Lords of Dharamraja: A New Vector for Disinformation and a Call for an Organizational Response

By Fletcher Schoen, Research Assistant
Edited by Dr. Christopher Lamb, Distinguished Research Fellow

In January, 2012, a ‘hacktivist’ group called “The Lords of Dharamraja” released information obtained by penetrating the secure servers at the Indian embassy in Paris.[1] One document was a memo detailing a purported deal between the Indian government and the international telecom firms Apple, Nokia, and Research in Motion. The companies allegedly provided Indian intelligence agencies with a technical backdoor into their mobile devices like the ubiquitous Blackberry or iPhone in return for greater access to the Indian telecom market.  Indian Military Intelligence utilized this backdoor to read the emails of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), a bipartisan panel that reports to Congress on the security and economic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.[2]  The USCC has not denied that it was the victim of a cyber attack and it has asked the FBI, the lead agency on cybercrime inside the United States, to begin an investigation. The investigation however is not concentrating on Indian intelligence, despite the memo.  The origins of the attack are not what they seem.

At first glance, the memo seems genuine. It has an official layout, some redacted text, and is consistent with Indian bureaucratic language.[3] But according to the Times of India, which interviewed a number of Indian military and intelligence sources, the memo is replete with inaccuracies.  The most glaring is the wrong agency logo at the top of the page.[4]  The letterhead and signature block were lifted from authentic documents but the signatories do not work for the organization that produced the document.  Other sources familiar with Indian Intelligence said text is never redacted in internal documents.[5]  Finally, the Directorate General of Military Intelligence (Foreign Division) deals with defense attachés and foreign military cooperation not signals intelligence.[6] The Times of India’s conclusions are backed by investigations undertaken by The Guardian and Reuters.  All three investigative reports agree the memo is most certainly a forgery.

Recent reports about the ongoing FBI investigation further undermine the memo’s authenticity. American sources say the e-mails were stolen as part of the first stages of a “blended attack” on the USCC rather than alleged Indian signals interception of USCC communications.[7]  Blended attacks involve finding email servers that regularly communicate with the main target but have relatively lax cyber security.  Hacking them can eventually provide access to the harder to infiltrate main networks. Most of the stolen emails came not from the more secure USCC servers but from the personal email account of a former USCC Chairman, William Reinsch, who now heads the pro-trade organization, The National Foreign Trade Commission.  American officials with knowledge of the investigation point out that it is much more likely that hackers associated with Chinese rather than Indian interests would know who Reinsch was and would bother taking the time to track him down.  In any case, the intrusion into Reinsch’s email suggests some third party unconnected with Indian Intelligence committed this cyber attack against the USCC.

Hackers have always taken great care to hide the electronic and national origins of their attacks but this forged memo demonstrates that defensive misdirects can become offensive information warfare tools. Cyber attacks and the subsequent revealing of stolen data can act as a means for disseminating disinformation in a manner that compounds the damage done by the release of sensitive information. The size of a massive electronic data theft would make it difficult to sort out what was real and what wasn’t and the sensitivity of the real documents would make commenting on the fakes a delicate undertaking for the U.S. government. The effects of this kind of attack can be extrapolated from this recent incident. The forged Indian memo was just one document and yet it managed to morph a relatively routine cyber attack into an uncomfortable supposition of espionage between allies that will only be sorted out through careful investigation. All the while the real perpetrators can continue their work.

Dealing with this kind of sophisticated attack in the future will require a coherent interagency approach that combines cyber security with counter-disinformation and strategic communications.  Unfortunately, the response to this cyber attack and forgery has been anything but coherent.  The lack of comment by the FBI about its ongoing investigation is understandable only because revealing details of the attack gives free damage assessment to its adversaries. However the lack of any government response to the forgery is troubling. An information vacuum allows the forgery to have its intended effect. Forgeries like this one are relatively easy to expose and may seem relatively unimportant, but if ignored, over time such disinformation will erode and seriously damage U.S. political relationships.

Sources inside the U.S. government have told me that the United States has a counter-disinformation capability, but I have yet to see an official denunciation of this forgery and it is unclear if the alleged capability is working with the FBI on countering the new cyber vector for disinformation.  This should change, and quickly.  After all, this is not the first time the United States has confronted state-sponsored disinformation on a large scale.  During the last decade of the Cold War the State Department led an interagency working group that became adept at dealing with the Soviet Union’s frequent use of forged U.S. government documents.  Despite spending nearly $300 million on their disinformation apparatus, Soviet forgeries never withstood official American scrutiny and denunciation. Eventually an exasperated Soviet leadership foreswore the use of disinformation.

As China increases its cyber attacks on the United States it would be safe to assume the use of disinformation to support these attacks will increase as well.  China’s political system gives it monolithic control over information management but the United States and its open society retain the supreme advantage in information warfare.  Open expression of ideas will always triumph over manufactured information—eventually.  In the meantime, we need to energize the organizations that can convert this advantage into a concrete response.

Fletcher Schoen is a research assistant with INSS and co-author of “Deception, Disinformation and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group made a Major Difference,” a forthcoming study on the Active Measures Working Group to be published by NDU Press. 


[1] Yatish Yadev, “Hackers Invade Server of Indian Embassy in Paris,”  December 17, 2011. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/servers-of-indian-embassy-in-paris-hacked/1/164664.html

[2] The USCC also provides “recommendations, where appropriate, to Congress for legislative and administrative action.” http://www.uscc.gov/

[3] Frank Jack Daniel “Fake Memo but real code?  Indian-U.S. Hacking Mystery Deepens.” January 12, 2012.

[4] Charles Arthur and Agencies, “US Accuses China of Hacking emails,” The Guardian, January 20, 2012.

[5] Mark Hosenball, “US probes Commission Hack ,” Reuters, January 10, 2012.

[6] Josey Joseph, “Fake Letter Blows lid off Hacker’s Espionage Claim,” The Times of India, January 12, 2012.

[7] Charles Arthur and Agencies, “US Accuses China of Hacking emails”  The Guardian, January 20, 2012.

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Filed under Asia, Cyber, India, Intelligence, Regional Studies, Strategic Studies

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