It wasn't just gossip sites that viewed Brown's reading of the Stratfor docs with a skeptical eye. Even sympathetic students of intelligence contracting urged caution about interpreting the TrapWire materials. "I applaud anyone digging into this stuff, but you can't really draw conclusions from what these contractors say in these e-mails because they're bragging and they're trying to land business," says Tim Shorrock, whose 2008 book Spies for Hire first exposed the scope of the intelligence-contracting industry. "Some of the quote-unquote intelligence that Stratfor was reporting on was ludicrous. Why would an intelligence agency buy this stuff?"
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 alreadyleaked documents, he was intentionally "transferring" data for the purpose of credit-card and identity fraud.
"If the Pentagon Papers included creditcard 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."
The FBI raided Brown's Dallas apartment on the morning of March 6th, 2012, three months after the Stratfor hack, and one day after Jeremy Hammond was arrested in Chicago. More than a dozen feds led by agent Robert Smith knocked down the door with warrants for Brown's computers and seized his Xbox. Brown was staying at his mother's house nearby. Later that morning, the agents appeared at the home of Brown's mother with a second warrant. They found his laptop in a kitchen cabinet, and she was later charged with obstruction. Brown, who was in the shower preparing for a TV interview when the agents arrived, was not arrested. The agents left with his laptop.
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?
Following the March raid, Brown continued his investigations and planned for the future of Project PM. 2012 was going to be a big year. He had a new nucleus of friends and colleagues in Boston, where he was going to move and live in an activist group house. His investigations increasingly took place outside the Anonymous network. Brown had new allies in groups like Telecomix, a collective that operated its own crowdsourcing investigations into the cybersurveillance industry. That summer, he visited New York for the Hackers on Planet Earth conference, an annual gathering of hackers and activists, where he met a few of his Project PM colleagues offline for the first time. "I remember he was wearing a full suit in this crazy heat, sweating profusely in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania," says Fionda. "He was still struggling with kicking heroin, he had tremors and looked like he was in a lot of pain. But he was full of energy. He was telling everyone, 'We're going to the center of the Earth with this story!'"
But Brown's mental state seemed to deteriorate during the summer of 2012. Having battled depression throughout his life, he had gone off his meds and was simultaneously struggling with cold-turkey breaks from Suboxone for heroin withdrawal. His YouTube channel documents the effects. In August, Brown posted a clip that showed him skeet-shooting over the words of Caligula's lament: "If only all of Rome had just one neck." In early September, as Brown planned his move to Boston, he struggled to contain his rage at the local FBI agent Robert Smith, who had raided his mother's home and taken his beloved Xbox.
In September, Brown uploaded a discombobulated three-part video series, the last one titled "Why I'm Going to Destroy FBI Agent Robert Smith." In the videos, Brown struggles to maintain focus. He demands the return of his Xbox and warns that he comes from a military family that has trained him with weapons – weapons he says he'll use to defend his home. He calls Smith a "fucking chickenshit little faggot cocksucker" before uttering the words he has since admitted were ill-considered, as well as the result of a chemically combustive mental state.
"Robert Smith's life is over," says Brown. "And when I say his life is over, I don't say I'm going to go kill him, but I'm going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids. How do you like them apples?"
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