United States / Surveillance

The Case of Barrett Brown and the War on Journalism

By Christopher Wedeman

This will be remembered as a formative year in the war for control over the flow of information on the Internet. Disclosures by Edward Snowden triggered international consciousness of wide-ranging and pervasive surveillance of people all over the world by United States “security” agencies.

But while much reporting has been dedicated to the National Security Agency (NSA) monitoring online communications and the hunt for Edward Snowden, the quiet persecution of journalists researching the murky world of private intelligence and defense contractors points to a deeper and more sinister problem.

Project PM

Barrett Brown is a 32-year-old investigative journalist who is facing (if served consecutively) 105 years in prison after his arrest last year on multiple charges of credit card fraud and charges involving threatening an FBI agent and concealing evidence. Brown wrote for Vanity Fair, the Huffington Post, and The Guardian. His association with Anonymous, an amorphous collective of Internet hacktivists, caused Brown to be considered an unofficial spokesperson for the group despite renouncing links with them in 2011.

That same year, Aaron Barr, the CEO of the technology security company HBGary Federal claimed to have infiltrated and identified members of Anonymous. In response, the Internet Feds (later renamed LulzSec), a hacktivist collective associated with Anonymous, leaked 70,000 HBGary Federal company emails. Barrett Brown became obsessed with the documents leaked by LulzSec.

In order to sift through the thousands of emails, Barrett Brown created ProjectPM, an online crowdsourcing effort with other investigative journalists. Brown described ProjectPM as “… dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance.”

What They Learned

ProjectPM learned of a mass surveillance and data-mining program targeting the Arab world, a proposal to the US Air Force to develop software that would create an “army” of fake social media profiles to foster the appearance of grassroots support for certain policies, and the employment of American public relations firms to discredit and sabotage dissidents in US corporate-friendly countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

Most interestingly, however, ProjectPM found a story beginning when Julian Assange, the Australian editor-in-chief of the non-profit publishing organization WikiLeaks, stated that WikiLeaks had five gigabytes of information that would reveal an “ecosystem of corruption” about “a big US bank.” (That data would later be destroyed without being published by former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheil-Berg.)

Concerned about the possible leak, Bank of America approached the US Department of Justice, who recommended that they hire the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, and other large US corporations.

Hunton and Williams organized a number of private intelligence, technology development, and security contractors- HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies, and Endgame Systems- to form “Team Themis.” The main objective of Team Themis would be to discredit critics of the lobbying group US Chamber of Commerce and to wage a deception campaign against WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was considered dangerous because of his sympathetic writing on WikiLeaks at the time.

The plan was to create fake documents, leak them to Greenwald and WikiLeaks and when they were released, they would be exposed as frauds. Greenwald would later go on to orchestrate the publication of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but at the time it was thought that “if pushed,” Greenwald would “choose professional preservation over cause.”

On Christmas Eve 2011, LulzSec hacked the website of another private security company called Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor, and posted five million internal company emails online. Barrett Brown and ProjectPM began to work through the emails in the Stratfor leak, which were even more outrageous than those from the HBGary hack.

“I’m in favor of using whatever trumped up charge is available to get [Assange] and his servers off the streets. And I’d feed that shit head soldier [Chelsea Manning] to the first pack of wild dogs I could find,” wrote the Vice President of Stratfor’s Public Policy Intelligence group in an internal email.

The emails included discussion of opportunities for renditions and assassinations (including personal vengeance against a bomber of the 1988 flight Pan Am 103 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland). Brown also started looking into Endgame Systems, one of the most secretive companies in Team Themis. One of the products offered by Endgame offered clients access to “zero-day exploits”—security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies—for computer systems all over the world.

Burying the Evidence

At this point, the FBI, which operates as a subsidiary of the Department of Justice, acquired a warrant for Brown’s computer, and by extension any information related to HBGary, Endgame Systems, and Anonymous, and “email, email contacts, ‘chat’, instant messaging logs, photographs, and correspondence.”

When the FBI went for Brown and found him at his mother’s house, they returned with a warrant to search her house and subsequently charged her with obstructing the execution of a warrant.

In September 2012, when the FBI began to harass his mother, Brown uploaded a YouTube video explaining that he had been addicted to heroin and taking Suboxone, but had gone off his medication and was in withdrawal. He named the FBI officer who was harassing his mother, saying,

“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 fucking FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.

“That’s why 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?”

Brown had been open about his drug problems in his past but with his garbled online threat, he dug the dirt that would bury his revelations. Peter Ludlow, a professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, wrote in an article for The Nation, “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.”

A district court judge issued a gag order, preventing Brown from speaking to the press. Now one year since his arrest, he faces 17 charges adding up to 105 years in federal prison. Jeffery Hammond, the man who actually carried out the Stratfor hack, is facing a maximum sentence of ten years. In an article for The Guardian, Greenwald wrote, “It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he [Brown] now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.”

ProjectPM Chilled

Most of the charges against Brown involve credit card fraud, stemming from the fact that when Brown copied and pasted the link containing a cache of leaked emails from one public chat room to the ProjectPM chat room, some of the Stratfor emails included unencrypted credit card information.

Charging Brown with credit card fraud for sharing a public link makes it hazardous for anyone online to link to something or share links with people if they happen to contain sensitive information, even if the link is publicly accessible.

In March, the Department of Justice 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. As a result of the FBI’s aggressive targeting of Brown and ProjectPM, most journalists won’t touch the Stratfor files.

Peter Ludlow, who has written numerous nonacademic papers on hacktivism, remarked that the message is clear: if you look through these files, “they’re either going to throw you in jail, like they did Barrett Brown, or neutralize you in some other way. They might try and destroy your reputation or I don’t know, it depends what you think happened to Michael Hastings.”

Michael Hastings

One of the members of ProjectPM, Michael Hastings, died on 18 June 2013. Hastings was a 33-year-old journalist, author, and reporter for BuzzFeed who was a vocal critic of the Iraq War and the surveillance state. His article for Rolling Stone about General Stanley McChrystal, then Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, exposed what Hastings considered to be a reckless man leading a reckless war. His article is regarded to have destroyed the career of the former General.

Hastings died at 4:25 a.m. in Los Angeles when his Mercedes crashed into a palm tree. Witnesses said that it seemed like his car was travelling at full speed and “was creating sparks and flames before it fishtailed and crashed…” His body was burned beyond recognition and was identified two days later by matching fingerprints with those the FBI had on file.

The FBI denied that Hastings was being investigated, and although there is no evidence to suggest any relationship between Hastings’ work and his death, Hastings had made it clear that he believed the FBI was investigating him. He had just written to colleagues that he was “onto a big story,” that he needed to “go off the radar,” and that the FBI might interview them.

The State of the Press

The cases of Barrett Brown and Michael Hastings point to a very concerning trend in the fixation of federal prosecutors to not only severely punish Internet activism that challenges the power of the government and related bodies to control the flow of information over the Internet, but also to target the journalists and stifle the press that reports on it.

This past October the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US organization that usually advocates for press freedoms in other parts of the world, released its first report focusing on press freedoms in the United States. The report, written by former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., concluded that, “The [Obama] Administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”

Government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press, the report found, because “those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records.” Under development in every government department is a new program called “Insider Threat Program” that requires all federal employees to help prevent unauthorized disclosures by monitoring the behavior of their colleagues.

In 2013, when the Justice Department subpoenaed telephone records of twenty Associate Press journalists in order to find their sources, Hastings described the act in terms of the Obama Administration’s “war on journalism.”

“There is no doubt this has such a massive chilling effect on anyone who is doing serious investigative work… Because what happens is, if your name comes up on one of these lists in these investigations… even if you weren’t the leaker you get a reputation as someone who speaks to the press. This is a huge blow to press freedoms here,” Hastings described in an interview with the political commentary program, The Young Turks.

Under President Obama, a record eight government employees or contractors have been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information to the press. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. A Fox News reporter was accused of being “an aider, abettor and/or conspirator” of a leaker from the State Department, an accusation threatening possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a reporter from the New York Times was ordered to testify against a former CIA official or go to jail.

In an interview with the Globalist, Peter Ludlow analyzed the motive behind targeting journalists, “It’s not merely to shut people up. It’s to scare other people so that they’re less likely to report on these things. So it’s to scare people like you and me.”

During his campaigns for presidency, Obama pledged to make his the most transparent government ever. Rather, as David E. Singer, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times, said, “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.” Regarding the Obama administration, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote earlier this year, “It’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”

Beyond the Presidency

While the Snowden revelations made clear that the US government secretly monitors citizens around the world, the case of Barrett Brown shows that the secrecy of the gargantuan surveillance and intelligence industry goes way beyond Obama, a few negligent employees, or minor reform laws. After noting how it is frequently overlooked that Edward Snowden was an employee of the private intelligence company Booz Allen Hamilton, Peter Ludlow exclaimed, “That’s massive! There is more going on in the private intelligence end of it than there is in the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA combined. That government intelligence work is just the tip of the iceberg.” Edward Snowden also joined Barrett Brown in exposing the incestuous relationship between the government and private security and intelligence firms. Fred Burton, Vice President of Intelligence at Stratfor and former deputy chief of a US State Department counterterrorism division, is exemplar of the revolving door culture between private intelligence companies and government intelligence departments.

But the intense secrecy of these companies paired with the prosecution of journalists who investigate them makes it hard to know just how systemic the depravity is.

The State of Power

In an open question forum on reddit, the social news and entertainment website, Glenn Greenwald explained what he believed was behind government spying. “A major reason why those in power always try to use surveillance is because surveillance = power. The more you know about someone, the more you can control and manipulate them in all sorts of ways. That is one reason a surveillance state is so menacing to basic political liberties.”

According to a Snowden document published by the Washington Post, the classified “black budget” for government agencies alone was more than $50 billion in 2013. By savaging the privacy and freedom of Internet users around the world, perpetuators of the surveillance state have latched themselves into an industry that is at the same time destructive and self-justifying. The uncontrolled growth of the US surveillance state is a global menace and hugely embarrasses US internationally. These are surveillance practices and abuses that would be jeered at by Americans as oppressive and totalitarian in any other country.

But with the bloating of the intelligence industry and what Leonard Downie Jr. described as the “digital world with blurred boundaries between public and private, shared and secret information”, there will be more Mannings and Snowdens and hacktivist collectives. A functioning democracy necessitates an informed public, and it is the responsibility of journalists to get the truth to their readers, regardless of the source. The stifling of press freedom and the targeting of journalists such as Barrett Brown, Michael Hastings, and WikiLeaks is a stark reminder of the risk faced by reporters who report on leaks and the need to protect investigative journalistic freedom.