Journalism, Activism, Hacktivism and a New Civic Platform
After four years in federal prison, Barrett Brown is looking at new ways to combine journalism, activism, crowdsourcing, software and people willing to take risks. The hacking group Anonymous was just his training ground.
Barrett Brown thinks big.
Brown was released from federal prison on November 29 after four years of incarceration for hacking the private intelligence firm Stratfor. The hack — for which the hacker group Anonymous took credit — revealed that Stratfor was one of many companies hired to spy on activist groups for US corporations.
In his first interview since being released from a halfway house in Dallas, Brown tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about his desire to pick up where Anonymous left off, and his ambitious plans for what he calls the “Pursuant System.”
What he envisions is a new technology-driven civic platform to replace traditional democratic government. Brown also talks about his history with billionaire Trump advisor Peter Thiel, whom he considers one of the most dangerous men in America.
At his trial, Brown originally faced 100 years in prison for charges stemming from the hacking of Stratfor.
Despite renouncing ties with the shadowy hacking group that calls itself Anonymous in 2011, Brown was charged with being the spokesperson for Anonymous and co-conspirator in its illegal actions.
Brown ultimately accepted a plea deal and, after two years of pretrial incarceration, he was sentenced to 63 months in prison. While incarcerated, he wrote award-winning columns — and thought long and hard about his future and that of the future of his country.
Barrett Brown and Jon P. Alston, authored Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny. (Sterling & Ross, Cambridge House Press, 2007) Now available in Kindle.
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Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Journalism is under siege. Activism is reaching new levels. And if the first week of the Trump administration is any indication, access journalism and a free press will have to fight along with activists every day just the way my guest Barrett Brown did. After four years behind bars, journalist and activist Barrett Brown was released from federal prison on the morning of November 29th, 2016 and ordered to report to a halfway house in
Dallas, Texas. Brown faced a hundred years in prison in 2013 for charges stemming from the hacking of the private intelligence firm Stratfor. The hack for which the hacker group Anonymous took credit, revealed Stratfor was hired to spy on activist groups for major corporations. Barrett was pegged as a spokesman and co-conspirator for Anonymous, despite renouncing ties with the group in 2011. And the most controversial charge brought against him by the Department of Justice was for linking to hacked data.
That charge was eventually dropped. Subsequently Brown accepted a plea deal under which he pled guilty to lesser charges for threatening an FBI agent, and also pled guilty to being an accessory to a cyberattack and to obstruction of justice for putting his laptops in a kitchen cabinet. After over two years of pretrial incarceration, he was sentenced to 63 months in prison. While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns where he denounced prison life in administration. He wrote about the endless stream of abuses and misconduct by the Bureau of Prisons, all of which resulted in multiple stints in solitary confinement and restrictions on his access to the press and the use of email. Today Barrett Brown is out of prison and planning his next act. It is my pleasure to welcome Barrett Brown to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Barrett thanks much for joining us.
Barrett Brown: Thank you for having me.
Jeff: I want to go back a little bit and talk a little bit about the work that you were involved in, going back to something that was called Project PM which was a combination of journalism and hacktivism at the time. It was really at a cutting edge of a certain kind of activity. Tell us a little about that.
Barrett: Project PM grew out of my dissatisfaction with the press at large, and particularly with the opinion industry. Many of the pundits, the highest rated pundits from this country, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, people who have won Pulitzers. But if you go back and look at their output over the past fifteen years, they’ve been demonstrably wrong about their predictions about many of our major issues we face as a country, particularly military engagements.
It didn’t look like there was any negative feedback in the media for the most part and Project PM was originally intended to provide the negative feedback by bringing together some of the more cogent journalists and bloggers, forcing these issues into attention by bringing to a head these failures in a way that they couldn’t be ignored. And then when I started talking to Anonymous, I had been approached by Gregg Housh who sort of functioned as one of the main organizers in recent years. I got involved with Anonymous at the end of 2010. And when the Tunisian revolution started they were heavily involved in that and then from there, things just kind of took their own momentum, and pretty soon I was one of the figures who was heavily involved in strategy, heavily involved in explaining to the press what we were doing, why it had to be done.
When the HBGary incident occurred, when Anonymous hacked this company and revealed this extraordinary conspiracy against journalists like Glenn Greenwald had been set in motion by the DOJ and perpetrated by several very prominent intelligence contracting firms — most notably Palantir under Peter Thiel — things again sort of accelerated again and I got into this long drawn out conflict with this entire intelligence contracting sector.
So at that point Project PM sort of shifted gears and our main area of responsibility was to take these stolen emails that Anonymous had acquired from HBGary and a few other firms. They included correspondence with government agencies, included correspondence with other firms, as they went about creating these technologies and perpetrating these really indefensible conspiracies. Our job was to take all this information that for the most part was quickly forgotten by the press in the immediate wake of the story. It created this picture of this otherwise opaque industry, the cyber intelligence complex that we call it, so that the other journals could proceed with this, they could take the next step, look at individual issues that we could only do so much on. And there’s a lot more to it but that was our key issue, because it was a fundamental issue.
If we have this clandestine network of status in the government and outside the government, working together against activists and journalists in a way that strikes at the citizen’s right to know, in a way that’s patently illegal. And if there’s no consequences for it, even when they’re discovered, no one really suffers. Obviously they keep doing it, and they did keep doing it. We later stumbled upon other similar instances of this kind of conduct by similar actors. So it took on the character, less of an investigation, more of this outright warfare. And this went on for about a year. Finally I was arrested and then I shifted gears again to prison reform, and now I’m out, there’s several things that all are going to have to be addressed as a whole and that’s what I’m working on now.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about what you think are the central things that have come out of this that need to be addressed now, that you want to address now, that perhaps might be even clearer to the public in light of what has transpired over the past seven or eight years.
Barrett: Well we know, first of all, we know that there are many in the government in both parties that are happy to work with these companies in ways that are not provided for by the Constitution or by the individual policies, the stated policies of these government agencies.
We know the FBI, we know the DOJ, we definitely know the NSA and CIA have transgressed against the American public and against people of the world over and over again for decades. We know that has not ceased and we know that now that the Trump administration has taken power, I think it might be easier for us to make this case that these are dangerous technologies, these are dangerous capabilities, these are dangerous precedents that have been established over the past few years when you have these people being caught and unpunished for these acts.
Now I think they can more clearly see what the danger is. It’s no longer an abstract issue of, “Oh, years from now, maybe these technologies will be misused by some less than reputable administration.” But now we have that administration. So I think people who were not too uncomfortable knowing what the Obama administration had and what they had already allowed to be done, and what the U.S. government as a whole is acquiring in terms of information operations, I think all of that, again, is less of an abstract issue now, less of an issue of what could happen someday.
Now we’re going to see perhaps a necessary conflict occur between elements of the press and between the U.S. government, and that’s a conflict that probably should’ve been a little bit more forcefully executed years ago. Now here we are.
Jeff: You think that the role of the mainstream press will be different this time around? You think the way the mainstream press responds will be different in this atmosphere?
Barrett: Yes, I think we’ve already seen that within the last few days. Obviously we’re seeing an unprecedented degree of just outright, frankly, bizarre dishonesty coming out of the White House in a way that’s not unprecedented in a fundamental way. I suppose in a matter of extent, it’s more visible, it’s more shameless. And the press corps is reacting in a way they really should have years ago when we had these same issues on a lesser scale when you had one party making demonstrably false claims over and over again, making these claims because the dynamics were such that you could… there was not necessarily a pragmatic reason to stick to the truth when you’re reporting both sides and you’re not doing the analysis.
You’re not telling your readers, “You know, this one, these people are lying. These people are lying, what they’re saying is completely untrue.” You know, when you don’t do that it makes sense for people without any moral center to conduct themselves in that dishonest way. And now it’s just gotten so blatant and the people it concerns, the Trump administration, are so openly hostile to the press that now we’re seeing this conflict arise, and we’ll probably see a more or less permanent change in how the press views itself vis-à-vis the State.
Jeff: Will we see a difference in the behavior of some of these big companies that have been part of what you referred to earlier as this cyber intelligence complex, be they Apple, Google, AT&T or whomever?
Barrett: Well now they’re operating in an environment in which, you know, the standard is being set by the President on down, and retaliation against your personal enemies. The use of new methodologies and technologies by which to interfere with the information flow, by which to obscure things, by which to discredit the enemy. All of these things will be more and more commonplace. That was already where we were going, because again, without consequences, without negative feedback against that industry. And given that that industry offers a very valuable service to a lot of these companies.
The ability to obfuscate the public’s understanding, the ability to target, harass, discredit, infiltrate even standard law-abiding activists and journalists, as they’ve been caught doing, you know, that creates a climate, and that climate sort of perpetuates itself. So even as things get better in some ways, even as more of this becomes more obvious, more plain, you’re going to have several different sort of competing factors, other aspects will get worse.
There’ll be more poor behavior, you might call it, among more government agencies as Trump puts in this very strange post-ideological right-populist contingent. It’s kind of settling in. We’ll see all kinds of very unusual incidents come up. And we’ll see a lot of leaking, see a lot of, people of opposition. We’ll see more active civil disobedience than you have since the 70s. That’s all, I think, pretty clear. I think that’s pretty set.
But beyond that, you look at the details, start trying to predict how will these things happen. That’s where it gets difficult. This is the age of non-state actors. This is the age in which a few people here and there — if they’re clever enough, and if they have the will to do so — can check things up to an extent that would’ve been, again, impossible just a generation ago.
That’s all thanks to the Internet. Thanks to the fact that we live in an information age in which for the first time in human history any individual can collaborate with any other individual on the planet. That’s extraordinary. That’s an extraordinary change in how we arrange our affairs. And when that becomes better understood, when the implications start becoming clear, as they will, people learn by example. You’re going to see a very chaotic period come into play.
Jeff: What do you see as the platform, the method by which so much of this research and investigation might take place? Sort of the more modern equivalent of what you were trying to do with Project PM.
Barrett: Well, it’s a necessary reaction to a complicated situation in which traditional journalism is not able to do the job. Even when it does do the job at the level of individual journalists or individual outlets, when things get caught in the noise, there is a necessity to start thinking about how do we better assess the informational environment? How do we react to it? How do we compete with all of these different factions, all of these different actors, all sort of fighting it out over the daily news cycle, you know, for dominance.
So there is going to be a clearer and clearer need for new ways of organizing journalism, new ways of crowdsourcing the capabilities of people out there who would like to contribute, who are expert in their field or who are capable of doing research. We need to figure out ways in which to channel their talents and energies in a way where we can gain some degree of civilization in a period in which civilization is deteriorating in very fundamental ways.
That’s my main focus still, to pull off what I call the “Pursuant system,” which was announced in Wired two months ago after my release, this sort of platform we’ll be rolling out gradually on an invitation basis by which people can create their own civic platforms, evolve them in different ways, arrange them in very clear formats whereby anyone can create their own little group, anyone can join whichever groups are available and be a part of something.
A civic entity that, unlike a nation-state you’re born into, has clear moral direction, and has the agility that we saw from Anonymous, has the ability to bring people quickly into an operation, achieve something, whether limited or abroad, and move forward. That’s the kind of emphasis we need to have when we start thinking about where we go from here.
Are we going to stick with traditional institutions and hope they lead the way? Are we just going to, you know, write our congressmen? Or are we going to finally start thinking about what is now possible? There have been so many people with, I think, deleterious effects on society, you know, whether it be Trump or whatever, who are in some ways using the Internet, you know, things like Breitbart in new ways by which to gain greater control over the conversation.
We need to have more honest, benevolent, policy-oriented people thinking along those same lines – not doing things the same way but likewise taking advantage of this environment in ways that they haven’t yet before.
Jeff: And what do you see as the potential risks down the road to the people that are doing that?
Barrett: The risks are legion. You know, again, there’s nothing, there’s no good reason for a company or government agency not to resort to illegal and amoral disinformation operations by which to target their enemies. There’s no reason whatsoever on a practical scale yet. So anybody who plans to have a real impact right now has to understand what’s out there in terms of what these companies do, what they can do, what they’ve done before, what they can probably do at this point, extrapolating from the capabilities that we came upon four years ago, when the HBGary emails were revealed.
You have to be aware that these are people who play dirty, and they have every advantage, in the traditional standpoint in terms of government links and the fact that they generally have a great deal of money, the people who we’re operating against.
There are ways to counter that. It just requires that we think through the information available.
And that’s unfortunate that even the information we do have, the things that were revealed a few years ago, didn’t quite get the attention that they needed to. And so part of what we have to do is just sort of re-summing up what happened several years ago. What happened with Anonymous, and what the results were and what was learned so that people understand at least where we’re at and can start building from there.
Jeff: What were the things that did work with respect to Anonymous? What were the things that you look back on and say this is something positive we can learn from?
Barrett: In terms of operations, there was probably about half a dozen that you could point to and analyze and say these were really extraordinary efforts by people around the globe to come together and strike blows against criminalized institutions. And broadly, what Anonymous was able to do was integrate large numbers of early adapters, erudite people, people with different skill sets and get them working on these efforts very quickly in ways that allow people with the expertise or the charisma or the technical skills or whatever to get their ideas in motion.
It was a chaotic process. It was very haphazard. Anonymous started out as something entirely different. It’s sort of a goofy Internet troll group, happened to become an activist group over time — almost by accident. But once it was, you know, it was still using what we would call, Internet relay chat rooms, just big chat rooms where you have lots of people. And you had sub rooms where people could go into for work on various operations.
Ultimately you’re using a platform that’s not intended for activism, it was created for chatting. You know, it’s such that kind of lends, just the format itself, the medium itself, brings its own problems. You have lots of in-fighting, you have lots of periods in which you’re kind of waiting for the shoe to drop. You don’t know what people are going to do. You don’t know who’s there. You don’t know to what extent you’re being infiltrated on an active basis. Which, it turns out, we were by a number of different parties, most notably the FBI.
We can take a lot of those dynamics and harness them, and keep that agility, and keep that capability to integrate citizens very quickly. But we have to be a bit more rigorous about it. We have to look at these sort of specific lessons we could learn. We have to look at what was useful and what the problems were and try to use that to build something new.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about somebody like Peter Thiel who sort of fits on both sides of the story. How does he fit into all this right now?
Barrett: Well, Thiel came to my attention, again after HBGary, the Team Themis conspiracy. There were several firms including HBGary, Endgame Systems, Berico and Palantir, that had sort of come together to create this very mercenary information operations division called “Team Themis.” Palantir was a key player in that, and their engineer Matthew Steckman was one of about seven employees who were, as the emails show, in on this operation that included their own lead counsel.
So this wasn’t something that, from Palantir’s standpoint, just some regular rogue engineer did without the blessing of the higher-ups. As we see from emails, they were happy with Team Themis, thought it was a great new business model to assist corporations going after their enemies.
So Thiel had an opportunity after this came to light to make a real apology and to ensure this doesn’t happen again. What he did, instead, was to put this Matthew Steckman guy, the one who was hardest to detach from the Team Themis scandal, the one who’s most visibly culpable, put him on leave briefly, and then when the media moved on a few months later, brought him back as an employee. And later promoted him, made him head of business development in DC.
So that is very telling, and that was the first thing I learned about Thiel. I didn’t know who he was previous to that, and since being incarcerated I happened to see a number of magazine profiles about him, and I don’t remember one mentioning Team Themis, which is an unfortunate oversight.
Because we need to know what are the implications of a firm like Palantir. What are the implications of a person like Peter Thiel who has very, very dystopian ideas and is in an unusual position to effect those ideas, not just by virtue of being a billionaire but by virtue of happening to run a company that does deal in information at a time in which information is king, and who now has very strong ties to this authoritarian White House. That’s Peter Thiel in broad strokes.
There’s any number of particular quotes you can look at, actions he’s taken that kind of fill those a little bit more. But I think that’s enough such that Peter Thiel should be very high on everyone’s list of concerns right now. He’s one the most dangerous men in the world at this point, and I don’t see any particular reason to think he’s going to become any less dangerous in the coming years.
Jeff: And talk, Barrett, finally about what’s next for you. How do you see yourself fitting into all this? What you want to do next?
Barrett: I’m going to take some of the principles that we’ve been able to observe and act upon. Try to coalesce them into something that we can move forward with. The Pursuant system is based on something we designed years and years ago before I got involved with Anonymous. And, you know, I’m sort of in a position to draw upon more lessons than I had learned at that early point in kind of fleshing it out. It’s a sort of framework by which people can create these civic institutes that we call “pursuances,” and they can be for a number of things.
They can be used for pursuing traditional activism. Be used to unite and to better integrate different activist groups. More to the point, anyone can create their own pursuance. Anyone can join a pursuance that has active membership. They can have them organized in different ways. It’s something that will channel that same agility from Anonymous while also bringing in sort of a degree of necessary rigor, something that can grow and coalesce and develop as these pursuances connect among themselves and share resources and share leadership and share direction. Something that can ultimately develop into a sort of global superorganism. Something that, if we present it right, if we make our case properly, can be adapted as sort of a parallel state, a non-state, a process at war with the system, something that will much better organize the efforts of the huge numbers of people who I think over the next few years are going to be interested in activism, simply because activism looks like the only way forward now.
When we have that demand, when that demand starts to arise for radical politics, we have to be in a position to fulfill that demand in a way that inspires people to maybe accept that there are different ways forward beyond our democratic nation states.
There are other things we haven’t tried yet which involve less force, involve less coercion, involve less inertia, building upon institutions that have come down to us within the axis of history. We can build something new, especially if we show that we’ve already done some of these things, they’ve already worked. It’s not like a whacky pipe dream. This is something that we’ve been sort of coalescing around as a movement, I think, for a long time. We just want to formalize it.
So the Pursuant system will be rolled out over the next year. The book that I’ve signed a deal on with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will be very much centered on the Pursuant system. It will be a memoir and a manifesto, but ultimately it’s going to be about making the case for what I call “process democracy” for a non-static democratic association by which we can maybe move forward as a society, as our old society collapses.
Jeff: Barrett Brown, I thank you so much for spending time with us today on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Barrett: Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate