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Trashgate moves a conspiracy too far

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Last week Ted Bridis of the Wall Street Journal broke a notably bizarre story about mysterious people attempting to bribe cleaners to give them the trash from pro-Microsoft lobbying group the Association for Competitive Technology. Today the story became even more bizarre - or possibly, slightly tragic - as the WSJ follows up with claims from a clutch of pro-MS organisations that they too have been targeted.

From Bridis' original investigation it does seem likely that some unidentified person or organisation was trying to get hold of incriminating ACT documentation, albeit somewhat inexpertly. Not exactly Watergate, you might reckon, but think back - if you're that old - the Watergate burglary was a particularly feeble and inexpert screw-up, so people do do that kind of thing.

The ACT story is fairly simple at base. A woman attempted to pay the cleaners to leave the trash in a neighbouring office, but was rebuffed. Exactly who the woman is, what the connection with the neighbouring office was, and the nature of the outfit inhabiting (apparently only barely) that office, is currently shrouded in mystery.

This of course is where we get to the Watergate bit. The office was rented by one Robert Walters, described as a sometime investigative reporter with links to a real company called Investigative Group International, Inc. Bridis says that one Grant Stockdale, once listed as an IGI spokesman, was one of several named individuals Walters arranged to have access to the office. But it's not clear to what extent Stockdale, if he exists at all, ever worked for IGI.

The last link in this strange chain is that George Vradenburg of AOL is a member of IGI's advisory board, but at the moment that looks like a link too far - AOL says he only did it for a friend, he hasn't been to any board meetings, and isn't involved in IGI's work. Kind of makes you wonder why he bothered, doesn't it? But never mind, let's get onto the bandwagon-jumping.

In today's WSJ three other pro-Microsoft outfits report mysterious happenings. Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) and the Independent Institute both had laptops stolen. In both cases, information concerning Microsoft's contributions to the groups was on a laptop, and that data was later leaked to the press. Of course, it's not unusual for laptops to be stolen, and it's pretty natural for reporters to look for Microsoft funding for pro-MS groups. Frequently Microsoft does turn out to be backing them, but it's stretching it to automatically assume that any leaks come from burglaries and stolen laptops.

More tenuous still are the claims by National Taxpayers Union head John Berthoud that the NTU has been the victim of corporate espionage. The NTU has also had Microsoft funding exposed, but the best Berthoud comes up with is that the outfit has been visited by suspicious people. We've an idea - if all of the outfits funded by Microsoft just go ahead and admit it, there'll be no reason for people to steal their laptops, right?

But really, there are two stories here. It seems likely that some form of investigation of ACT is being funded by persons unknown, and there appear to be signs pointing to some form of involvement by IGI. Opening strange offices and trying to buy trash isn't a crime (actually, in the UK the latter might be, depending), but you could say it's a little shady.

Burglary is a crime, but lots of people get burgled, and there's really no evidence to suggest the ones reported were connected to each other, or to a Watergate-style anti-MS dirty tricks squad.

That of course doesn't stop Microsoft spinmeisters leaping in. There was allegedly an attempted break-in at Microsoft's Washington office a couple of days after the cash for trash offer, and responding to Reuters queries, Microsoft spokesman Rick Miller stoked the fires in some style. "Microsoft said it had always known its competitors were engaged in a coordinated campaign to discredit the company," says Reuters. Which kind of leaves the impression that the incidents are part of a pattern of bugging, burglary and general dirty tricks funded by Sun, AOL, Oracle et al, right? Miller tells Reuters: "But this latest revelation is especially disturbing and raises serious questions about the lengths they are willing to go in order to attack us."

Like scratch the paint on your door? Wicked. Because actually, it was other offices in the building that were broken into; Microsoft's had a mark on the door which might, or might not, have indicated a break-in attempt. Friends, there's less to this story than meets the eye. ®

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