Update: Barrett Brown has been sentenced to 63 months in federal prison, which include the 28 months he has already served, after pleading guilty to transmitting threats, aiding hackers and obstructing authorities from carrying out a search warrant. He must also pay $890,000 in restitution, according to Boing Boing and The Verge.
The mid-June sun is setting on the Mansfield jail near Dallas when Barrett Brown, the former public face of Anonymous, shuffles into the visitors hall wearing a jumpsuit of blazing orange. Once the nattiest anarchist around, Brown now looks like every other inmate in the overcrowded North Texas facility, down to his state-issued faux-Crocs, the color of candy corn.
Brown sits down across from his co-counsel, a young civil-liberties lawyer named Ahmed Ghappour, and raises a triumphant fist holding several sheets of notebook paper. “Penned it out,” he says. “After 10 months, I’m finally getting the hang of these archaic tools.” He hands the article, titled “The Cyber-Intelligence Complex and Its Useful Idiots,” to his lawyer with instructions to send it to his editor at The Guardian. Brown used to write for the British daily, but since he’s been in prison, it’s written about him and his strange legal ordeal that has had him locked up for nearly a year while he awaits trial next month. Should he be found guilty of all the charges the federal government is bringing against him – 17 counts, ranging from obstruction of justice to threatening a federal officer to identity fraud – he’ll face more than 100 years in prison.
Given the serious nature of his predicament, Brown, 32, seems shockingly relaxed. “I’m not worried or panicked,” he says. “It’s not even clear to me that I’ve committed a crime.” He describes his time here as a break from the drug-fueled mania of his prior life, a sort of digital and chemical fast in which he’s kicked opiates and indulged his pre-cyber whims – hours spent on the role-playing game GURPS and tearing through the prison’s collection of what he calls “English manor-house literature.”
Brown has been called many things during his brief public career – satirist, journalist, author, Anonymous spokesman, atheist, “moral fag,” “fame whore,” scourge of the national surveillance state. His commitment to investigating the murky networks that make up America’s post-9/11 intelligence establishment set in motion the chain of events that culminated in a guns-drawn raid of his Dallas apartment last September. “For a long time, the one thing I was happy not to see in here was a computer,” says Brown. “It appears as though the Internet has gotten me into some trouble.”
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?”
Brown’s case is a bellwether for press freedoms in the new century, where hacks and leaks provide some of our only glimpses into the technologies and policies of an increasingly privatized national security-and-surveillance state. What Brown did through his organization Project PM was attempt to expand these peepholes. He did this by leading group investigations into the world of private intelligence and cybersecurity contracting, a $56 billion industry that consumes 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget.
“Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty,” says Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders. “The sentence that he is facing is absurd and dangerous.”
Brown grew up in the affluent North Dallas neighborhood of Preston Hollow, where, following his parents’ divorce, he lived with his New Age mother. Karen Lancaster always believed her only son was special – he once wrote that she called him “an indigo child with an alien soul.” Among her house rules was that mother and son meditate together daily. She instructed him in the predictions of Nostradamus and made sure he kept a dream journal for the purpose, as Brown described it, “of helping him divine the future by way of my external connection to the collective unconscious.” (For her part, Brown’s mother says she was progressive, but not “New Age”, and that her son’s comments were made in jest.)
A precocious pre-adolescent reader and writer, Brown produced a newspaper on his family’s desktop computer while in elementary school. When he started writing for the student paper at his private high school in the mid-Nineties, he quickly clashed with the paper’s censors over his right to criticize the administration. “Barrett always challenged authority, even as a kid, and anytime you go up against authority, you’re going to get in trouble,” says Brown’s father, Robert. “You could sort of always see this coming.”
By the time he reached high school, Brown had discovered Ayn Rand and declared himself an atheist. He founded an Objectivist Society at school and distinguished himself from other Randians by placing second out of 5,000 entrants in a national Ayn Rand essay contest. (Brown now expresses regret over this.) By all accounts, Brown hated everything about organized education, preferring to follow his own curricula and chat up girls on the bulletin-board systems of a still-embryonic Internet.
After his sophomore year, Brown told his parents he wasn’t going back. He signed up for online courses and spent his junior year in Tanzania with his father, a Maserati-driving conservative, safari hunter and serial entrepreneur who was trying to launch a hardwood-harvesting business. “Barrett loved living in Africa,” says his father. “He preferred adventure to being in school with his peers. We weren’t far from the embassy that was bombed that year.”
Brown returned to the U.S. and in 2000 joined some of his childhood friends in Austin, where he spent two semesters taking writing classes at the University of Texas. After dropping out, he spent a summer doing what one friend calls a “heroic” amount of Ecstasy and acid before settling into the charmed life of a pre-crisis Austin slacker – working part-time, smoking pot and paying cheap rent in a series of group houses with enormous porches. Brown’s roommates remember his rooms as being strewn with leaning towers of books and magazines – he especially liked Gore Vidal, P.J. O’Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson – but say he was not especially political. “After 9/11 and Iraq, there were a lot of protests in Austin,” says Ian Holmes, a childhood friend of Brown’s. “I don’t remember him participating in it or being extra vocal, but he was against it all like everyone else.”
As Brown built up his clip book and matured as a writer, his ambitions began to outgrow Austin. In 2007, Brown moved to Brooklyn with a group of old friends that called itself “the Texadus.” Their Bushwick apartment emerged as a hub for Lone Star State refugees who liked to get high, crush beers and play video games. “People were always hanging out and coming and going,” says Caleb Pritchard, a childhood friend of Brown’s who lived with him in Austin and Brooklyn. Among the apartment’s large cast of characters were a crew of weed-delivery guys from Puerto Rico and Honduras who used the apartment as a daytime base of business operations. “They brought over an Xbox, bought us beer and food and played strategy games with us,” Pritchard says. “It was a good cultural exchange for a bunch of skinny white kids from Dallas.”
As virtual-world games grew increasingly sophisticated, Brown spent more time in front of his computer. But he didn’t play the games like most people. In Second Life, he linked up with a group of people known as “griefers,” the term for hackers who in the mid-00s became known for generating chaos inside video-game worlds. Socializing on the bulletin board 4chan.org, they formed the first cells of what would later become Anonymous. In the documentary We Are Legion, about the hacktivist group, Brown waxes nostalgic over his griefer period, when he’d spend entire nights “on Second Life riding around in a virtual spaceship with the words ‘faggery daggery doo’ written on it, wearing Afros, dropping virtual bombs on little villages while waving giant penises around. That was the most fun time I ever had in my life.”
When everyone else went out to the bars, Brown stayed in. Aside from video games and the odd afternoon of pick-up basketball, he also pounded out columns, diaries and blog posts for Vanity Fair, Daily Kos and McSweeney’s, as well as restaurant reviews and essays for weeklies like New York Press and The Onion’s A.V. Club. Though he had some paying gigs, he published most heavily in unpaid, self-edited community forums like Daily Kos and The Huffington Post. “Barrett wasn’t really working in New York so much as getting by with the help of friends and family,” says Pritchard. Among his unpaid gigs was his work as the spokesman for the Godless Americans PAC, which led to Brown’s first TV appearance, on the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends.
In Brooklyn, Brown resumed shooting heroin, which he’d dabbled in off and on since he was 19. Over the years, doctors have diagnosed him with ADHD and depression. Accurate or not, the diagnoses suggest Brown was drawn to opiates for more than just the high. “When I joined him in Brooklyn in ’08, Barrett was already basically a functional junkie,” says Pritchard.
Heroin did not mellow Brown when it came to America’s pundit class. Brown’s critique made clear he didn’t want to join the journalistic establishment so much as lash it without mercy. Then, in March 2010, he announced in a blog post the goal of replacing it, of making its institutions irrelevant and rebuilding them in the image of an overly self-confident 28-year-old junkie named Barrett Brown. It was perhaps his first public manifestation of extreme self-assurance that could come off as imperious self-importance. Brown himself did not deny it, once saying, “I don’t think arrogance is something I’m in a position to attack anyone on.”
The project envisioned by Brown was a new kind of crowdsourced think tank to be “established with a handful of contributors who have been selected by virtue of intellectual honesty, proven expertise in certain topics and journalistic competence in general.” He named it Project PM, after a gang in William Gibson’s Neuromancer called the Panther Moderns.
Brown conceived his new network partly as a response to what he saw as the sad state of affairs at the two main homes for his work, Daily Kos and HuffPo. After years of vibrancy, both now suffered from “the watering-down of contributor quality,” he said. At Project PM, he assured that “below-average participants will have only very limited means by which to clutter the network.”
With typical cigarette-waving flourish, Brown declared, “Never has there existed such opportunity for revolution in human affairs.”
Had Project PM developed along the lines of Brown’s original vision – as a kind of exclusive, experts-only, friends-of-Barrett blogger network – it is extremely unlikely that Brown would now be in jail. Or that the FBI would have subpoenaed the company hired to secure its server, as it did in March. But Project PM ended up taking a different route.
The event that locked Brown’s path into a collision course with the federal government came on February 11th, 2010, when he posted an essay on Huffington Post that he grandiloquently titled “Anonymous, Australia and the Inevitable Fall of the NationState.”
At the time, Anonymous was in the news after some of its hackers, in an action they called Operation Titstorm, brought down Australian government servers in retaliation for the government’s attempt to block certain kinds of niche pornography. For Brown, Titstorm was a world-historic game-changer, a portent of an age in which citizens could successfully challenge state power on their laptops and neutralize government propaganda and censorship.
In the comically aggrandizing tone that had become his trademark, Brown concluded, “I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and underreported social developments to have occurred in decades.”
Among those taken by Brown’s interpretation of Titstorm was Gregg Housh, a Boston Web designer and early Anonymous associate, who had emerged as a sort of quasi-spokesman for the group. Through Housh, Brown gained entrance to the online inner sanctums of the hackers he thought were turning history on its head. Housh, who was starting to feel burned out from fielding the barrage of international media requests, saw Brown as someone who could step in and talk to reporters for Anonymous.
“Barrett ‘got it’ in a way few journalists did,” says Housh. “Soon, he was one of us, and that pretty much set the course for everything that happened next.”
Brown always denied holding any official capacity as the spokesman of Anonymous, maintaining such a thing was not even possible given the amorphous nature of the group. Yet he embraced the media role with relish, sometimes using the royal “we” during interviews. In March 2011, Brown described himself to a visiting NBC News crew as a “senior strategist” for Anonymous. He also, along with Housh, began writing a book about the group, detailing the transformation of Anonymous from a community of amoral videogame-playing punks into an ethical crusade, assisting street protests across the globe during the Arab Spring.
From the beginning, Brown’s public role was a subject of internal controversy. A minority dismissed and attacked him as a preening “name fag” – Anonymous slang for people who use their real names and speak to the press. Others were more bothered that Brown was a “moral fag,” the term used by unrepentant griefers to describe the new generation of hacktivists who began flocking to the Anonymous banner in 2008. In We Are Legion, Brown makes his allegiance clear, hailing the hacktivists for turning a “nihilist, ridiculous group” into a “force for good.”
Yet something of the old griefer remained in Brown even after his and the group’s politicization process had converged to take on the world of intelligence outsourcing. “He was just trolling the hell out of these corporate-surveillance guys,” says Joe Fionda, a New York activist who assisted Brown in his investigations. “Not just doing the serious research work no one else was doing – getting tax files and all that – but calling them at their homes to introduce himself, sometimes straight up pranking them. He’s legit funny and sees the humor and the absurd in everything.”
Another former colleague, a Boston Web developer and activist named Lauren Pespisa, shared Brown’s love of prank calls: “Sometimes we’d drink and prank-call lobbyists for fun. We went after this one group, Qorvis, because they were helping the kingdom of Bahrain handle its image when they were shooting people. So we’d call them up and ‘dragon shout’ at them,” she says, referring to a sound effect in one of Brown’s favorite video games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
By combining the two ethos of Anonymous, Brown won over more people than he alienated. Part of his appeal was the act of his drily affected pseudo-aristocratic-asshole persona, which he exaggerated during media appearances. He preferred a corduroy sports jacket to the Guy Fawkes mask that Anonymous members favor. A typical portrait showed Brown’s arm slung over a chair, a Marlboro dangling off his bottom lip and a stuffed bobcat on the wall behind him. He was oth loved and hated for being one of the more colorful characters found in the Internet Relay Chat rooms where hackers gathered. He famously once conducted a strategy session while drinking red wine in a bubble bath.
“Barrett became a bit like the court jester of Anonymous,” says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who has written about the network. “His behavior was legendary because he was the ethical foil. Anonymous isn’t just for hackers. People like Barrett Brown can thrive: the organizer, the media-maker, the spectacle-maker.”
When Brown met Housh, he was nearing the end of his three-year stint in Brooklyn. In the spring of 2010, Brown called his parents and told them he had a heroin problem. At their urging, he returned to Dallas and began an outpatient treatment that included the heroin replacement Suboxone. It was from a tiny Dallas apartment that Brown deepened his involvement with Anonymous. Since most of his friends lived in Austin, his new social life consisted of the IRC rooms populated by hacktivists. It was a world of nonstop, petty cyberintrigue, which to outsiders can appear like a hellish fusion of The Hollywood Squares, WarGames and Degrassi Junior High.
Pritchard remembers the first time Brown crashed on his couch in Austin after his return to Dallas. “I’d wake up, and he’d be online having conversations with these kids on Skype or something,” he says. “Barrett would say, ‘I know what you’re doing!’ The other guy would be stroking his chin like he’s Dr. Claw, saying, ‘No, I know what you’re doing.’ It was nonstop cyberwar, with these dorks just dorking it out with each other. It seemed like a bunch of kids trolling each other.”
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.
By the time of the arrests, Brown’s focus had settled squarely on the nexus between government agencies, private intelligence firms and the information-security industry – known as InfoSec – contracted to build programs and technologies of surveillance, disruption and control that Brown suspected were in many cases unconstitutional. What’s more, he was as bratty as ever about it. He phoned CEOs and flacks at their homes and called them liars. He boasted about bringing the whole system down. As the first raids and arrests took place following Operation PayBack, some observers of Brown’s antics began to suspect that the court jester of Anonymous was not a very safe thing to be.
“You could just tell it was going to end badly,” says an Anonymous member and veteran hacker. “When he really started making noise about going after these intel-contracting companies, I was like, ‘You’re going to get locked up, kid.'”
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.
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.”
The revelations represented a triumph for Brown and his wiki. A group of Democratic congressmen asked four Republican committee chairs to hold hearings on the “deeply troubling” question of whether “tactics developed for use against terrorists may have been unleashed illegally against American citizens.” But the calls for investigation went nowhere. The lack of outrage in Washington or on influential editorial pages didn’t shock Brown, who had long ago lost hope in the politicians and pundits who are “clearly intent on killing off even this belated scrutiny into the invisible empire that so thoroughly scrutinizes us – at our own expense and to unknown ends.”
It was Brown’s finest moment, but his relationship with Anonymous was rapidly deteriorating. By May 2011, Brown had begun turning on the network. “There’s little quality control in a movement like [Anonymous],” Brown told an interviewer. “You attract a lot of people whose interest is in fucking with video-game companies.”
Brown’s haughty dismissal of the new crop of hacktivists was not a feeling shared by the FBI. The government continued to see Anonymous as a major and growing threat. And in the summer of 2011, it acquired a key piece in its operation to destroy the network. On the night of June 7th, four months after the HBGary hack, two federal agents visited the Jacob Riis publichousing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and introduced themselves to a 27-year-old unemployed hacker named Hector Monsegur, known inside Anonymous as “Sabu.” As a leader of an Anonymous offshoot called Lulzsec, he had hacked a number of state and corporate servers. In early 2011, he made some rookie errors that led the FBI to his door: Facing the prospect of being indicted on 12 counts of criminal conspiracy, Sabu rolled over on his old hacker associates. He signed a cooperation agreement and began feeding the FBI information on Anonymous plots. The biggest of these involved a private global intelligence contractor located in Barrett Brown’s backyard, the Austin-based Stratfor.
In early December 2011, a young Chicago Anon named Jeremy Hammond cracked Stratfor’s server and downloaded some 5 million internal documents. With the apparent blessing and supervision of the FBI, Sabu provided the server for Hammond to store the docs. Hammond then proceeded to release them to the public. Sifting through the data dump would require a massive coordinated effort of exactly the kind Project PM had been training for. Brown and his dedicated volunteers attacked the mountains of e-mails. “We had between 30 and 50 people involved, usually 15 at a time,” says Lauren Pespisa, the Boston Project PM volunteer who now helps organize Brown’s legaldefense fund.
After six months of work, Brown would discover what he considered the fattest spider amid the miles of Stratfor web: a San Diego-based cybersecurity firm called Cubic. As Brown followed the strings, he discovered links between Cubic and a data-mining contractor known as TrapWire, which had ties to CIA vets. Brown thought that he had stumbled on a major find illuminating new technologies for spying and surveillance, but the media pickup was not what Brown had hoped. Major dailies shrugged off the story, and Gawker and Slate poured cold water on his alarm, calling it “outlandish.” Brown responded to the criticism with a rambling, connect-the-conspiracy-dots YouTube video.
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?”
It takes a suspension of disbelief to hear a credible physical threat as defined by law. The rail-thin Brown appears a desperate, pathetic character in need of psychiatric help. A more humane FBI office might have sent a doctor rather than a car of armed agents. But the FBI didn’t send a shrink. That evening a team of armed agents stormed Brown’s apartment, threw him violently to the ground and arrested him for threatening a federal officer.
Over the next four months, federal grand juries issued three multicount 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.” One of the hardest things about incarceration for the atheist has been contending with his cellmates’ singing of hymns. “Prison is great for reading and for thought, until they start in with their Pentecostal nonsense,” says Brown. “It ruins everything.”
His friends keep him supplied with articles and printouts, which lately have included material related to the Edward Snowden leak. Snowden gained access to information about secret NSA spying on private citizens while working for the intelligence subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that had been on Brown’s radar long before most Americans learned of it in the wake of Snowden’s bombshells.
“This is all much bigger than me,” Brown says in the visiting room. “What matters is this.” He leans over to tap his handwritten manuscript. The pages of the essay are messy on the table, and sticking out from under the pile is the last sentence on the last page. “This is the world that we accept if we continue to avert our eyes,” it says. “And it promises to get much worse.”
This story is from the August 29th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.