Rolling Stone Profiles Barrett Brown: Journalist, Activist and American Political Prisoner

I mean Texans and indictments…it’s like a Texas Bar Mitzvah.  My dad was indicted, you know, I have friends that have been indicted, have gone to prison…it happens.

- Barret Brown during an RT Interview, a year before being raided by the FBI and subsequently incarcerated. 

Barrett Brown is one of those figures that immediately captured my attention after first learning about him while watching the Anonymous documentary We are Legion. I soon realized that he had been incarcerated a mere three months prior to me serendipitously stumbling upon the film. It wasn’t difficult to see that he must have been onto something very, very big for the Feds to go after him so aggressively. You don’t charge a person with 105 years in prison merely as revenge for a youtube video in which you threaten an FBI agent. No, there was something much deeper going on here.

It was only after the Edward Snowden revelations that I realized exactly what was going on. As we all know by now, Snowden’s last employer was technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. As soon as I read that, I remembered that the first person to bring Booz Allen to my attention as a nefarious corporate entity was none other than Barrett Brown. Barrett was focused, indeed obsessed, with the shady and dangerous relationship between defense/intelligence contractors and the U.S. government. He was getting too close to unearthing things that some of the most powerful people in the world didn’t want to see the light of day, and so he was silenced and put in a cage. Just as tyrants have always historically done to those who are smarter and more courageous and capable than they could ever be.

Anyone that looks at the Barrett Brown case with an unbiased eye will soon realize that the government is engaged in a political witch-hunt, much like what happened to internet prodigy Aaron Swartz. The case is so preposterous that Barrett was beginning to garner considerable media attention. One example of the absurdity of his case was recently highlighted by Vice in an article that points out:

Keep in mind, Barrett is facing a 45-year sentence under one indictment that alleges he shared a link to illegally obtained, hacked information. In contrast, the individual actually found guilty of hacking the data is serving a sentence of ten years.

The government of course doesn’t want people to know about this sort of thing, and so the prosecution recently requested a gag order from Texas district court judge Sam Lindsay. Sadly, last week this request was granted (check out the gag order itself here). Kevin Gosztola of Firedog Lake summarized the dangers of this gag order better than I ever could.  He writes:

As the Free Barrett Brown group highlights on its website, at stake is the right to link, because one of the offenses stems from Brown’s decision to share a link to something released online from the Stratfor emails. It also implicates the First Amendment, as Brown is charged with concealing information related to journalistic sources and his own work products. It also raises issues of press freedom and selective prosecution, since it appears that in the three indictments handed down against Brown the government is targeting him for daring to expose the operations of private security and intelligence companies.

The gag order was not pursued to protect the interests of the accused. It was pursued to limit the flow of information to the press because the government has known from the beginning that what they were doing looked like vindictive or selective prosecution.

Gagging Brown and his defense team has the effect of preventing those participating in the trial from speaking to the press about the trial until after the trial has concluded. Once the trial is over, the press may have little interest in what Brown or his lawyers have to say. This means the public is deprived of the opportunity to challenge the government’s handling of the trial when it most matters, especially if the handling is abusive and in violation of Brown’s rights.

Additionally, the Freedom of the Press Foundation released the following statement to VICE:

It’s ironic and disturbing that in a case where press freedom is at stake, the defendant and his lawyers have been barred from talking to the press. The prosecution asked for a gag order in part because they said articles about Brown’s case contained inaccuracies, but pointed to no articles to prove their point. Seemingly, the problem was the articles were too accurate, and therefore making the prosecution’s case look bad. The fact remains, Brown is being prosecuted for conduct that is central to journalism, and the charges related to linking should be thrown out immediately.

With all that in mind, I provide some excerpts below from the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, which profiles Barrett. The article is certainly not a one-sided celebration of him, and in fact I question the author’s undue focus on his drug abuse, considering substance abuse is one of the most common traits exhibited by almost every great writer that has ever lived. In any event, the story will hopefully get Barrett’s case more public attention in the face of this absurd gag order. From Rolling Stone:

Encountering Barrett Brown’s story in passing, it is tempting to group him with other Anonymous associates who have popped up in the news for cutting pleas and changing sides. Brown’s case, however, is a thing apart. Although he knew some of those involved in high-profile “hacktivism,” he is no hacker. His situation is closer to the runaway prosecution that destroyed Aaron Swartz, the programmer-activist who committed suicide in the face of criminal charges similar to those now being leveled at Brown.  But unlike Swartz, who illegally downloaded a large cache of academic articles, Brown never broke into a server; he never even leaked a document. His primary laptop, sought in two armed FBI raids, was a miniature Sony netbook that he used for legal communication, research and an obscene amount of video-game playing. The most serious charges against him relate not to hacking or theft, but to copying and pasting a link to data that had been hacked and released by others.

“What is most concerning about Barrett’s case is the disconnect between his conduct and the charged crime,” says Ghappour. “He copy-pasted a publicly available link containing publicly available data that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist. The charges require twisting the relevant statutes beyond recognition and have serious implications for journalists as well as academics. Who’s allowed to look at document dumps?”

Still, Pritchard appreciated that beneath the dorkery, Brown was involved in serious business. This was Brown’s first year as an unofficial spokesman for Anonymous, and it was eventful. The hackers were aiding the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and assaulted PayPal and credit-card companies in retaliation for their refusal to process donations to WikiLeaks. This latter action, called Operation PayBack, earned the attention of the Justice Department. In the summer of 2011, the FBI issued 35 search warrants and arrested 14 suspected hackers.

After Operation Payback, Anonymous was on the radar of every private security firm looking to build a quick reputation. In the office of Aaron Barr, CEO of a struggling digital-security contractor called HBGary Federal, it was the biggest thing on the radar. Barr was convinced that taking down Anonymous before it struck again was a fast track to industry juice and massive contracts. In February 2011, he bragged to The Financial Times about the supersecret sleuthing techniques he had developed to get the goods on Anonymous. He claimed to know the identities of the group’s leaders. Implicit in Barr’s comments was the possibility of federal raids on those identified.

Partly to avoid that outcome, and partly out of curiosity, an Anonymous cell hacked HBGary’s servers. They discovered that Barr’s techniques involved hanging out on major social-media sites and compiling lists of mostly innocent people. It wasn’t the only example of his staggering miscalculation: Within minutes, the hackers easily got around the firm’s security defenses, ransacking company servers, wiping Barr’s personal tablet and absconding with 70,000 internal e-mails. Stephen Colbert devoted a segment to the fiasco, based around the image of Barr sticking his penis in a hornets’ nest.

Once the hackers who broke into HBGary’s servers discovered that Barr was basically a clown, they abandoned pursuit. “There were tens of thousands of e-mails and no one wanted to go through them,” says an Anonymous associate who observed the HBGary hack. “Everyone was like, ‘We’re not even going to dump these, because there’s no point.’”

Brown disagreed. When the hackers posted the e-mails on a BitTorrent site, he used Project PM to organize the pain­staking work of collating and connecting the dots to see what picture emerged.

“Nobody was reading more than a couple of the e-mails before getting bored,” says the Anonymous associate. “But Barrett has this strangely addictive and journalistic kind of mind, so he could stare at those e-mails for 10 hours. He’d be sitting alone in the HBGary channel, yelling at everyone, ‘You’ve got to pay attention! Look at the crap I found!’” Brown quickly drew in some 100 volunteers to help him trawl through and make sense of the e-mails.

The HBGary cache offered one of the fullest looks ever at how corporate-state partnerships were targeting groups they considered subversive or inimical to the interests of corporate America. The projects under consideration at HBGary ranged from cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns targeting civic groups and journalists to Weird Science-supermodel avatars built to infiltrate and disrupt left-wing and anarchist networks.

Project PM volunteer investigator Joe Fionda remembers the disturbing thrill of uncovering HBGary’s use of a Maxim pinup to create online personas designed to spy for corporate and government clients. “I couldn’t believe how much crazy shit they were up to,” Fionda says. “My brain still feels like it’s going to explode.”

The biggest fish flopping in Brown’s net was the story of a cluster of contractors known as Team Themis. The origins of Team Themis dated to Bank of America’s alarm over Julian Assange’s 2010 claim to possess documents that “could take down a bank or two.” The Department of Justice recommended Bank of America retain the services of the white-shoe D.C. law firm Hunton & Williams and the high-­powered intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. On behalf of Bank of America, Hunton & Williams turned to the large and growing world of InfoSec subcontractors to come up with a plan, settling on HBGary and two data­intelligence shops, Berico Technologies and Palantir Technologies.

I’ve covered the shadiness of Palantir before.

The Themis three were also preparing a proposal for Hunton & Williams on behalf of another client, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The leaked HBGary documents revealed that Themis was exploring ways of discrediting and disrupting the activities of organized labor and its allies for the Chamber. The potential money at stake in these contracts was considerable. According to Wired, the trio proposed that the Chamber create a $2-million­a-month sort of cyber special-forces team “of the kind developed and utilized by the Joint Special Operations Command.” They also suggested targeting a range of left-of-center organizations, including the SEIU, watchdog groups like U.S. Chamber Watch, and the Center for American Progress. (The Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America have denied ever hiring Team Themis or having any knowledge of the proposals.)

In pursuit of the Chamber and Bank of America contracts, the Themis three devised multipronged campaigns amounting to a private-sector information-age COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to infiltrate and undermine “subversive” groups between 1956 and 1971. Among the The mis ideas presented to Hunton & Williams: “Feed the fuel between the feuding groups. Disinformation. Create messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization. Submit fake documents and then call out the error.”

Meanwhile, deeply buried in the TrapWire debate was the fact that included­ in the Stratfor docs were the credit-card numbers of 5,000 Stratfor clients. Brown likely did not give the numbers a second thought. But it’s these numbers that form the most serious charges against Brown. The government alleges that when Brown pasted a link in a chat room to the already ­leaked documents, he was intentionally “transferring” data for the purpose of credit-card and identity fraud.

“If the Pentagon Papers included credit­ card info, then would The New York Times have been barred from researching them?” says Brown’s co-counsel Ghappour. “There is nothing to indicate Barrett wanted to profit from this information, or that he ever had the information in his possession. He was openly critical of such motives and disapproved of hacking for the sake of it. This was a big part of his rift with Anony­mous – why he was considered a ‘moral fag’ by some.”

Among hacktivists, theories differ on the motive behind the FBI action. As one of the few public figures associated with Anonymous, Brown made a soft target with a potentially very valuable hard drive or two. Some say it was meant as a warning; others say Brown had simply pissed off too many powerful people, or was getting too close to something big.

Then there is the theory, advanced by Gregg Housh, that Brown and Hammond were targeted out of frustration with a blown sting against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. After looking into the Stratfor hack, Housh believes that the FBI allowed the hack to proceed not in order to arrest Hammond but Assange. “The idea was to have Sabu sell the stolen Stratfor material to Assange,” says Housh. “This would give them a concrete charge that he had knowingly bought stolen material to distribute on WikiLeaks.”

Housh believes Hammond got wind of Sabu’s plan to sell the documents to Assange and dumped them before the transaction could take place. While there is no proof of contact between Sabu and Assange, Sabu reportedly communicated with Sigurdur Thordarson, a teenage Icelandic WikiLeaks volunteer and an FBI informant.

“Hammond had no idea what he’d done,” says Housh. “The FBI were a day away from having evidence against Assange, and Hammond screwed it up for them. That’s why they went after him so hard.”

Yet Hammond, who led the Stratfor hack, faced only 30 years before cutting a plea deal for 10. Why is Brown facing 105?

Over the next four months, federal grand juries issued three multi-count indictments for obstruction and “access device­fraud” related to the Stratfor link. It is the last of these that concern civil-liberties activists and that could have a possible chilling effect. “One can’t apply the transfer provision of the statute to someone conducting research,” says Ghappour. “If cutting and pasting a link is the same as the transfer of the underlying data, then anyone on the Internet is prone to violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.”

The FBI has shown interest in expanding that theoretical “anyone” to include Brown’s circle of volunteers. In March, the bureau went hunting for the digital fingerprints of Project PM administrators with a subpoena. The action has shaken the group’s inner circle, as it was surely intended. “It was a pretext to sow discord and fear in Barrett’s project,” says Alan Ross, a U.K. investigator for Project PM. “They were desperate to bolster their case. After the subpoena, people began to worry about being monitored. I worry about my personal safety even though I acted within the confines of the law. I worry about travel.”

Travel is one thing Brown does not have to worry about at the moment. Nor, if the government gets its way, will he have to worry about handling the media, his former specialty. In August, the prosecution requested a gag be placed on Brown and his lawyers, a move that suggests they understand the dangers of public scrutiny of the legal peculiarities of United States vs. Barrett Lancaster Brown.

Meanwhile, Brown has not joined the prison tradition of mastering the law behind bars. Rather than study up on cyberfraud statutes, he has resumed his writing on intel contractors and the pundits who defend them. “Nobody talks to me here,” Brown says of his year in jail, “but I was pretty unsociable on the outside too.”

The case of Barrett Brown is absolutely absurd and a travesty of justice. To learn more and help him go to Free Barrett Brown.

Full Rolling Stone article here.

In Liberty,
Mike

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2 Comments

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  1. #8 in the gag order by judge SAM Lindsay is totally illegal. A gag order is Already an illegality against free speech to begin with. But #8 makes it retroactive to statements that were already made before the order was issued. Judge lindsay is clearly another criminal judge. A judge is supposed to uphold the law, not break it. Can it get more obvious than this? The crusades against real journalism is on folks.

    I’m wondering when some anti-syndicate entity will make a nice example out of these f/b/incompetence robots. Which is probably just what their masters want. The robots don’t get they are expendable too because they don’t think.

    There is only so much pushing people can take.

    Anyone in the business of investigatory journalism on these subjects should not be living in the ussa.

  2. America: Land of the Free. Who’s still that stupid to believe that? NSA, TSA, CIA, FBI,…and the Government,, most of them nothing more than morons, idiots, criminals … take your pick. How low has the US fallen? Shame on you.

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