads would go?

MS. NULAND: Well again, you are talking about putting up a counter-ad in – on a paid site like YouTube. So something has been paid for by the extremists, and we are paying for the counter.

QUESTION: Okay. So you wouldn’t put it up on the extremist site, I guess is what my question is. Is there like a conscious thought process?

MS. NULAND: There is a full vetting; there is a whole team that does these things. We’re not, sort of, out there.

Photo courtesy U.S. State Dept.