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HP in for hard time at hearing

With elections coming up, congressional subcommittee is likely to make an example of HP for spying.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read
For companies accused of wrongdoing, Capitol Hill often is little more than a marble-columned woodshed. At Thursday's congressional hearing into the spying campaign launched by Hewlett-Packard, those involved are sure to take some licks.

The hearing before an oversight and investigations subcommittee has as its focus the kind of easily understood issues that Congress likes to fix in its sights, such as spy rings, stolen phone records and surveillance photos.

HP has acknowledged accessing the personal phone records of two employees, members of the company's board and nine journalists, including three from CNET News.com, as it attempted to plug boardroom leaks to the news media.

To flush out the source of the leaks, HP now acknowledges that its investigators went to extremes, tricking phone companies into divulging private records, a legally questionable practice known as "pretexting." The investigators tailed at least one journalist and director, tried to trace e-mails, and masqueraded as a disgruntled employee in an effort to extract information from a reporter.

Trying to explain the boardroom intrigue could make for a very interesting day in Washington.

"HP tried to distance themselves by hiring an information technology expert," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican member of the oversight and investigations panel, a subset of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "They still have culpability. A lot of times these companies try to insulate themselves by hiring investigators and tell them, 'I just want the information.' That doesn't remove them from responsibility."

For the past eight months, the committee has heard from investigators who rely on pretexting to obtain and then sell private records. But many believe Congress knows too little about the consumers of such information, says security consultant Rob Douglas, a man who has testified before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee several times.

"The committee knows how the information is stolen," Douglas said. "What is of interest to me is what happens when the white hot focus is placed on the people who put the money in the pipeline to the information thieves."

Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, said he was disappointed by the actions of HP executives and wondered how leaders of "one of the largest technology companies in the world" could approve of a spying campaign.

"Hopefully the (hearing) will be a deterrent to other companies," Whitfield said. "Evidently, there is a lot of corporate spying going on (beyond HP)."

Certainly, Thursday's testimony is likely to produce interesting moments. This could be the only time that the public gets to hear Patricia Dunn, the former HP board chairman who resigned her position last week at the request of the board, explain under oath her involvement in HP's investigation.

But far more crucial to HP's future is how CEO Mark Hurd will handle questions about how he encouraged the investigation into media leaks but failed to read a report that outlined much of the methods used by investigators.

Will Congress believe Hurd, who has a reputation for attention to detail, when he tells them that the report slipped by him?

Copies of both Hurd's and Dunn's testimony were released Wednesday. Hurd said in the written testimony that he believes HP's probe into leaks went wrong when investigators grew overly zealous.

"It's an age-old story," Hurd said. "The ends came to justify the means. The investigation team became so focused on finding the source of the leaks that they lost sight of the values of the company."

In her testimony, Dunn tried to shift the focus to the dangers posed to HP by leaked information. She also downplayed her role in overseeing the leak hunt.

Rep. Bart Stupak said last week that even if the leak did harm the company, someone should have at least asked about the rights of the journalists and their families. According to documents seen by CNET News.com, two HP employees did raise concerns about the legality of HP investigator's tactics.

"What about a free press?" said Stupak, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat. "To me it looks like HP tried to intimidate the media."

Others scheduled to testify include former HP senior counsel Kevin Hunsaker, who resigned last week, and more than a dozen investigators involved in the leak hunt. HP General Counsel Ann Baskins had been expected to testify, but Thursday morning it was announced that she had resigned from the company and would not appear at the hearing.

The full list of those testifying: In panel 1, Ron DeLia, Security Outsourcing Solutions; Anthony Gentilucci, HP's Global Security Investigations; Cassandra Selvage, Eye in the Sky Investigations. In panel 2, Dunn; Hunsaker; Larry Sonsini, of law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Fred Adler, HP's IT Security Investigations; Joe Depante, Action Research Group; Valerie Preston, In Search Of; Bryan Wagner, of Littleton, Colo.; Charles Kelly, of Villa Rica, Ga.; Darren Brost, of Austin, Texas. Panel 3, Hurd.

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.