Posted on | February 19, 2013 | 19 Comments
Sept. 12: Barrett Brown rants on YouTube about his plan to ‘destroy’ an FBI agent
Ever since former “Anonymous” spokesman Barrett Brown freaked out on video and got himself arrested, various kooks have floated conspiracy theories to explain Brown’s arrest in terms of the paranoid delusion that Brown was an “enemy of the state” who got too close to the hidden truth about government wrongdoing. He’s like the pasty-white geek version of Chris Dorner or something.
No matter how often I’ve pointed to the far more mundane and obvious explanation — that Neal Rauhauser as “Carlito2000” provoked Brown’s final meltdown — Brown’s defenders keep pushing conspiratorial explanations that reflect their anarchist worldview wherein (a) shadowy government secrets are protected by illegitimate means, and (b) threatening to “destroy” an FBI agent is no big deal.
One typical manifestation of this phenomenon is Patrick McGuire’s article “Why Is Barrett Brown Facing 100 Years in Prison?”
Some of the charges against Brown are related to the hacking of Stratfor by the Anonymous splinter known as LulzSec. (The trial of the lead suspect in that crime, Jeremy Hammond, will reportedly “focus on the alleged theft of around 60,000 credit cards from which, say the prosecutors, charges of more than $700,000 were illegally made.”) McGuire pushes the “hidden secrets” theory of the hacking:
It’s obvious by looking at the most recent posts on Barrett Brown’s blog that while he is highly interested in Stratfor, it wasn’t the credit card information that motivated him. When those five million emails leaked, a product called TrapWire, which was created by a company called Abraxas, was revealed to the public at large. And it caused a media sh-tstorm. In 2005, the founder of Abraxas and former head of the CIA’s European division, Richard Helms, described TrapWire as software that is installed inside of surveillance camera systems that is, “more accurate than facial recognition” with the ability to “draw patterns, and do threat assessments of areas that may be under observation from terrorists.” As Russia Today reported, one of the leaked emails, allegedly written by Stratfor’s VP of Intelligence, Fred Burton, stated that TrapWire was at “high-value targets” in “the UK, Canada, Vegas, Los Angeles, NYC.”
TrapWire has since largely been dismissed as nothing to “freak out” over, and that hopefully is the case. However, far beyond what the surveillance software itself can or can’t do, the revelation that TrapWire exists has caused a chain reaction of discoveries that have seemingly revealed a mob of very powerful cybersecurity firms.
Barrett Brown was doing some very serious investigating into a company called Cubic from San Diego, that was alleged to own TrapWire as a subsidiary of their firm. This is an allegation that they officially denied. However, these tax filings from 2010 that Barrett uncovered clearly state that Cubic had in fact merged with Abraxas Corporation.
“Barrett Brown was doing some very serious investigating” — and, to finish McGuire’s insinuation, that’s why the feds busted him!
All this scary Big Brother-ish noise about “surveillance” and “threat assessment” — and OMG! the CIA! — permits McGuire to portray the merger between two software firms as a dark secret the feds are so eager to keep under wraps that they would arrest and prosecute Barrett Brown on a bogus pretext, because he was getting too close to the hidden truth. McGuire extends this theme:
Barrett started ProjectPM, a wiki that is completely dedicated to piecing together all of this information about surveillance companies in the United States. . . . Without Barrett Brown, tons of this research would likely have gone unearthed. Besides a few journalists, not many people have been looking into this information. The one other group that does is called Telecomix . . . They operate the Bluecabinet Wiki, and they worked very closely with Barrett Brown to uncover more information about the network of cybersecurity firms.
I talked to one of the volunteers at Telecomix, who strongly believes in the work that Barrett did to connect all of these very confusing dots: “I haven’t seen reporters really taking a hard look at what Barrett Brown, the investigative journalist, was researching and where it leads to. His discovery that TrapWire = Abraxas and that there is CIA involvement is very important. Do you know in Berlin right now a game was started to destroy surveillance cameras in public places? Barrett apparently was reading through the emails of HBGary and Stratfor, linking the data to the specific surveillance companies and contractors . . . It is an extremely time consuming task.”
Here’s a simple question: Who do you suppose, apart from avid civil libertarians, would be interested in uncovering “more information about the network of cybersecurity firms,” especially those firms working to protect government computer systems?
Here’s a simple answer: Criminal hackers, cyber-terrorists and hostile foreign governments, that’s who!
Even if you are willing to accept protestations of noble “information freedom” motives by the Anonymous hackers, you have to recognize that there are reasonable limits to how much penetration of computer systems the feds can ignore without risking truly serious consequences, perhaps with national security implications.
So there are good reasons why law enforcement would take the activities of Anonymous and LulzSec seriously, and why illegal intrusions targeting a “network of cybersecurity firms” might arouse especially intense law-enforcement scrutiny. Nevertheless, the indictments against Barrett Brown do not charge him with being an “enemy of the state,” but rather specify three sets of crimes:
- Threatening harm to an FBI agent and the agent’s family;
- Illegally accessing credit card information from the Stratfor hacking; and
- Obstruction by attempting to conceal evidence.
The fact that the cumulative potential prison time for these federal crimes amounts to 100 years behind bars may seem shocking, but (a) it’s highly unlikely that Brown would be put away for the maximum term, and (b) don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.
It’s not as if Barrett Brown had no warning that there were risks involved in his very public association with Anonymous. But Barrett’s flamboyant arrogance — giving interviews to NBC News and signing a book deal — would permit no heed to caution. Less than two weeks before he was arrested, I tried to warn him:
You don’t need a lawyer, Barrett. You need a psychiatrist, or perhaps a priest to exorcise your demons. You are traveling a road to destruction, as harmful to yourself as to any of your chosen enemies. Get help.
Obviously, he didn’t listen, and it was therefore scarcely surprising to learn from his hearing in federal court last month that Barrett is being treated with Zoloft, an anti-depressant, and another drug, Risperidone, an anti-psychotic medication used to treat symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Didn’t I tell you he was crazy? Maybe not legally insane — he was, after all, ruled competent to stand trial — but certainly it would not be libelous to describe Brown with the colloquial term “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”
The unabashed media love affair with Anonymous — their depiction as crusading progressive activists — plays into the heroic fantasies of demented people like Barrett Brown, who saw this movement as his best shot at that big narcissistic payoff, the Moment of Glory.
Some people have seen too many spy thrillers in which the evil government/corporate conspirators are exposed and brought to justice by the Misunderstood Lone Protagonist, and the Internet is a convenient vehicle by which they can pursue that heroic fantasy.
It’s never enough for these Moment of Glory chasers to do mere reporting or commentary. No, they’re conducting an “investigation” that will expose the Hidden Evil and Corruption! A sort of outlaw-vigilante mentality grips their imagination. They exaggerate their own importance and, as confirmation of that delusion, cherish the idea that sinister powerful forces are arrayed against them.
This narcissistic fantasy is inspired by elements of popular culture — The Last Honest Man as a heroic ideal — and also involves the paranoid fears that were stoked by the Left after 9/11: Endless scaremongering about “warrantless wiretaps,” portraying the Bush administration as engaged in unconstitutional domestic surveillance. A 2005 Daily Kos headline, “Echelon, the NSA, and Bush’s wiretapping initiative,” captures the climate of fear engendered by the Left in the post-9/11 era. We are therefore not surprised that the amateur enthusiasts who nowadays play-act the role of “investigative journalist” are mostly found on the Left.
Memo to the media: Stop indulging their fantasies.
As an example of coverage that portrays these “hactivists” as heroes, here’s an excerpt by Karen McVeigh in the U.K. Guardian:
Jay Liederman, an attorney who has represented a number of high-profile hackers, accused the government of employing the [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] to stifle dissent.
“It’s as if with the explosion of hacktivists and activism, this is the government’s new toy. It seems like they took a new look at the CFAA and realised they can chill this type of activism that they don’t like,” he said.
Liederman has represented Commander X, a hacker who is on the run from the FBI for an attack on a website in Santa Cruz, California, and Raynaldo Rivera, a suspected hacker from LulzSec, accused of stealing information from Sony last year. He has described illegal hacker activities such as Distributed Denial of Service attacks (DDoS) as “digital sit-ins” or ” the equivalent of occupying the Woolworth’s lunch counter during the civil rights movement” and has called for the law to be changed.
He sees a common thread running through prosecutions of activists for DDoS attacks and those of Swatrz, Auernheimer and Barrett Brown, a former affiliate of hacktivist collective Anonymous currently in prison facing charges under the CFAA, whose prosecution has also attracted criticism.
“They are very closely related,” said Liederman. “It is one rich tapestry of prosecutorial overreach and government oppression.”
Brown faces 45 years in prison and $3m in fines for charges relating to a Christmas Day attack in 2011 against Stratfor, a US intelligence-gathering firm, in which Anonymous hackers stole 5.5m emails, some of which were later published on WikiLeaks.
Brown was not involved in the hack, but allegedly facilitated it by posting a link in a chatroom, thereby providing others with credit card information and identities of thousands of individuals in the Stratfor database.
He has also been charged with internet threats to FBI agents, relating to his Twitter and YouTube feed. All three were “popular, free-thinking information activists” facing “stunningly abusive” prosecutions, according to Liederman.
“With [Aaron] Swartz, with Weev [Andrew Auernheimer] with Barrett, there was no hacking, yet they are being prosecuted by statutes that were made for hackers.”
Each took a “contrarian notion” against established principles, he said.
“Aaron Swartz had the outrageous notion that information should be free, and that future generations should be allowed to enjoy and learn from academic articles. Weev had the outrageous notion that companies like AT&T, because they are sloppy with your information, should be called out on it. Barrett had the outrageous notion that governments and those private security companies that act like the black hand of the government should be transparent and the public should have the right to know.
“These were virtues extolled by our forefathers in this country and all of a sudden they are lost to us.”
What a load of self-serving bovine excrement! And oh, “private security companies that act like the black hand of the government” — that is to say, firms hired to help the government protect information that might be very dangerous in the wrong hands — do the names Julius and Ethel Rosenberg ring a bell here, Liederman?
Is it not possible that the technology that protects government computers, or which enables the government to detect terrorist threats, would be as valuable to America’s enemies as the secrets of the atomic bomb were to Stalin’s Soviet Union? And isn’t it therefore a valid analogy to say that hackers targeting private firms which develop this cybersecurity technology are engaged in crimes as potentially serious as the espionage that sent Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair?
Now, I don’t mean to say that Barrett Brown deserves the death penalty, but I’m sick and tired of people trying to pretend that Anonymous is just a bunch of harmless pranksters, or that attacks on “private security companies” are benign civil disobedience.
Perhaps a more relevant criticism, however, is the simple fact that Barrett Brown is nuttier than squirrel farts. Just in case you’ve forgotten what a lunatic in full rant mode looks like, here’s the 13-minute YouTube meltdown that landed Barrett in jail:
Yeah, he had an “outrageous notion” or two, but what the public really has the right to know is, Barrett Brown is a dangerous kook.