Wordgate: Is Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams Running a Cyber-Dirty-Tricks Campaign?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
July 21 2000 9:30 PM

Wordgate: Is Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams Running a Cyber-Dirty-Tricks Campaign?

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

Minnesota's Senate race is spawning the juiciest cyberpolitics scandal yet. Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Mike Ciresi this week accused Republican Sen. Rod Grams' campaign of a dirty-tricks operation to send anti-Ciresi e-mails to DFL activists, an apparent attempt by the GOP incumbent to interfere in the DFL primary campaign. The missives, which were ostensibly written by a DFL loyalist, appear to have been composed by Grams' staffers, a deception caught by Ciresi's campaign through detective work using Microsoft Word.

The brouhaha began in May, when "Katie Stevens" circulated the first of four e-mails about Ciresi to at least 100 DFL elected officials and party activists. Ciresi is one of four major DFL candidates in the September primary, and perhaps the strongest. (The DFL is Minnesota's version of the Democratic Party.) Stevens' richly sourced dispatches tarred Ciresi—a prominent trial lawyer who beat cigarette makers out of $7.1 billion in Minnesota's 1998 tobacco trial—as a corporate sellout. Referencing specific cases and articles, Stevens charged that Ciresi's law firm—of which he is chairman—lobbied to reduce liability for oil company polluters, represented corporations against injured individuals, and jettisoned its labor-law practice. In e-mails sent just before the party's June endorsing convention—where liberal activists predominate—she highlighted Ciresi's critical comments about Sen. Paul Wellstone, an icon of DFL liberals. The e-mails, in short, sounded much like opposition research gathered by a rival campaign.

When a DFL official inquired via e-mail about her identity, Stevens remained opaque. "My compatriots and I are progressives who would despair to see the DFL's banner in the hands of a two-face like Ciresi," she explained to the official, adding, "Please don't try to find out who we are." Ciresi staffers worried about Stevens' voluminous attacks but assumed they were what they seemed to be: another broadside in the long intraparty war between DFL's Wellstonian liberals and Ciresi's moderate wing. Some staffers suspected that a rival DFL campaign might be using the e-mails to spread the results of its opposition research.

When the e-mails continued after the convention, Ciresi's campaign contacted Stevens by e-mail and scheduled a meeting. Stevens failed to show up. A few days later, a staffer began poking around the Microsoft Word attachments on Stevens' e-mails. (The Word documents simply duplicated each e-mail's text.) He clicked File, Properties, Summary, which, unbeknownst to most users, reveals the document's author. Up popped the name "Terry COOPER." Bells started ringing at the Ciresi campaign: Cooper is Grams' opposition research director. The names of Christine Gunhus, Grams' political director, and Dave Chura, Grams' coalitions director, appeared in other documents. Their names showed up in either the "Author" box or in the "Last saved by" field under the Statistics tab. (One document was last saved by "Kinko's Customer.")

Did the Grams staffers masquerade as a lefty Democrat, falsely marketing their opposition research to tilt the DFL's nomination fight? Grams certainly has motive. Ciresi has the biggest DFL war chest—he pocketed as much as $55 million personally from the tobacco trial—and if he wins the DFL primary, he'll be an enormous threat to Grams—eloquent, rich, and moderate enough to steal plenty of Republican votes. Grams, an oddly enervating ex-TV-anchor elected in the 1994 GOP landslide, is widely considered this cycle's most vulnerable senator.

Grams' campaign has done little to allay suspicions. It issued a flimsy, weaselly denial once the Minneapolis Star-Tribune broke the story. "We didn't put this together and send it out of the Grams campaign office," campaign spokesman Kurt Zellers told the newspaper. Cooper, it should be noted, does not work in the Grams campaign office. He is based in Virginia. The next day, the campaign went no comment. Cooper, Gunhus, and Chura haven't surfaced. Grams has never pledged a full investigation.

He'll get one anyway. Ciresi filed a complaint under the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act, a criminal statute, and Assistant Anoka County Attorney Brian Lindberg, an experienced election-law prosecutor, will conduct the probe. Although Ciresi acknowledges that the e-mails were factually accurate (if misleading), the Grams campaign could still be guilty of disseminating false information if Katie Stevens proves to be fictitious. Stevens hasn't come forward in the week since the scandal broke. Even if Stevens exists, Grams' campaign could be in trouble, since Minnesota law forbids campaigns from preparing election material without a candidate identifier, no matter who distributes it. (Lindberg says he has never heard of this law being applied to e-mails.) The crimes are misdemeanors, but Grams could lose his seat if he is found personally liable, a scenario no one suggests or expects.

If Lindberg pins the tail on anyone in the Grams campaign, the case may become the highest-level cyberpolitics scandal in U.S. history, according to George Washington University professor Michael Cornfield, who studies online electioneering.

"This falls into the category of disinformation—it isn't cybersquatting, parody, or error," says Cornfield, who runs the democracyonline.org site. "In the [1999] Philadelphia mayor's race, a campaign manager was fired for setting up a dummy home page for a rival candidate. The Philadelphia situation was resolved instantly; the larger point is you can't hide anything on the Internet if you're in the business of communicating with the public. You will get caught."

In an era where virus authors can be tracked to the Philippines, Cornfield believes Grams should take the lead by investigating himself and severely punish his staffers if they're guilty. "Everything is tracked and logged on the Internet," says Cornfield. "Minnesota is an extremely ethics-conscious and tech-heavy state. Grams will be unable to dispel the suspicion unless he finds exculpatory evidence or fires the people involved."

It is possible that Grams' troops themselves are victims of subterfuge, perhaps a feint by one of Ciresi's primary competitors. A sophisticated user could have altered Word to finger Cooper and the other Grams staffers. Word establishes an author identity when you install the software. The program automatically places your name in a document when you create it, but you can easily change that by typing over the information in the Statistics tab. The "Last saved by" identifier can't be altered within the document, but a moderately savvy scammer could have installed Word as "Terry COOPER," edited the Ciresi documents, and faked political paternity.

Off the record, however, even Republicans admit that the Grams campaign is probably guilty of the scam, not the victim of a clever hacker. Lindberg should be able to resolve the ambiguity. David Erickson, a DFLer who runs MN-Politics.com, says he has found a Globally Unique Identifier (GUID) in one of the Word files. GUIDs, unique to each computer, got Microsoft into trouble last year when it was discovered that Windows' registration engine transmitted the 32-digit number to company servers. Word also implants the GUID in documents. Thus, records in Redmond may be able to identify the owner of the Microsoft Word program that created the documents. Microsoft's PR firm could not produce a spokesperson who could say if the information exists, or whether such information would be released to prosecutor Lindberg.

Lindberg's investigators should be able to determine who Stevens is. She used a fairly straightforward Hotmail address (kylomb@hotmail.com). Hotmail's terms of service clearly allow prosecutors to examine registration and use records. Even if she faked her Hotmail registration information, Hotmail's server records should be able to determine her Internet service provider, and her Internet service provider's records should be able to finger her identity.

Lindberg won't predict when his investigation will wrap, because he has never conducted a cybercampaign probe before. (The case has moved to the top of his pile, though; Minnesota's populist campaign law prescribes criminal penalties for prosecutors who don't investigate promptly.) Ciresi, bunched with his three top rivals in pre-primary polls, has dominated headlines because of the scandal, though perhaps not with the message he would have chosen. Grams—whose favorability rating is less than 40 percent and whose senatorial profile is so low one-third of Minnesotans still have no opinion of him—risks being indelibly stained.

David Brauer is a Minnesota-based free-lancer whose work appears in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, and the American Lawyer.