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).
Reading Time: 27 minutes

Humble Beginnings

As an Internet muckraker, Brown had a penchant for pulling the string wherever it might lead. He was quick to take on established interests and orthodoxies, picking apart cherished truths if just to see their adherents scowl. Eventually this predilection led him to become bound up with a group that made Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential “People” of 2012: the hackers’ collective known as Anonymous.

The media, in referring to Anonymous, usually suggest that it is far more concrete an entity than it actually is, with “members” and a chain of command. In fact, Anonymous has no more “organization” than a group of strangers with shared interests in, say, a Harry Potter chat room. As a result, responsibility for any action attributed to Anonymous is, by its very nature, diffuse and untraceable.

What originally united “members” was immersion in a Net-centric subculture that prizes personal liberty and  anonymity, if simply to exercise the right to prank people online.  From this amorphous origin evolved a network of rebellious scofflaws and bored teenagers, along with a share of idealistic activists. The  potential to mobilize these individuals to act in concert for a commonly defined goal is what gives Anonymous its power. Over time, a few of  these digital rapscallions came to share a belief that this power can,  and should, be used as a democratizing force.

Some trace the “group’s” beginning back to 2003 on the imageboard 4chan.org—a forum for discussing Japanese comics. “These were just kids … interested in arcane Japanese web culture and, of course, pictures of boobs,” says Tim Rogers, author of a D Magazine cover story on Brown’s Anonymous links. “They harassed people in online role-playing games and indulged in other forms of online pranking.”

Then, as now, users (now often known as “Anons”) would communicate using Internet Relay Chats (IRCs), a now ubiquitous staple of the Internet.  For laymen, an IRC can best be understood like any other chat room  (among other things, enabling live text messaging, privately or within  groups, as well as data transfer capabilities). Whether for digital  pranking, discussing the Japanese anime craze, or coordinating resistance to repressive regimes, the ability to  communicate and organize via IRCs has been apparent since the chats  first appeared in the late 1980s. For example, during the 1991 “August Putsch” by Communist hardliners against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, IRCs were used to disseminate information during an internal media blackout.

What eventually became Anonymous’s IRCs didn’t begin as places to plan ‘hacktivism’. They were simply digital hangouts where computer geeks could gather to discuss modes of pranking in online gaming communities. And as anyone who’s ever surveyed a comment forum can attest, anonymity gives users the nerve to say things that, for fear of reputational damage or social stigma, they otherwise never would. This admittedly mean-spirited ethos was a staple of the culture in IRCs.

“One of the things that Anonymous was at that time was an outlet [for Anons] to vent a little,” explains Gregg Housh—a once-active member of Anonymous and confidant of Brown’s.  “Sociopaths seem to fit naturally  into that world,” Housh says. “[It] wasn’t about activism.” As an  aficionado of such activities in the online role-playing game Second  Life—allegedly creating swarms of digital dildos with which to barrage  other people’s online houses until their computers crashed—Barrett Brown was able to parlay his way into the often-sophomoric Anonymous  fraternity.

Not So Anonymous

As a freelance writer by day and online prankster by night, Barrett  Brown found himself at home among his new cohorts in the Anonymous IRCs.

Although Brown is routinely referred to as a “self-proclaimed Anonymous spokesman,” he’s conceded in an interview with NBCNews on March 8, 2011 that he was no such thing: “I can’t speak on behalf of Anonymous, because there’s no one who can authorize me to do that.”

Brown was dubbed a spokesman for the collective because he was one of a few willing to speak on record, using his real name, about Anonymous activities to the media. Brown is what some Anons refer to, almost admiringly, as a “namefag.” As Tim Rogers explains: “The term is not intrinsically derogatory. It just means that one has publicly identified oneself with Anonymous, using the name on one’s birth certificate.”

A Young Barrett Brown

A Young Barrett Brown

“I liken him more to an embedded journalist or media liaison,” explains a Kevin Gallagher, a close friend of Brown. The two met in New York City during the summer of 2012 at the HOPE9 Conference (HOPE stands for Hackers On Planet Earth), and have remained close. Since his arrest in September, Gallagher says, “[Brown] calls me on average once every two weeks.”

According to Gallagher, Brown wasn’t much of a hacker. He was “unabashedly lacking [the] skills” to access protected databases or participate in the big activities coordinated through certain Anonymous IRCs. Brown simply acted as a go-to source for media when big Anonymous operations were conducted. It was a dangerous position to put oneself into, and few did.

Ironically, Anonymous itself had security issues. “Toward the end of his freedom he seemed to be growing disappointed with the people in Anonymous,” Gallagher told WhoWhatWhy. “[Brown had] seen Anonymous become infiltrated [and] co-opted, and people choosing to become informants.”

Indeed, FBI infiltration and cooptation were able to sow discord within  the ranks of Anonymous. This can be seen in the case of “Sabu”, an  alleged ringleader of LulzSec—a highly active subgroup of Anonymous  that coordinated many of the larger, illegal actions—turned government informant. In August of 2011 he pled guilty to 12 criminal charges, and began working with the FBI to trace other LulzSec members.

After the Sabu matter exploded publicly, many members of LulzSec were arrested in the following months, and the inner circle of hackers comprising Anonymous began to fragment. But that disruption did little to lessen the underlying esprit—a strong sense of individual empowerment that came from an ability to act collectively and yet still maintain personal privacy. That diffusion of power and knowledge hindered many attempts at infiltration by law enforcement.

Simply put, few Anons actually know anything about one another, so there are few opportunities to rat each other out. It’s a setup that the  Mafia would appreciate. With this inherently hard-to-dismantle  structure, or lack thereof, Anonymous continues to make its presence felt: on February 11 of this year, the state of  Alabama’s website was hacked in retaliation for allegedly racist state immigration legislation. Personal information that was being stored by  the state on 46,000 citizens was collected and supposedly deleted.

From Dennis the Menace to Robin Hood

In the latter half of the past decade, Brown, a University of Texas-Austin dropout, worked as a freelance columnist producing copy for the likes of New York Press, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post and The Onion. Channeling H.L. Mencken, Brown co-authored a 2007 book titled Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny. Matt Taibbi, known for his stinging critiques of the financial industry in Rolling Stone, had this to say about it: “With their painstaking attention to historical detail and amusingly violent writing style, Brown and [his co-author] Alston have given the religious right exactly the righteous, merciless fragging it deserves.”

Brown’s commentary had always been attuned to civil liberties, the erosion of Constitutional rights, what he saw as an inept or complicit media structure, and the impact of the Internet on all of these issues.

As one might expect from this pedigree, Brown began writing quite favorably about WikiLeaks and pro-public-accountability forms of digital protest. Brown claimed  to have been in contact with a number of the activists who in 2008 launched the first coordinated action associated with Anonymous:  Operation Chanology. It began with a bizarre interview that appeared on YouTube, showing actor Tom Cruise extolling  Scientology that was leaked by a disaffected former church member. The  Church claimed copyright violation, asserting the video was solely  intended for internal distribution to church members and threatened  YouTube with litigation.

When YouTube removed the video, Anonymous posted their own video decrying censorship. Then Anonymous launched a sustained campaign of (the now familiar) denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Scientology websites, together with prank calls to Scientology offices worldwide and barrages of “black faxes” that tie up receiving machines and deplete their ink reserves. Anonymous’s brand of mischievous activism was born.

scientology-its-worseThe Church of Scientology fought back by publicly naming one of the publishers of Anonymous’s response video in a civil suit. That publisher was Gregg Housh. Since he had already been outed, Housh was then willing to assume the role of a go-to spokesperson (or “namefag”) for those seeking answers about the hacker collective.

“I remember when we first started [targeting Scientology],” recalls Housh. “I got to this weird point only a few weeks into [the operation], where some of the teenage ex-scientologists had started convincing me of just how evil this organization was… We started thinking about this as an actual cause. From then on it just kept going.”

Housh is describing his transformation into a “moralfag,” jargon for  Anons who see Anonymous as a tool for doing good and for holding  powerful people and organizations accountable to “the people.”

“I was told very clearly that we needed to stop ruining [Anonymous’s] ‘bad name,’” Housh claims, referring to the immature, joker ethos that pervaded the collective at that time. “I was staring at my screen, and just thought, ‘God damn it. This is wrong.’”

All this took place before Housh and Brown met. What happened next, though, would thrust Brown into the spotlight, where he would eventually find himself in the crosshairs of the federal government.

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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.