Barrett Brown: “Maybe it is an act of civil disobedience — maybe it is a war”
Although he very much disputed it, Barrett Brown was considered a spokesperson for Anonymous. He also worked as a journalist. Then he got jailed for alleged participation in a hack — or for political reasons, as some observers say. Since September 2012, he has been awaiting trial in a prison in Dallas, Texas. On Thursday, the federal district court sentenced him to more than 5 years in prison. Our reporter is the only journalist who interviewed Barrett Brown in jail. An interview about the lust for power, war time lies and the benefits of being in prison.
By Jan Ludwig
Mister Brown, when I came here by plane, I was sitting between two ladies from Texas, probably 60 years old. They had never heard of Anonymous. How would you explain to them why you are here?
I would not say anything to Texans. I do not respect the judgement of the average Texans. Look at what the FBI agents were looking for in the search warrant. Look at what I have been accused of: credit card fraud. And look at the transcript of the gag order hearing. The prosecutor tells the judge that the „tone“ of my articles about the government is a problem. I am not a saint. I am not a hero. But I am living in a country that is screwed up and that is getting more screwed up every year. I have tried to engage that system.
Did you consider yourself a journalist or an activist when you worked for Anonymous?
I was in a very amorphous sort of position in which I was either praising, explaining, or criticizing various projects, some of which I was involved in as a researcher or promoter and some of which I wasn’t involved in or even disapproved of. On some occasions, I was asked by participants in an operation to speak to the media on their behalf, but just as often I would just help journalists find their way to an IRC channel or give them an e-mail address so that they could talk to someone closer to the operation in question.
Would you call your work „embedded journalism“?
Part of my work with Anonymous was indeed reportage, but of course I was also involved directly in some of the operations, particularly those regarding Tunisia, Bahrain, and the investigation into the U.S. intelligence contracting sector, which was carried out both from Anonymous servers and Project PM. And, of course, I was often an advocate for Anonymous in general and certain operations in particular, rather than a neutral reporter, even though I was also sometimes a critic. All in all, I served a very ambiguous role, just as most of my other positions are ambiguous, as is my status in general.
Long before Edward Snowden’ leaks, you investigated the obscure work of private security firms and their cooperation with US authorities. Do you remember when you first heard about the Snowden leaks? How did you react?
I first learned about the Snowden leaks from the television in the Mansfield jail unit, followed by a phone convo with the journalist Michael Hastings, who briefed me in general. Later I received print-out news reports about the leaks. My initial reaction was shock that the public was now paying attention, and then admiration for Snowden and Greenwald for having done such a great job of getting it into the news and keeping it there. Snowden is obviously a highly competent leaker, and Greenwald has an unusually keen understanding of media dynamics in general.
In a TV interview you said: „I always thought the bad guys were the bad guys.“ Let us talk about your „bad guy episode“. You were not a hacker yourself. There was supposed to be a joke saying that Barrett Brown could not even hack himself out of a paper bag.
There was fair criticism of me. It was very obvious to everyone that I wanted to control Anonymous. I absolutely wanted to effectively be the leader of Anonymous and turn it into an activist thing.
It was frowned upon by Anomymous when someone used his real name advocating for Anonymous.
I was a journalist and I had written some articles. Why should I call myself „SecretCyberCommander“? I mean, I am just Barrett Brown.
In May 2011, you left Anonymous.
That was a media stunt. I have been unsuccessful in detaching myself from this role that I had been given as „spokesperson for Anonymous“. Dozens of times I had publically said that I am not a spokesperson for Anonymous, and privately done so in e-mails. I also did not like the direction it was going at that point. There were many people who had left Anonymous for Project PM. I also wanted to have the opportunity to speak on camera without being associated with Anonymous. A lot of Anonymous members got their information from the same places the Soccer Moms do, which is the media. So they saw me as the „self-proclaimed spokesperson for Anonymous“. I could not even walk into a chatroom for a while without 15 people who would say: Ah, look, there is our leader! And I would say: „Hey, this brand new shit about Booz Allen Hamilton, …
… the former employer of Edward Snowden …
… this is very important.“ I did not want to give up on this idea of encouraging Anonymous participants in mass to pursue the intelligence contracting issue. Anonymous is perfect for that. I saw Anonymous as something that it was not. I saw it as a collection of really erudite individuals. Of course it also came from 4chan, so it attracted these kinds of weird people. Anyway, I do not like computer people in general.
What e-mails did you link to after the Stratfor hack?
All articles asserting that the link was to an archive of millions of Stratfor e-mails are incorrect. I still don’t know exactly what was in the file I actually linked to, as I never opened it after downloading.
What did you do when there was a fresh hack? What did a Project PM workday look like?
When there was a fresh hack, everyone was in the IRC channel. People were going through the e-mails. Each of us had our own list of subjects. There are certain search terms I would always use, like „persona management“, „FBI“, „NSA“ and so on. One of the things we did was to offer stuff to journalists, saying „This could be your story!“ One example is a piece that appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek. We provided them information on Endgame Systems. Endgame Systems had an unprecedented array of zero-day-exploits in Western Europe. I also contacted people like the CEO of HBGary, saying, Hey, what do you have to say to that? I always recorded that. Because they are liars, just like the FBI. It is much better to have someone lying on audio. Journalists like audio.
Would you say that it should be legal for an investigative journalist to acquire documents through hacking?
Absolutely it should; otherwise, dozens of the best journalists in the country would be subject to prosecution for referencing the HBGary or Stratfor e-mails. We were in a position where we have just pulled the tail of a dozen different shadowy companies that specialized in destroying peoples’ lives, journalists and activists. It really became a race for us to ensure these things stay in the press.
In the eyes of the authorities, you were part of a cyberwar. You once declared war on Pentagon yourself.
Many people used this rhetoric, on both sides. And this is also appropriate. On the other hand, if the government calls something a war, it has to apply the rules of war. Maybe it is an act of civil disobedience — maybe it is a war.
The first generation of elite hackers of Anonymous is not that active anymore, also because Sabu, one of the most talented hackers of LulzSec, an offshoot of Anonymous, became an FBI informant. Who is Sabu to you?
We knew each other, but we did not have that much contact. I talked to him a few times in 2011. He also did these other hacks that were totally unneccessary. I called him a degenerate pussy traitor, and I stand by that.
Sabu had to take care of two childen. Having children is a responsibility, and a responsibility is a weakness. The FBI probably exploited that.
Absolutely. The FBI definitely took advantage of that. People’s wifes and mothers are indicted all the time. And then they drop the indictments. It is not even unusual. On the other hand, when he got involved into this stuff and started his major hacks, he knew he had these children. Why not find somebody else? If he had fucked the FBI on this, if he had said: No, I am not going to betray my ideals, I am not going to help you commit crimes over the next year to help you destroy Anonymous — as he ended up doing –, anyone would have taken these kids for the rest of their lives.
That seems to be very rational, but now you sound like a member of a guerilla organization.
Just like I do, Sabu used this rhetoric of warfare. If you are going to use that rhetoric, you better actually do those things. People do it all the time in regular warfare.
My mom was threatened as well. The FBI wanted me to cooperate. But I did not cooperate. It means that your family is more worth than other people’s families. And what damage are you going to do to the rest of the world if you are going on a crime spree under the FBI’s control?
What is life without the internet like?
Oh, it is good for me. The Internet takes something from you. In my case in particular, the internet was a very powerful tool, but I am very happy with having a break from it. Being off the internet fundamentally changes the structure of your mind. I feel like I am more capable right now than I was a few years ago. I am a better writer. I am a better tactical thinker, and I am a better strategical thinker. I have to be, because when I get out, this is all going to resume.
Did you work during the day or during the night?
I did not have a regular schedule. It was just depending on what drugs I was on. I have also spent a good portion of my life doing drugs, shooting up Heroin, and drinking. Even in the last couple of years when I was engaged in very high-stakes activities with Anonymous, Wikileaks, my own group Project PM, I did not give 100 percent. Not even 70 percent. In all the years of my great accomplishments, in the great majority of that time, I spent smoking cigarettes and playing computer games while high. I mean, I was a junkie. I could have done a lot better of a job.
Now you are writing articles from out of prison. How does that work?
I used to sent my handwritten work to my mother to be typed up and then e-mailed to my lawyers, who had to approve them before they would be sent on to D Magazine or Vice or The Guardian. But finally I decided that I’m not really worried about the judge giving me additional prison time over something I write for the public. Also, after 6 months or so of being under a gag order, I was tired of being censored.
In your articles for the D Magazine, you describe the everyday procedure in prison in a satirical way. What did you do today until we met?
Today I got up at 8. In general I would heat up water in a microwave and check my emails. Then I would go to the library and make sure there are no books sitting on top of the shelves. Sometimes we get books back with the cover torn off, so I take them to my room and use some tape to fix the cover back on. I have read several hundred books in the last two and a half years, probably 300 books, a book every two days or so. Especially when I was at Mansfield, the prison I have been to before. There are no windows, there is no space. They have eight man cells.
Do you think your character has changed in prison?
Oh yes, quite a bit. I mean, for one thing I am not on drugs anymore for the first time since adolescence. I was on Heroin for two years. I am sober for two and a half years. In addition to that, I had a lot of time to think. Also, I am technically the leader of what is regarded as a gang. It is a predominantly white prison gang. We also have a sign when we meet each other (meows and purrs).
Apparently you have a problem with institutionalized authority, but you are climbing up the hierarchy ladder quite easily. When did that start?
In school, very early on. When I was 13, I started reading books from anarchists. Very early on I inhaled this sort of ethos of a lone individual challenging authority and then giving a speech about why I did that. Even if everyone else disagrees, even if no-one is going along with me, it is my job to at least serve as an example. (Knocks on the table with his fingers)
What do you miss most in prison?
And what will be the first thing you do when you come out of prison?
I am going to smoke cigarettes. I am going to play computer games. And then I will get back to what I was doing before. Journalism and all that.
This story has been originally posted on Krautreporter, a crowdfunded digital national news magazine in Germany.