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<nettime> Peter Ludlow: The Strange Case of Barrett Brown (The Nation)
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 23 Jun 2013 22:40:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Peter Ludlow: The Strange Case of Barrett Brown (The Nation)

Original to The Nation

 The Strange Case of Barrett Brown

Amid the outrage over the NSA's spying program, the jailing of
journalist Barrett Brown points to a deeper and very troubling

by Peter Ludlow
June 18, 2013

In early 2010, journalist and satirist Barrett Brown was working
on a book on political pundits, when the hacktivist collective
Anonymous caught his attention. He soon began writing about its
activities and potential. In a defense of the group?s anti-censorship
operations in Australia published on February 10, Brown declared, ?I
am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and
under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and
that the development in question promises to threaten the institution
of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world?s
most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.?

By then, Brown was already considered by his fans to be the Hunter S.
Thompson of his generation. In point of fact he wasn?t like Hunter
S. Thompson, but was more of a throwback?a sharp-witted, irreverent
journalist and satirist in the mold of Ambrose Bierce or Dorothy
Parker. His acid tongue was on display in his co-authored 2007 book,
Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the
Easter Bunny, in which he declared: ?This will not be a polite book.
Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who will always take advantage
of any well-intended concession.?

But it wasn?t Brown?s acid tongue so much as his love of minutiae
(and ability to organize and explain minutiae) that would ultimately
land him in trouble. Abandoning his book on pundits in favor of a
book on Anonymous, he could not have known that delving into the
territory of hackers and leaks would ultimately lead to his facing the
prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In light of the
bombshell revelations published by Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman
about government and corporate spying, Brown?s case is a good?and
underreported?reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who
report on leaks.

In February 2011, a year after Brown penned his defense of Anonymous,
and against the background of its actions during the Arab Spring,
Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, claimed to
have identified the leadership of the hacktivist collective. (In fact,
he only had screen names of a few members). Barr?s boasting provoked
a brutal hack of HBGary by a related group called Internet Feds (it
would soon change its name to ?LulzSec?). Splashy enough to attract
the attention of The Colbert Report, the hack defaced and destroyed
servers and websites belonging to HBGary. Some 70,000 company e-mails
were downloaded and posted online. As a final insult to injury, even
the contents of Aaron Barr?s iPad were remotely wiped.

The HBGary hack may have been designed to humiliate the company, but
it had the collateral effect of dropping a gold mine of information
into Brown?s lap. One of the first things he discovered was a plan
to neutralize Glenn Greenwald?s defense of Wikileaks by undermining
them both. (?Without the support of people like Glenn, wikileaks
would fold,? read one slide.) The plan called for ?disinformation,?
exploiting strife within the organization and fomenting external
rivalries??creating messages around actions to sabotage or discredit
the opposing organization,? as well as a plan to submit fake documents
and then call out the error.? Greenwald, it was argued, ?if pushed,?
would ?choose professional preservation over cause.?

Other plans targeted social organizations and advocacy groups.
Separate from the plan to target Greenwald and WikiLeaks, HBGary was
part of a consortia that submitted a proposal to develop a ?persona
management? system for the United States Air Force, that would allow
one user to control multiple online identities for commenting in
social media spaces, thus giving the appearance of grassroots support
or opposition to certain policies.

The data dump from the HBGary hack was so vast that no one person
could sort through it alone. So Brown decided to crowdsource the
effort. He created a wiki page, called it ProjectPM, and invited other
investigative journalists to join in. Under Brown?s leadership, the
initiative began to slowly untangle a web of connections between the
US government, corporations, lobbyists and a shadowy group of private
military and information security consultants.

One connection was between Bank of America and the Chamber of
Commerce. WikiLeaks had claimed to possess a large cache of documents
belonging to Bank of America. Concerned about this, Bank of America
approached the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ directed
it to the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does legal
work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch
Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, Gas Processors
Association, Entergy among many other firms. The DoJ recommended
that Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, explicitly suggesting
Richard Wyatt as the person to work with. Wyatt, famously, was the
lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce?s lawsuit against the Yes

In November 2010, Hunton and Williams organized a number of private
intelligence, technology development and security contractors?HBGary,
plus Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and, according
to Brown, a secretive corporation with the ominous name Endgame
Systems?to form ?Team Themis???themis? being a Greek word meaning
?divine law.? Its main objective was to discredit critics of the
Chamber of Commerce, like Chamber Watch, using such tactics as
creating a ?false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial
information,? giving it to a progressive group opposing the Chamber,
and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to ?prove that
US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the
truth.? In addition, the group proposed creating a ?fake insider
persona? to infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would ?create two fake
insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while
confirming the legitimacy of the second.? The leaked e-mails showed
that similar disinformation campaigns were being planned against
WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.

It was clear to Brown that these were actions of questionable
legality, but beyond that, government contractors were attempting to
undermine Americans? free speech?with the apparent blessing of the
DOJ. A group of Democratic congressmen asked for an investigation into
this arrangement, to no avail.

By June 2011, the plot had thickened further. The FBI had the goods
on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who went
under the nom de guerre Sabu. The FBI arrested him on June 7, 2011,
and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant
the following day. Just three days before his arrest, Sabu had
been central to the formation of a new group called AntiSec, which
comprised his former LulzSec crew members, as well as members as
Anonymous. In early December AntiSec hacked the website of a private
security company called Stratfor Global Intelligence. On Christmas
Eve, it released a trove of some 5 million internal company e-mails.
AntiSec member and Chicago activist Jeremy Hammond has pled guilty to
the attack and is currently facing ten years in prison for it.

The contents of the Stratfor leak were even more outrageous than those
of the HBGary hack. They included discussion of opportunities for
renditions and assassinations. For example, in one video, Statfor?s
vice president of intelligence, Fred Burton, suggested taking
advantage of the chaos in Libya to render Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset
al-Megrahi, who had been released from prison on compassionate grounds
due to his terminal illness. Burton said that the case ?was personal.?
When someone pointed out in an e-mail that such a move would almost
certainly be illegal??This man has already been tried, found guilty,
sentenced?and served time??another Stratfor employee responded that
this was just an argument for a more efficient solution: "One more
reason to just bugzap him with a hellfire. :-)"

(Stratfor employees also seemed to take a keen interest in Jeremy
Scahill's writings about Blackwater in The Nation, copying and
circulating entire articles, with comments suggesting a principle
interest was in the question of whether Blackwater was setting up a
competing intelligence operation. E-mails also showed grudging respect
for Scahill: "Like or dislike Scahill's position (or what comes of his
work), he does an amazing job outing [Blackwater].")

When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Brown decided
to put ProjectPM on it. A link to the Stratfor dump appeared in an
Anonymous chat channel; Brown copied it and pasted it into the private
chat channel for ProjectPM, bringing the dump to the attention of the

Brown began looking into Endgame Systems, an information security
firm that seemed particularly concerned about staying in the shadows.
"Please let HBGary know we don?t ever want to see our name in a press
release," one leaked e-mail read. One of its products, available for a
$2.5 million annual subscription, gave customers access to "zero-day
exploits"?security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies?for
computer systems all over the world. Business Week published a story
on Endgame in 2011, reporting that "Endgame executives will bring up
maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The
executives then create a list of the computers running inside the
facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of
attacks that could work against those particular systems." For Brown,
this raised the question of whether Endgame was selling these exploits
to foreign actors and whether they would be used against computer
systems in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the hammer came

The FBI acquired a warrant for Brown?s laptop, gaining the authority
to seize any information related to HBGary, Endgame Systems, Anonymous
and, most ominously, "email, email contacts, ?chat?, instant messaging
logs, photographs, and correspondence." In other words, the FBI wanted
his sources.

When the FBI went to serve Brown, he was at his mother?s house. Agents
returned with a warrant to search his mother?s house, retrieving
his laptop. To turn up the heat on Brown, the FBI initiated charges
against his mother for obstruction of justice for concealing his
laptop computer in her house. (Facing criminal charges, on March
22, 2013, his mother, Karen McCutchin, pled guilty to one count of
obstructing the execution of a search warrant. She faces up to twelve
months in jail. Brown maintains that she did not know the laptop was
in her home.)

By his own admission, the FBI?s targeting of his mother made Brown
snap. In September 2012, he uploaded an incoherent YouTube video, in
which he explained that he had been in treatment for an addiction to
heroin, taking the medication Suboxone, but had gone off his meds and
now was in withdrawal. He threatened the FBI agent that was harassing
his mother, by name, warning:

"I know what?s legal, I know what?s been done to me.? And if it?s
legal when it?s done to me, it?s going to be legal when it?s done to
FBI Agent Robert Smith?who is a criminal."

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

The media narrative was immediately derailed. No longer would this be
a story about the secretive information-military-industrial complex;
now it was the sordid tale of a crazy drug addict threatening an FBI
agent and his (grown) children. Actual death threats against agents
are often punishable by a few years in jail. But Brown?s actions made
it easier for the FBI to sell some other pretext to put him away for

The Stratfor data included a number of unencrypted credit card numbers
and validation codes. On this basis, the DOJ accused Brown of credit
card fraud for having shared that link with the editorial board
of ProjectPM. Specifically, the FBI charged him with traffic in
stolen authentication features, access device fraud and aggravated
identity theft, as well as an obstruction of justice charge (for being
at his mother?s when the initial warrant was served) and charges
stemming from his threats against the FBI agent. All told, Brown is
looking at century of jail time: 105 years in federal prison if served
sequentially. He has been denied bail.

Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor
hack had several priors and is facing a maximum of ten years, the
inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack
itself but with Brown?s journalism. As Glenn Greenwald remarked inThe
Guardian: ?It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely
excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and
his related activism.?

Today, Brown is in prison and ProjectPM is under increased scrutiny
by the DOJ, even as its work has ground to a halt. In March, the DOJ
served the domain hosting service CloudFlare with a subpoena for
all records on the ProjectPM website, and in particular asked for
the IP addresses of everyone who had accessed and contributed to
ProjectPM, describing it as a ?forum? through which Brown and others
would ?engage in, encourage, or facilitate the commission of criminal
conduct online.? The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into
this matter does so at their grave peril.

Some journalists are now understandably afraid to go near the
Stratfor files. The broader implications of this go beyond Brown;
one might think that what we are looking at is Cointelpro 2.0?an
outsourced surveillance state?but in fact it?s worse. One can?t help
but infer that the US Department of Justice has become just another
security contractor, working alongside the HBGarys and Stratfors on
behalf of corporate bidders, with no sense at all for the justness
of their actions; they are working to protect corporations and
private security contractors and give them license to engage in
disinformation campaigns against ordinary citizens and their advocacy
groups. The mere fact that the FBI?s senior cybersecurity advisor
has recently moved to Hunton and Williams shows just how incestuous
this relationship has become. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice
is also using its power and force to trample on the rights of
citizens like Barrett Brown who are trying to shed light on these
nefarious relationships. In order to neutralize those who question or
investigate the system, laws are being reinterpreted or extended or
otherwise misappropriated in ways that are laughable?or would be if
the consequences weren?t so dire.

While the media and much of the world have been understandably
outraged by the revelation of the NSA?s spying programs, Barrett
Brown?s work was pointing to a much deeper problem. It isn?t the sort
of problem that can be fixed by trying to tweak a few laws or by
removing a few prosecutors. The problem is not with bad laws or bad
prosecutors. What the case of Barrett Brown has exposed is that we
confronting a different problem altogether. It is a systemic problem.
It is the failure of the rule of law.

Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read
Greg Mitchell?s obituary here. Peter Ludlow June 18, 2013

About the Author
Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, is
currently co-producing (with Vivien Lesnik Weisman) a documentary on
hacktivist actions against private intelligence firms and the surveillance

Also by the Author
WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture (Internet and New Media, Law, Media
Activism, Peace Activism)

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