The Saga of Barrett Brown: Inside Anonymous and the War on Secrecy

Barrett Brown
Barrett Brown superimposed over Jefferson Memorial. Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Photo credit: Mark Fischer / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Theta00 / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown, the 31-year old mislabeled “spokesman” for the shadowy hacker collective known as Anonymous, faces federal charges that could put him away for over a hundred years. Did he engage in a spree of murders? Run a child-sex ring? Not quite. His crime: making leaked emails accessible to the public—documents that shine a light on the shadowy world of intelligence contracting in the post-9/11 era.

imagesA critically acclaimed author and provocative journalist, Brown cannot be too easily dismissed as some unruly malcontent typing away in the back of a gritty espresso lounge. He is eccentric. And he was clearly high on something, if only his own hubris, when he made a threatening video that put him in the feds’ crosshairs. But that’s not the real reason for the government’s overreaction. Evidence indicates it has a lot more to do with sending a message to the community he comes from, which the government sees, correctly, as a threat.

The Barrett Brown case is simply the latest in a string of prosecutions in which the government pursues anyone involved in making information “liberated” from governmental or corporate entities easily accessible to the public. Those targeted are not necessarily accused of the illegal entry itself (the “hack”) or violating contracts (as in the case of a “leak”). These are people performing a function analogous to that of a newspaper—yet they can face prison sentences longer than those prescribed for murderers, rapists, and terrorists.

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake

NSA
whistleblower Thomas Drake

The Obama administration’s assault on accountability is dual-pronged: attack the messenger (as in the case of Brown, WikiLeaks, even New York Times reporters) and attack the source (Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, etc.). In fact, seven of those sources have been indicted as traitors  under the 1917 Espionage Act during the Obama years alone—more than  double the “espionage” charges against whistleblowers by all previous  presidential administrations combined.

The Espionage Act is a draconian relic from World War I designed to prevent infiltration by foreign agents, like those of the Kaiser’s Germany. It has a sordid history as an instrument against American dissenters who leak to the media, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, but has been used sparingly hitherto—until Barack Obama’s administration.

anon-manning

The government’s position is that revealing this information to the media enables “enemies” to see it. Thus, whoever blows the whistle is “aiding the enemy.” But in these cases, the enemy is the American people.

***

Brown, in federal custody since September 2012, has been jousting with the feds for quite some time.

Round one of his travails began on March 6, 2012, when FBI agents raided his Dallas apartment, looking for evidence related to the 2011 hack of emails belonging to Stratfor—a private firm with substantial links to the American intelligence community. Brown sought refuge at his mother’s, but special agents arrived there as well, later in the evening. Although the feds found no incriminating evidence, they continued to harass Brown and his family, threatening to file obstruction of justice charges against Brown’s mother for hosting her son during the raid. This prompted Brown to record an ominous YouTube video threatening the special agent in charge of the investigation. He was arrested that evening and held for weeks without indictment, under the claim he was an imminent threat to the agent’s safety. In early October 2012, he was finally charged on a number of counts related to harassment of a federal officer.

CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou

CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou

In December of that year, while still in custody, he was indicted on an additional charge: “trafficking” in stolen material. Had he been shipping purloined goods across state lines? Hardly. His “trafficking,” according to the government, consisted of posting a link in a chat room.

On January 23 of this year came the coup de grâce. Brown was hit with a third round of federal charges—this time for allegedly concealing evidence during that initial March 2012 raid on his apartment

Officially unrelated to these charges is the real nut of the government’s dispute with Brown: his personal initiative known as ProjectPM.

Barrett’s Baby

ProjectPM is a crowd-sourced research effort with several aims. First,  to study  75,000+ emails pilfered by Anonymous from military and intelligence  contractor HBGary Federal, and its parent company HBGary. Second, to  post these raw, primary-source documents to a website where readers can  edit and contribute further information. Third, to use these documents  to map out the relationships between private contractors and the federal government that form our current national security state.

Brown’s work is a potential bonanza for journalists, as one of the few efforts to come to grips with the explosive growth of the private intelligence industry in the last decade.

From February 2011 until Barrett’s arrest in September 2012, ProjectPM had publicly identified the following revelations within the hacked emails:

–       A conspiracy by lobbying and cybersecurity firms to engage in a disinformation and sabotage campaign against critics of the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.

–       An operational mass surveillance and data-mining program targeting the Arab world.

–       An unnamed project to utilize online “Persona Management with the intent of manipulating information or perception, conducting data mining, [and] infiltrating social organizations.”

–       The employment of American PR firms to discredit and sabotage dissidents from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

***

It isn’t hard to see the parallel with the case of free-information  activist Aaron Swartz. On January 17, WhoWhatWhy wrote about the U.S.  attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, whose avid prosecution of  Swartz preceded his suicide, and focused attention on federal tactics  and objectives. At the time he took his life, Swartz was facing a  potential sentence exceeding 50 years—for attempting to release  scholarly articles to the public. We laid out a number of other  non-hacker related instances of prosecutorial overreach by Ms. Ortiz.  The article concluded that Swartz’s treatment wasn’t anomalous, but “a  symptom of the entire disease” that underlies America’s singular status  as the world’s jailer—of those who anger formidable interests, and those without friends in the right places. Brown’s case is even more  egregious. As even the government itself concedes, ProjectPM comes under the definition of the legitimate practice of journalism. Brown simply  harnessed information gathered from someone else’s “criminal” hack. Then he used it to expose the foul and potentially illegal activities of  some of the world’s leading corporations—in partnership with secretive  sectors of the government.”

Brown punctured a wall of secrecy, constructed over the past decade, that shields the state from accountability to its citizens. For that, he is threatened with a century behind bars.

His tale deserves to be told, not just because of the injustice involved. It also shows the awesome power of the Internet in adjusting the balance sheet between the big guys and the small ones. And the lengths the insiders will go to keep their advantage.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

In a YouTube “confession” on September 12, 2012, Barrett Brown begins by explaining why he is “angry at the FBI.”  A wiry redhead, Brown speaks in a sonorous baritone with a hint of Southern twang. After nervously admitting that he has a “case of the giggles” and is a recovering heroin addict, he composes himself and chronicles the story of ProjectPM and his assorted run-ins with the FBI.

Brown describes a March 2012 FBI raid on his residence in connection with alleged activities of the Internet hacker group Anonymous. With visible anger, he grouses that the criminal investigation now extends beyond him to an uninvolved member of his family.

Having received a vague warning the day prior, Brown sought haven at his  mother’s house while government agents raided his apartment. Once the  FBI realized the laptop they were seeking was not at Brown’s flat, they headed to Ms. McCutchin’s place (Brown’s parents are divorced), confronted her son, and—according to  Brown—asked if he had any laptops he “wanted to give them.” When he  responded in the negative, they left in a huff, only to return later  with another search warrant—this time confiscating the sought-after  laptop. As the investigation continued over the next few months, the  feds could find no evidence on that laptop or anywhere else that related to criminal activity. That’s when they initiated a charge of  obstruction of justice against his mother.

In his video, Brown lashed out, announcing unquestionably ominous sounding plans.

“I know what’s legal, I know what’s been done to me… And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.”

“That’s why [FBI special agent] Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say his life is over, I’m not saying I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids… How do you like them apples?”

The FBI didn’t. Later that evening, special agents, interrupting a video-chat session he was having, took Brown away in handcuffs. He was held without charge for several weeks until the Justice Department unveiled the first of three indictments against him. Thus began his ordeal, and his time in custody, now approaching half a year. In the YouTube recording, Brown does not explicitly advocate violence against FBI Agent Smith, although his menacing fury does seem at the very least cause for investigation. But for purposes of comparison, it is worth noting that not long ago a Houston man received just 42 months for threatening to blow up FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. And a Pennsylvania man was recently sentenced to just a year and a half for threatening to kill an FBI agent. Aside from “threatening a federal officer,” the most serious charges against Brown were laid down in the second indictment, handed up by a grand jury in December 2012. These charges related to the Stratfor hack.

The name Stratfor will be familiar to our readers. It has been in the news in the past. WhoWhatWhy recently produced an exclusive investigation with new revelations on General David Petraeus’s career-ending affair—based on documents obtained by the whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks from the same Stratfor email reserve to which Brown linked.

Brown was never indicted for the infiltration, per se. Instead, he was charged with “trafficking” in stolen material and “access device fraud”—as mentioned, for posting, in a chat room, a link to the e-mail cache. Apparently, buried in the thousands of emails was the private credit card information of a number of Stratfor employees.

It was not clear how Brown’s act was singular. That same link had been previously posted innumerable times across the Internet.

All of this raises suspicions about some larger agenda in the government’s Javert-like pursuit of this young man. To understand that, we might well start by looking at how Brown came to be on the government’s radar in the first place.

Click to next: 2/4

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

0 responses to “The Saga of Barrett Brown: Inside Anonymous and the War on Secrecy”

  1. Julie Hill says:

    I am sorry that you were a target for revealing the truth. My son introduced me to your case after meeting you along the way. Thanks for exposing the BOP and FBI for what they are: examples of federal corruption. The general public has no idea.

  2. […] new developments in the Barrett Brown case suggest that the playing field between the cyber-activist/journalist and the government may be […]

  3. […] piece published by WhoWhatWhy in 2013 was the first to provide a comprehensive explanation of what it was that my associates and I had […]

  4. John Tiessen says:

    Barrett Brown is a modern day Paul Revere.

  5. d marino says:

    So, who can change this horrific law or ruling? A totally bogus charge and a man’s life hangs in the balance and no one can do anything? This is absurd. Yet when your very own criminal government can do this to a person when information they don’t want known, gets known, there is no hope for any of us in this freaking enslaved country.

  6. VoxFox says:

    George Orwell never anticipated how evil government could become when it utilizes digital technology. When married to the unlimited greed of “private” contractors the mix is devastating for democracy.

  7. abbeysbooks says:

    Just keep voting them in for ONE term. Keep turning the place over. But we will get martial law if we do that. Ready?

  8. maggie says:

    Now we know they all lied to us. We can bring this to an end next election when none of us vote.When none of us vote then lets see who gets you elected.When this fantasy of democrasy finally evaporates for the last time.

  9. Dan Allen says:

    From the article: “Following Operation Payback, in January 2011 the FBI issued more than 40 search warrants in a probe of the attacks; these yielded no arrests.”

    I make my living being smart about the internet, and I am stunned to learn that the FBI could not trace some of the sources of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC). I know that proxies, like Tor, say they can make your traffic anonymous, but I thought the FBI could combine local ISP records with web activity logs on the targeted systems to determine the sources of the attacks. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me, with the access the FBI has to internet data, I would think they should be able to connect these dots, even when a proxy introduces complications. I need to understand this better.

  10. planckbrandt says:

    Need to start focusing on just who really is this “Obama Administration”. There is obviously a permanent government running things and putting his face on the orders.

  11. Bill Wilt says:

    And don’t forget James Bamford’s “The Shadow Factory”–reporting that the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) had installed, by Jan-Feb 2002, fiber-taps (“splitter boxes”) on every telecom’s trunk lines/cables. So if it goes through US telecom infrastructure, the NSA has a copy of it, every BIT of it (as in binary digit). And NSA is building an even more gigundous spycloud in Bluffdale, Utah (see Wired Mag of March 15, 2012 for more details. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/

    If I recall correctly, the 2002 facility was based at Lackland AFB, but they ran out of room there. Not for a lack of land, but rather for lack of electric grid expansibility.

    What I assume the National Surveillance Agency (we should use words that properly indicate its raison d’être) is doing is building computers which put search strings in silicon, rather than software. Bamford notes that the NSA has some 10,000 employees. But whatever the number, it is the largest of all the federal spy outfits. And a goodly number of those employees actually design and fabricate (perhaps all fab. is outsourced) their own super-computers, etc. So it’s no big stretch to assume that the NSA already has dossiers on every one of us, our habitations (GPS coordinates obtained during the 2010 census), and no doubt copies of every other digital record we’ve created (credit card activity, transportation by POV. I don’t know about iris prints, finger prints, DNA samples, personal photos (but if on Facebook, certainly they have ’em).

    My thought is that every citizen in the US should file Privacy Act requests of the NSA and all other intel agencies (including local & state police who’re using Heimats Versicherung Abteilung “fusion centers” (local little J. Edgar (aka “Mary”) Hoover-style–For Blackmailing Individuals, and FOIA requests for similar once-private information about all government employees, such as Dick Cheney, Dubyuh, Addington, Silverstein.

    Imagine the response around the world if we actually started to clean our own house.

  12. Matt Prather says:

    I’ve always wondered what all is in those tens-of-thousands / millions of Stratfor emails.

    I guess it’s accessible to me, if I try hard enough.

    Eventually, I will look into them.

    On Monday February 27th, 2012, WikiLeaks began publishing The Global Intelligence Files, over five million e-mails from the Texas headquartered “global intelligence” company Stratfor.

    Files released so far… 909049

    2013-03-28

    • • • • •

    It’s pretty scary to “pull the thread” far enough — since this clearly seems to go into the world “behind the curtain” of “The Matrix”.

    Stratfor — I believe — is a perfect “case study” part-in-a-whole of The Complex of Private Corporate Everything which serves as the paradigm for modern National Security. (Or: “International Security” as it is.)

    Thank you, Christian Stork! We all have a long way to go to properly understand the meaning of the systems which govern us. This is a stepping stone on the path to freedom of information.

    • • • • •

    “Know Your Enemy” by Green Day:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IclmVdWNbI

    • • • • •

    Notes on Information Awareness and the future of the internet as billions-more-people gain access to Some Form of Internet:
    https://plus.google.com/118376752237626707461/posts/ivFgjh1upVf

  13. Ron Smith says:

    So all they have to do to make millions of emails a dangerous honey pot for any would be whistleblower is include a few credit card numbers – this way anyone who gains access must go through ALL the millions of documents to search for and remove those numbers or else any sharing of that information is sharing stolen credit card numbers. Nice clever move on the governments part. Of course the spirit of the law should encourage whistleblowers to blow the whistle on corruption rather than playing along in cover-ups and dirty dealings.

    • Russ says:

      Excellent point. Let’s see if companies start routinely including, with permission, some people’s credit card numbers, as a way of blunting whistleblowers.

  14. Andrew146 says:

    Tabula Rasa! Time to start over. For country and humanity.

  15. Sam shaw says:

    Barrett is not Anonymous as he has stated so many times instead of thinking Anonymous is cia or bitching ask yourself what the fuck your doing for what you believe in

  16. Sam shaw says:

    remember “collateral murder” the video showing military gleefully killing kids and civilians, your tax dollars paid for that. Brown and Manning are in jail while the men who commited the act are free. your one year old son or daughter gets raped the attacker gets less time than Brown or Manning. Under NDAA a belligerent act like following wikileaks on twitter could put you away without trial or representation forever. Please Honey Boo Boo Generation wake the fuck up and cry foul fuck guns your rights are being taken from you ever so slowly don’t wait till the drone kills your kids when it was aiming for Barrett Brown

  17. doctorcasey says:

    Free Bradley Manning ,and Barrett Brown, and John Kiriakou–all heroes persecuted by an inane government afraid its incompetence will finally be realized by most Americans. The only thing worse than our present government is one run by the loser Republicans.

  18. doctorcasey says:

    cache, pronounced like ‘cash’, the money means a store of something–like weapons or papers, etc.

    • ChristianStork says:

      Duly noted.

    • Kratoklastes says:

      I’ve also heard it pronounced ‘kaysh’ – although as you note the French original is far more like ‘cash’. But never “kashay” (as in cachet)… that’s just dumb.

      Still, we refer to our wi-fi boxes as “routers” … even though what they are actually doing is resolving a route (pronounced “root“) for data.

    • Matt Prather says:

      * The anonymous ones… always ambiguous…

      * one humorous use of cache / cachet was in A Scanner Darkly — the movie only, not the book, for which we may thank The Legendary Misters Robert Downey Junior and Richard Linklater — and Clooney for bankrolling it!

      * don’t get rooted / routed

  19. doctorcasey says:

    And, btw, cash-a (stylish) is spelled cachet.

  20. doctorcasey says:

    Please learn the difference between cache (pronounced like cash) and cachet (pronounced like cash-a). The latter means ‘stylish’. Just because you heard some dumb general say cash-a doesn’t mean he is right–he is just an ignorant ass.

  21. Peter Jennings says:

    No one should be hounded for the information gleaned from HBGary as his company was incompetant at protecting its own info. Barrett, chin up mate. You and your friends have made world history and HBGary will go down in that history as the whopping big fake he is.

    Thanks for all your efforts on behalf of a grateful world. You will soon be freed by true patriot americans.

  22. Guest says:

    Does anyone have any wet food

  23. Fences says:

    Thank you for this thorough exposition of the current condition of these United States of America, its pitiful loss of democratic principles, and its lamentable devolution into a dangerous police state.

  24. mollycruz says:

    Jailing journalists is how most repressive regimes give themselves away. They might as well be swinging in the wind as far as the affect on free journalism goes and they often become martyrs. Power corrupts, unless quickly handed on. I liken tyranny to a flywheel affect, a little built in retardation on progress, so we look around, don’t forget anything.

    • haps says:

      Who are “they” who “often become martyrs”? Seems media these days just “silence” truth teller vehicles for sheeple; tis much simpler in an inverted fascism to manage perception.

  25. obbop says:

    “There has been class warfare going on,” Buffett, 81, said in a Sept. 30 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.”

    • mollycruz says:

      Class Warfare; quick, somebody! Make a board game! You’d think the notion that people are actually starving would take some of the fun out of it, though.

  26. Allege_Uh says:

    Coupla prianciples: When I have been looking around in a holding tank at the dog-faced losers under arrest, nothing comes to mind. That’s when one guy spoke up and said what we were NOT in jail for, like these:

    Sureties was the case that they gave me.

    Little defrauding action through the mail.

    Oh, yes, that I am here for white-collar crimes across several disciplines.

    The poor of this country can add the ten years for highlighting, ten years for pressing Control-C, etc. to their 25-to-life for stealing a piece of pizza.
    Whatever you want to do about it.

  27. Anon says:

    CIA only wishes they came up with the idea. They aren’t that bright and people give them way too much credit. I am barret brown!

  28. steve holmes says:

    He is NOT Anonymous, which is a CIA front. Think how Anonymous always gets published and how other anti-obama things get blocked. The only explanation is that the government uses Anonymous to fool folks into thinking there is some secret organization on the peoples’ side.

    • Eric_Saunders says:

      That may be oversimplifying a little bit… But Anonymous has played weird roles in the Arab Spring which in retrospect looks more and more like some kind of Western psy-op… I mean there have been no meaningful changes (Morsi in Egypt is ultimately a Western stooge who has to pretend to be a devout MB nationalist) and the Arab Spring served to legitimate the criminal attacks on Libya and Syria…

    • Invictus Corruptus says:

      Excellent point on the Arab Spring. What has happened in Egypt, Libya, Syria among other countries in the Middle East have all of the classic footprints of the CIA.

      The evidence is how our CIA overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 at the behest of what is now known today as British Petroleum.

      Lots of credit is being given to technology and social networks but of course these can also be used by those with a hidden agenda. The Neocons under Bush wanted regime change in Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea, they tried to take out Hugo Chavez. Perhaps regime change through planned riots is cheaper than war these days as long as the wanted result is gained.

    • haps says:

      Hey Steve, you are not far off, remember the very alive cointelpro continues. That is not to say, all “anons” are fronts. Individual and group action is always a threat to the powerful because when your aim is “control” it is forever impossible.

    • VoxFox says:

      The list of “Enemies of the State” must be now in the millions.

  29. Boom says:

    I’d ask for the link but dont want to wait a 100 years for the next articles

  30. InLeagueWith says:

    I do like HowWhatWhy and I stopped at the word avid to tell you I do. I heard the word applied to the uptake of radioactive sugar by cancer cells labelled with F-19.

    I’m a chemist named Steve Billinghurst, who writes anything I please. In contrast to Barrett, my efforts followed the successful ACLU attack on THE METHAMPHETAMINE ANTI-PROLIFERATION ACT OF 2000, one of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s.

    I am sixty and I have FUCKED Senator Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter Alison Ross, who was 14 at the time. I met Barry. When I toild him I was interested in chemistry, he mentioned he was currently serving on some Senate committee on science.

    I was in the chat Barrett was busted in, listed just down from the top, as BHURST. Others may wonder why they missed the chance to speak to him at the end, but I didn’t. I’d spoken to him on the phone that very day. We discussed whether he wanted me to investigate Cubic Corporation since I am in San Diego.

    Are you serious, though? Am I in a community the fuck and shit feds wish to influence? I may escape to Los Angeles and disappear, re-emerging when we can—oh aha ha ha. That’s all I have, for you anyway.