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

Operation Payback

In 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing a cache of hundreds of  thousands of classified State Department memos. Rattled, the U.S.  government went into damage-control mode. It launched a high-stakes  media campaign aiming to set WikiLeaks apart from traditional  media entities, like magazines and newspapers who published the same  material, in order to criminalize its actions. U.S. lawmakers and  government-friendly pundits accused the website and its founder, Julian  Assange, of everything from “treason” (despite his not being an American citizen) to acting as a “high-tech terrorist.”

Poster The Anonymous Solidarity NetworkSenator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) used the power of his office to pressure PayPal to freeze WikiLeaks’s account, to persuade Amazon to boot the site off its servers, and to get Visa and MasterCard to stop processing donations. All this despite First Amendment free-speech protections, and though neither WikiLeaks nor anyone associated with the group had been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime.

In response, Anonymous began to organize Operation Payback. As with the campaign against the Church of Scientology, Anonymous employed what is called a Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC). That’s a piece of installed software which connects your computer to a botnet—a network of computers that can be linked to obey instructions from one central authority.

As Tim Rogers describes it:

Until Anonymous came along, botnets were generally assembled by bad guys, organizations like the Russian mafia, Chinese hackers. They build botnets on the sly, installing malware on computers that turns them into zombies without their owners’ knowledge. Each zombie can fire thousands of requests per second at a target website. So while you’re working on that cover sheet for your TPS report, your computer is part of a joint effort to overwhelm a company’s server and crash its website. That effort to crash a site is called a Distributed Denial of Service attack, or DDoS. The bad guys use DDoS attacks to extort money, but they can also use their botnets to send spam and steal people’s identities. In 2009, the antivirus software firm Symantec said it had detected nearly 7 million botnets on the internet.low-orbit-dos

Anonymous was the first group to build an operational voluntary botnet. By running the LOIC on your computer, you are, essentially, declaring your allegiance to Anonymous. You donate part of your computer’s processing power to the cause. That cause—or, if you prefer, the target—is determined by rough consensus among Anons.

On December 8, 2010, Anonymous’s LOIC targeted the websites of  MasterCard and Visa, crashing both within minutes. Although it’s  impossible to pinpoint how many people were in on Operation Payback,  sources familiar with the attack say the LOIC was downloaded tens of  thousands of times. With the media clamoring for answers and Gregg  Housh’s name already in the public domain, he did just short of 40  interviews within two days.

Housh had become familiar with Brown earlier in February of 2010, after Brown published a piece on the Huffington Post defending the actions of Anonymous members against the government of Australia during so-called “Operation Titstorm.” The Australian government had been attempting to ban certain forms of Internet pornography and to institute a filtering regime with which all web-hosting and search services would have to comply. In addition to the banned material, a leaked version of the proposed blacklist showed sites that had no relation to adult content. Web titans like Yahoo! and Google were against the measure. And Anonymous saw it as threatening to free speech.

While clearly supportive of the work of Anonymous, Brown’s piece was the most accurate media account of the group’s structure, aims and methods at the time:

Ten years ago it would have been infeasible for tens of thousands of individuals with no physical connection or central leadership to conceive, announce, and implement a massive act of civil disobedience against a significant Western power, crippling a portion of its online infrastructure in the process – and to do all of this in a matter of days, and without anyone involved having to contend with the tear-gas-and-horseback response with which states have traditionally been in the habit of contending with mass action. But such a thing as this is happening today, and having been done once will almost certainly be done again – repeatedly, increasingly, and with potentially significant consequences for the nation-state and implications regarding that which will perhaps someday come to replace it.

Anonymous’ current campaign is the second of its kind; the first, in 2008, targeted the Church of Scientology with DDOS attacks, a series of in-the-flesh protests outside Scientology centers worldwide, the theft and dissemination of sensitive documents, and a variety of other steps – all coordinated, or not, in a decentralized fashion that provides for no names, ranks, or central direction.

Housh was impressed with Brown’s assessment of Anonymous and called him up. Before then, “[Brown] wasn’t on any of our IRC’s, he wasn’t hanging out with Anons, he wasn’t ‘one of us,’” Housh notes. But still, Barrett Brown got it. Brown was able to take the heat off Housh, and eventually assumed Housh’s position as a media “spokesman” for Anonymous.

Barrett Brown, spokesperson

Barrett Brown, spokesperson

“In some ways, I blame myself for [the current position of] Barrett,” Housh confesses.

The danger was greater still. As “namefags,” Housh and Brown began feeling the heat now from both sides. Some Anons resented the work they were doing. Housh claims that certain Anons even handed over fake chat logs to the FBI in an effort to “prove” that he in fact ran Anonymous.

Arab E-Spring

The Arab Spring uprisings of early 2011 gave many of the idealists in Anonymous an opportunity to assert control of the brand and usher in a whole new understanding of their work. Already “namefags,” Housh and Brown continued their rise in prominence as “moralfags.” Brown was reportedly on the frontlines of Anonymous’s work in North Africa and the Middle East: taking control of and defacing the websites of oppressive governments, as well as authoring manuals on street fighting and first aid.

“During that initial stuff in Tunisia, the one thing we figured out sitting there talking to Tunisians on the ground was that a lot of the people in the streets didn’t know what they were doing,” says Housh.

“We had the ability to do some quick research and figure out what you’re supposed to be doing…[such as] wearing thin cotton garments that would  tear easily when grabbed by police, or make for quick first-aid  material…they would put [the information] together in PDFs. Barrett was the driving force in making these.”

It was that new guiding ethos of doing good, exemplified by  Anonymous’s actions during the Arab Spring, that motivated Operation  Payback. Anonymous saw financial companies that were willing to process payments to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), America’s oldest domestic terrorist  organization, but not to a group ostensibly publishing government  material for the public good.

In the minds of participating Anons, the decision by Senator Lieberman’s office to extra-judicially pressure those companies (and for them to comply) was fundamentally unconstitutional, insofar as donating money to organizations of one’s choice is considered free speech—an interpretation that still holds in American jurisprudence. Following Operation Payback, in January 2011 the FBI issued more than 40 search warrants in a probe of the attacks that yielded no arrests.

But the drama was far from over. Anonymous’s stature was rising; it was  increasingly seen as a group that, through its mastery of the Internet,  could operate beyond the reach of government and Washington’s cybersecurity experts.

Stirring The Hornet’s Nest

It was at this point that the Financial Times published an article quoting Aaron Barr, CEO of a company called HBGary Federal and a “private security researcher,” in which he claimed to have identified three top members of Anonymous. When he announced plans to “out” them at an upcoming conference that month, it seemed that Anonymous had met its match.

HBGaryHowever, Brown and Housh claimed that HBGary merely had pseudonyms, and that publicizing them would only result in people with similar names being wrongly targeted for FBI raids. Regardless, Anonymous sent out a press release (reportedly in conjunction with Brown) that acknowledged its “downfall.”  The press release was clearly written with a sly grin befitting Guy Fawkes’s visage and a tongue firmly planted in the author’s cheek.

One day after the FT piece was published, the internal servers and websites of HBGary Federal and its parent company, HBGary, were hacked, defaced, and destroyed. Upwards of 75,000 emails were compromised and put up for public scrutiny. One terabyte of data (1,000 GB) from HBGary’s backup servers was wiped, as well as the contents of its CEO Aaron Barr’s iPad, while all of his personal information was put on the Internet. HBGary Federal’s website was replaced with a message from the hackers: “Now the Anonymous hand is bitch-slapping you in the face.” Later that month, Barr resigned.

Although this was an operation taken purely out of revenge against a smug opponent, important data emerged from the leaked emails, including evidence that a number of corporate actors, identified in the emails as “Team Themis,” were conspiring to commit a range of crimes.

The cabal involved three cyber security firms—HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies—all of whom are federal contractors for military and intelligence work.

The emails document a coordinated plan to pitch a “disinformation campaign” against critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – a campaign with serious implications for the exercise of free speech.

top-secret-chamber-of-commerceThe obvious news here was that federal contractors were concocting such unethical and possibly illegal plans to smear and discredit Americans. But more importantly, they had been solicited to do so by some of America’s most powerful entities engaged in an information war against their critics – and, by extension, the public.

The Chamber is the primary DC lobbying arm of America’s largest corporate interests, such as Goldman Sachs, Chevron and Texaco. It lobbies politicians for “pro-business” trade and industrial policy, and spends more money on a yearly basis than any other lobbying organization in the country.


HBGary’s chief Aaron Barr may have been vanquished, but since a cursory examination had yielded information as incriminating as the Team Themis conspiracy, who knew what else was in there? The HBGary hack made clear that Anonymous needed minds like Brown’s to parse the vast resulting trove. “We brought Barrett in after that,” Housh recollects. And, according to Housh, Brown then created ProjectPM. While ProjectPM had conceptually been around since 2009 as a method of “improving problems of information flow in various contexts,” it then became what it is now—a repository for studying the revealing communiques of HBGary and its associates.

The hackers and ProjectPM researchers soon hit additional paydirt. They discovered that the corporate security cowboys were also pitching a plan of disinformation and sabotage against WikiLeaks, which had publicly claimed it was in possession of a similar document cache from Bank of America (BoA). And these revelations hinted at more to come.

But because there was no formal mechanism for searching through the HBGary emails, most of the leaked documents remained unviewed and uncategorized. Brown saw this as the perfect opportunity to continue his work as a journalistic “moralfag”—digging deeper into the shadowy world of HBGary and the government’s legion of private contractors.

It’s worth noting that the seemingly reckless security firms weren’t just wild-eyed freelancers. They had in each case been recruited by a formidable middle-man. It was the classic cut-out: create deniability for the brand name corporations when the dirty work gets done.

In both cases, these three companies were recruited by the law firm and lobbying giant Hunton & Williams (H&W), which counts both the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America among its clientele. H&W also legally represents entities such as Wells Fargo, Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Cingular, and weapons-maker General Dynamics. It lobbies on behalf of Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy (a coal industry front group), Gas Processors Association, Entergy (a nuclear power conglomerate), and U.S. Sugar Corp, among others.

So Anonymous and Brown were exposing the nefarious, if not clearly illegal, deeds of some of the world’s most powerful interests—outfits not known to turn the other cheek. It is this kind of challenge that may begin to explain why the full wrath of the federal government would be turned against the likes of Barrett Brown and his phalanx of idealistic researchers.

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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.

    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


    • • • • •

    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:

    • • • • •

    Notes on Information Awareness and the future of the internet as billions-more-people gain access to Some Form of Internet:

  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.