Huffpost Technology

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Urizenus Sklar Headshot

Barrett Brown vs. the Private Intelligence Business

Posted: Updated:

In June of 2011, the journalist Barrett Brown published an article in the Guardian, outlining a sinister cyber-surveillance program -- "a disturbing public-private partnership to spy on web users." In view of the recent exposure of the PRISM program by Edward Snowden, one might think Brown would be in the news discussing the strikingly similar new revelations, but he isn't. He is in federal custody, facing charges that add up to 105 years in prison. The question is: Why? In a recent article in The Nation I walked through the details of his case, but some additional contextualization is called for.

First, it needs to be understood that Barrett Brown is a remarkable, acid tongued journalist with an uncanny ability to sort out details and present them in a way that made wading through those details fun. This is evident in his many essays for Vanity Fair, The Skeptical Inquirer, True/Slant, The Guardian, and here on The Huffington Post. Barrett certainly would not let a detail drop when he caviled at conservative pundits like Thomas Friedman, Michelle Malkin, Charles Krauthammer and Sarah Palin biographer Robert Stacy McCain. In the latter case every line from R.S. McCain's broadside against Brown is analyzed and ridiculed mercilessly (e.g. when McCain rhetorically asks if Brown is engaging in sarcasm when talking about his mother, Brown pounces: "Seriously, though, I hate when people misuse terms like "sarcastic." Sarcasm is saying stuff like, 'Oh, yeah, R.S. McCain's definitely not a white nationalist, he just used to write for a white nationalist publication under an assumed name.'") Mort Zuckerman came in for some of the same when he complained that Obama had allowed the Iraq war to "linger."

"This would be an entirely valid criticism of Obama coming from someone who actually opposes any such lingering; coming from a man who not long ago wrote a big long editorial proclaiming that such lingering must go on forever, as Zuckerman did in a piece entitled "Why We Can't Leave," it is rendered -- and this is just me thinking out loud here -- somewhat less valid. Still, this is only my opinion, drawn from nothing more than the very basics of logic and intellectual decency."

But it wasn't Brown's acid tongue so much as his love of minutia (and ability to organize and explain minutia) that ultimately landed him in trouble.

In 2010 Brown was working on a book on right-wing political pundits, when some of the actions of the hacktivist collective Anonymous caught his attention and he penned a defense in support of one of their anti-censorship operations in Australia. This brought him to the attention of Greg Housh, who had been an unofficial Anonymous spokesperson and who subsequently brought Brown into the orbit of Anonymous where he became a spokesperson for Anonymous during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. (Brown's role did not involving computer hacking, something that was not part of his skill set.)

In February, 2011, against the background of the Anonymous actions in the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, the CEO of a private information security company called HBGary boasted that he had identified leadership of Anonymous. This boast provoked an epic hack of HBGary by a hacktivist group called Intenet Feds (subsequently called LulzSec). That hack, which was splashy enough to garner the attention of The Colbert Report, resulted in the defacing and destruction of the servers and websites of HBGary. Along the way 70,000 e-mails were downloaded and posted online. One terabyte of data from HBGary's backup servers were wiped, and as a final insult to injury the contents of its CEO Aaron Barr's iPad were remotely wiped.

Sometimes life affords us the kind of dramatic moments that are usually only realized in films. One such moment is when the person with exactly the right skill set happens to be in the right place at the right time - for example the retired and/or disgraced supercop who happens to be right there when the bad guys arrive. In this case, the HBGary hack, motivated by the desire to humiliate HBGary, had the side effect of dropping a gold mine into the lap of a heretofore largely unknown but intelligent, articulate and focused journalist.

What caught the attention of Barrett Brown's journalistic eye were the contents yielded by that hack. One of the first things discovered was a power point presentation that developed a strategy for undermining the credibility of the journalist Glenn Greenwald and thereby neutralize his defense of WikiLeaks. But there was more. There was a conspiracy of government agencies, lobbying and cybersecurity firms to carry out a disinformation campaign against critics of the Chamber of Commerce. There were also plans for data mining and disinformation campaigns targeting social organizations and advocacy groups.

Barrett's appetite for detail notwithstanding, the data dump from the hack was so vast that no one person could sort through it alone. Accordingly, he crowdsourced the effort, inviting other investigative journalists to join him on his wiki ProjectPM. Beginning in February of 2011, ProjectPM under Brown's leadership began to slowly untangle the web of connections between the US Government, corporations, lobbyists, and a shadowy group of private military and infosecurity consultants.

For example, how did The Chamber of Commerce and the Bank of America get wrapped up in this? WikiLeaks had been claiming that they had a large data dump of emails from a hack of the Bank of America. The Bank of America was clearly concerned about this and, according to the leaked HBGary emails, it approached the U.S. Department of Justice for assistance. The DoJ in turn directed the Bank of America to the law/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. (Significantly, they hired the FBI's senior cybersecurity advisor just last month. We will come back to this). The DoJ not only recommended that the Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, but explicitly suggested they utilize H&W's Richard Wyatt, who famously was the lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce's lawsuit against the Yes Men and was also the attorney in Food Lion's lawsuit against ABC News.

Hunton and Williams in turn organized a group of three private cyber security contractors (all of them government contractors) into a group known as "Team Themis" (after Themis, the Greek god of proper custom). These were the aforementioned HBGary, plus Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies. The leaked emails showed that Team Themis was developing disinformation plans against critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, WikiLeaks and others. Of course it was clear to Brown that these were actions of questionable legality, but beyond that there was this: Government contractors were engaged in undermining the free speech of American Citizens. And they seemed to have the blessing of the U.S. Department of Justice!

Hunton and Williams effectively served as the cutout for the DoJ, preventing it from having to directly organize and authorize what possibly were illegal activities. (A group of Democratic Congressmen asked for an investigation, but to no effect).

The plot was already thick, but then it thickened more. By June, the FBI had the goods on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who was known to his associates in LulzSec as Sabu. The FBI arrested Sabu on June 7, 2011 and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant the following day. Six months later (Dec. 24, 2011) under the control of the FBI and possibly the FBI's direction, Sabu appears to have directed some of his LulzSec crew (now called AntiSec) to hack the website of a private security company known as Stratfor Global Intelligence, yielding a trove of approximately five million emails. The FBI may have controlled Sabu and hence the Stratfor hack, but they lost control of the five million emails in the Stratfor database, which quickly made their way onto the Internet and then to WikiLeaks.

When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Barrett Brown (who again played no role in the hacking and had no relation to LulzSec or Sabu) determined that his ProjectPM should have a look at it. To direct the project participants to the Stratfor data dump, he pasted a URL into a chat channel. This ultimately would be the principle "crime" for which he is facing 105 years in jail.

It is worth noting that the contents of the Stratfor hack (which I discuss in my article in The Nation) are even more outrageous than those of the HBGary hack. This time the emails ranged from blatant admissions of renditions and talk of throwing people out of helicopters to plans to discredit the Yes Men on behalf of Union Carbide. One remarkable exchange revealed that the Coca-Cola company was asking Stratfor for intelligence on dealing with PETA, and the Stratfor Vice President for Intelligence remarked in a leaked email that "The FBI has a classified investigation on PETA operatives. I'll see what I can uncover." Suggesting, of course, that not only did Stratfor have access to the classified material, but that it would be provided to Coca-Cola. The FBI had been turned into a private dick for corporate America.

The FBI, arguably itself responsible for the information being released, needed to get the toothpaste back into the tube, decided that one way to staunch the distribution of the Stratfor data would be to stomp on Brown and his Project PM. A warrant was issued for Brown's laptop, presumably on the assumption that incriminating information would be found there.

When the FBI went to serve the warrant on Brown he was not home but at his mother's house, and he sensibly decided to stay there. The FBI returned with a warrant to search his mother's house, retrieved his laptop, and found exactly nothing incriminating. Deciding they needed a way to turn up the heat on Brown, they initiated charges against his mother for obstruction of justice.

Every hero has a tragic flaw, and in Barrett Brown's case it was surely his struggles overcoming an addiction to heroin. At the time he was experiencing the difficult side effects of the medication he was taking to ameliorate the effects of heroin withdrawal while also dealing with the harassment of his mother by the FBI, and he snapped, uploading a video to YouTube that vaguely threatened the FBI agent that was harassing his mother.

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?

This was all it took to derail the subsequent media narrative -- or what little media narrative there would be. It was no longer about a super secret information-military-industrial complex, it was about a drug addict making a "threat" to an FBI agent and his children (who are, by the way, are adults). Never mind that actual threats of death against agents typically only earn someone a few years in jail, this would be the narrative distraction that would make it possible to find some other pretext to put Barrett away for the rest of his life.

Because threatening an agent would only put Barrett away for a few years, the charges that could lock him up permanently had to be found elsewhere. And here we see the mistake of those that suppose the problem lies with a handful of outdated laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In this instance, the DoJ took advantage of the fact that the Stratfor data had a number of unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes. This would be the pretext for charging Brown with Traffic in Stolen Authentication Features, Access Device Fraud, Aggravated Identity Theft. Add to this an Obstruction of Justice charge and the charges relating to the threat against the FBI agent, and Brown is looking century of jail time. He has been denied bail.

When Brown went to jail, work on ProjectPM ground to a halt. Even worse, the DoJ now took an interest in everyone else who had participated in ProjectPM. On April 2, 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, claiming it was a criminal enterprise. The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into this matter does so at their grave peril.

Here we are. Barrett Brown sits in prison and many activists are afraid to go near the Stratfor files; worse, the mainstream media appears to be completely uninterested in their contents.

While the media and much of the world have been understandably outraged by the revelation of the PRISM program, Barrett Brown's work was pointing towards much deeper problems. First, he showed that this wasn't merely a problem of private intelligence firms spying on us -- it was worse than that. As I recently argued in a New York Times opinion piece, these firms are trying to manufacture a false reality for us. They are engaged in PSYOPS against a civilian population on behalf of their corporate clients.

But even this tells only half the story. One might have thought that private intelligence agencies were simply doing outsourced intelligence work for the U.S. Government. But unfortunately it seems that the tail has begun to wag the dog -- it appears that in many respects the U.S. Government and in particular the Department of Justice is now working for private intelligence firms. This is evident when, for example, Stratfor asks for FBI classified files on PETA or the Department of Justice is used to try and punish journalists for probing into these private intelligence companies.

In The Nation I argued that what we are in effect witnessing is the failure of the rule of law, but on reflection the situation is actually much worse than that. It is not as though the rule of law has simply broken down; it has been inverted from a system that protects us from powerful interests to one that is in the service of powerful interests, and one that will come down with all its might on someone, like Barrett Brown, who attempts to expose this new reality. It is the subversion of the rule of law.

Peter Ludlow is co-producing a documentary film on information freedom, Barrett Brown and the nexus between the intelligence contractors and the surveillance state with filmmaker and Huffington Post blogger Vivien Lesnik Weisman.

Follow the film @vivienweisman

From Our Partners