for Reporting on Hacked Private Intelligence Firms
HAVANA TIMES – Journalist Barrett Brown spent his 300th day behind bars this week on a range of charges filed after he used information obtained by the hacker group Anonymous to report on the operations of private intelligence firms. Brown faces 17 charges ranging from threatening an FBI agent to credit card fraud for posting a link online to a document that contained stolen credit card data. But according to his supporters, Brown is being unfairly targeted for daring to investigate the
Using information Anonymous took from the firm HBGary Federal, Brown helped discover a secret plan to tarnish the reputations of WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. Brown similarly analyzed and wrote about the millions of internal company emails from Stratfor Global Intelligence that were leaked in 2011. We speak to Peter Ludlow, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, whose article “The Strange Case of Barrett Brown” recently appeared in The Nation. “Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor hack had several priors and is facing a maximum of 10 years, the inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack itself but with Brown’s journalism,” Ludlow argues. He adds that the case against Brown could suggest criminality “to even link to something or share a link with someone.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As NSA leaker Edward Snowden remains at a Moscow airport, Army whistleblower Bradley Manning is on trial, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, today we look at the strange story of another man tied to the world of cyber-activism who faces over a hundred years in prison. His name is Barrett Brown. He’s an investigative reporter with ties to the hacking collective Anonymous. He has spent the past 300 days in jail and has been denied bail. He faces 17 charges, ranging from threatening an FBI agent to credit card fraud for posting a link online to a document that contained stolen credit card data. But according to his supporters, Brown is being unfairly targeted for daring to investigate the highly secretive world of private intelligence and military contractors.
AMY GOODMAN: Before Brown’s path crossed with the FBI, he frequently contributed to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, The Guardian and other news outlets. In 2009, Brown created Project PM, which was, quote, “dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance.” He was particularly interested in the documents leaked by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. In the documentary We Are Legion, Barrett Brown explains the importance of information obtained by hackers.
BARRETT BROWN: Some of the most important things that have been—have had the most far-reaching influence and have been the most important in terms of what’s been discovered, not just by Anonymous, but by the media in the aftermath, is the result of hacking. That information can’t be obtained by institutional journalistic process, or it can’t be obtained or won’t be obtained by a congressional committee or a federal oversight committee. For the most part, that information has to be, you know, obtained by hackers.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, the group Anonymous hacked into the computer system of the private security firm HBGary Federal and disclosed thousands of internal emails. Barrett Brown has not been accused of being involved in the hack, but he did read and analyze the documents, eventually crowdsourcing the effort through Project PM. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to tarnish the reputations of WikiLeaks and sympathetic journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. Brown similarly analyzed and wrote about the millions of internal company emails for Stratfor Global Intelligence that were leaked on Christmas Eve 2011. Shortly thereafter, the FBI acquired a warrant for Brown’s laptop and authority to seize any information from his communications—or, in journalism parlance, his sources. In September 2012, a troupe of armed agents surged into Brown’s apartment in Dallas, Texas, and handcuffed him face down on the floor. He has been in prison ever since.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, for more, we’re joined by Peter Ludlow, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. He has written extensively on hacktivist actions against people—against private intelligence firms and the surveillance state. His recent article for The Nation is called “The Strange Case of Barrett Brown.”
Peter Ludlow, welcome to Democracy Now!
PETER LUDLOW: Hi. Thank you very much.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk to us about Barrett Brown, the importance of his case, given all the others that we’ve been dealing with on this show now for many years.
PETER LUDLOW: Well, yeah, it’s important for two reasons. First of all, it’s showing that, to some extent, all of us could be targets, because the principal reasons that they’re going after him with this sort of claim that he was involved in credit card fraud or something like that, I mean, that’s completely fallacious. I mean, in effect, what he did was take a link from a chat room and copied that link and pasted it into the chat room for Project PM. That is, he took a link that was broadcast widely on the Internet, and it was a link to the Stratfor hack information, and he just brought it to the attention of the editorial board of Project PM. And because there were, for whatever reason, unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes among those five million other emails, the government is claiming that he was engaged in credit card fraud. They’re claiming that Project PM was a criminal enterprise. And so, basically, for our interest, why this is interesting to us is basically it makes this dangerous to even link to something or to share a link with someone.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And—
PETER LUDLOW: Go ahead, yeah, please.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the things that you raise is, in some of your writings on this, is the incestuous relationship between the Justice Department, the government and these private firms that are being now targeted by cyber-activists. And could you talk about that, as well?
PETER LUDLOW: Well, sure. A lot of these private intelligence companies are started by ex-CIA, NSA people. Some people come from those agencies and rotate back into the government. I mean, you even see, with the case of Snowden, he was actually a contractor for a private intelligence company, Booz Allen. And, I mean, people think about the NSA, FBI, CIA, and they think of—those are the people that are doing the surveillance of you and doing this intelligence work, but really, if you look at how much the United States spends on intelligence, 70 percent of that is actually going to these private intelligence contractors. So, you know, if you add up CIA, NSA, FBI, that’s just a tip of the iceberg. So there’s all this sort of spook stuff going on in the private realm. And, yeah, right, a lot of it is very incestuous. There’s a revolving door. And no one is investigating it or even talking about it, as far as I can tell.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Barrett Brown in his own words. In March 2012, Democracy Now! spoke with Barrett soon after his house was raided.
BARRETT BROWN: On March 5th, I received a tip that I was about to be raided by the FBI. I left my apartment here in Dallas, went to my mom’s residence here in the same city. Next morning, three FBI agents arrived at my mom’s place. I went out and talked to them. They said my apartment had just been raided. The door was damaged. They would take care of that. And that they also asked me if I had any laptops with me that I wanted to give them. I said no.
A few hours later, the FBI returned to my mom’s house with another warrant, this time for her house, and detained the both of us for three hours while they searched the residence. They found several laptops I had stashed somewhere in the house and left the search warrants and left another one in my apartment, which I got when I came back here a little after, the next day or so.
The warrants themselves refer to the information that they’re seeking as regarding Anonymous, of course, a few other things of that nature, and also two companies: HBGary and Endgame Systems. Both of these are intelligence contracting companies that Anonymous had a run-in with in February of 2011, during which a number of emails were taken from HBGary, in particular, which themselves revealed a number of conspiracies being perpetuated by those companies in conjunction with Justice Department and several other institutions, including Bank of America, against WikiLeaks and against several journalists.
The time since, I’ve spent a lot of time going over those emails, researching them, conducting other research, otherwise trying to expose a number of things that have been discovered by virtue of those emails from HBGary having been taken. I sincerely believe that my activities on that front contributed to me being raided the other day and will no doubt contribute to any further action that the FBI decides to take. I would just also note the Justice Department itself is very much intertwined with this issue, and has been for a while, and in no way can conduct a fair investigation against me, based on what I’ve revealed, what I’ve helped to sort of emphasize about them.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Barrett Brown in his own words just after the raid.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Ludlow, talk about what he had released. Talk about what he got from HBGary and how this links to Glenn Greenwald.
PETER LUDLOW: Sure. Well, what they uncovered was—I mean, it’s actually a little bit subtle, right? Because it begins with the Bank of America being concerned that WikiLeaks had information on it. Bank of America goes to the United States Department of Justice. The Department of Justice leads them to Hunton & Williams, the big law fix-it firm in the D.C. area, who in turn hooks them up with a group of private intelligence contractors that went under the umbrella Team Themis. And Team Themis had a number of proposals and projects that were exposed in all of this. They included running kind of a psyops operation against the Chamber Watch, which is a group that sort of monitors the Chamber of Commerce, and it was an attempt to undermine it and Glenn Greenwald and other individuals. And, I mean, there were many, many plans that they had, many, many things, but some of the documents released showed that they were saying they were going to create fake documents, leak them to Greenwald, and then, when Greenwald eventually released them, they would expose it as a fraud and attempt to undermine him in that way. And they had a similar plan for Chamber Watch, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And their concern with Greenwald was that he was giving—that his defense of WikiLeaks was giving legitimacy to WikiLeaks—
PETER LUDLOW: That was—yeah. That was the concern.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —it didn’t deserve.
PETER LUDLOW: That was the concern, yeah. And they actually said in there, “Well, he’s just a professional journalist, and he’ll fold under pressure immediately. I mean, apparently they were wrong about that. So, yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There were also emails found where these private security firms were assessing the damage that Jeremy Scahill’s books had done to Blackwater?
PETER LUDLOW: Well, actually, those—I ran across that in the Stratfor leaks, and that was kind of interesting, because they were monitoring—they were monitoring this because they were concerned that Blackwater was going to get into the private intelligence business themselves. And they were commenting on Scahill. They go, “Well, yeah, Scahill, you know, I don’t care much for his politics, but he’s really got these guys figured out, yeah?” So that was a little compliment for Scahill, I think.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the amazing thing in all of this is the degree to which these private security firms are engaging in attempts to influence what’s going on in the public debate on—
PETER LUDLOW: Oh, yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on intelligence.
PETER LUDLOW: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, one of the most crazy things in the whole thing was when Coca-Cola approached Stratfor, and they were concerned about PETA, you know, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And why, I’m not entirely sure, but one of the people in Stratfor said, “Well, the FBI has a classified file on PETA. I’ll see if I can get it for you.” Now, that little story sums up a lot of stuff that’s wrong about this. First of all, why are private—why is Coca-Cola going to a private intelligence company for this? Why is—why did the private intelligence company feel that they had immediate access to a classified file by the FBI? And why did the FBI have a classified file, to begin with? I mean—but, to me, the creepiest part of that very creepy little story is the fact that the guy at Stratfor felt that he had access to this classified file by the FBI. And the Barrett Brown case revealed something like this, as well. It’s almost like the FBI has become just another private security firm, that it’s become like a private cop for these companies, as it were. And, I mean, that’s part because of the revolving door. It’s part because they get pressed into service for companies that want inside information on activist organizations like PETA.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to take break—
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —and then come back to this conversation. We’re talking to Peter Ludlow, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, has written extensively on hacktivist actions against private intelligence firms. The piece he most recently wrote is for The Nation, and it’s called “The Strange Case of Barrett Brown.” When we come back, I want to ask you how it’s possible he faces a hundred years in prison.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: It makes us think about Aaron Swartz.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t face anything like that, but he faced decades in prison.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He ultimately committed suicide—
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —before prosecution. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Ludlow is our guest, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, has been tracking the case of Barrett Brown and wrote a Nation piece about him, “The Strange Case of Barrett Brown.” So, the FBI raids his home, and he ultimately is arrested. He faces 100 years in prison?
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah, if you add up all the charges and if he serves them sequentially, it will be 105 years in prison. Yeah, that’s right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the decision for no bail?
PETER LUDLOW: That’s a mystery to me.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s been in jail now for 300 days.
PETER LUDLOW: Three hundred days, yeah, over 300 days, no bail. For a while they were—they had frozen his—the contributions to his legal fund, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that sounds like WikiLeaks.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning that’s what happened to Wiki—well, WikiLeaks, they had all these different corporations like PayPal refuse to allow money to go to them.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah, right.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to an interview Barrett Brown did with NBC’s Michael Isikoff serving as a spokesperson for Anonymous.
BARRETT BROWN: Our people break laws, just like all people break laws. When we break laws, we do so in the service of civil disobedience. We do so ethically. We do it against targets who have asked for it.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You go against targets that have asked for it.
BARRETT BROWN: Yes.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: What do you mean?
BARRETT BROWN: Targets who have engaged in a manner that is either unethical and contrary to the—sort of the values of this age, information freedom. Just, I mean—and sometimes just plain common sense, in the case of them going after journalists, going after WikiLeaks, in the way that they were planning to do so.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: But you can attack websites.
BARRETT BROWN: Yes, we can attack websites. We can DDoS them. We can sometimes hack them. We can sometimes take over the websites themselves, put messages up, as we did today with Westboro and as we did with—with the company HBGary and other federal contractors during that attack.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You can—you can—
BARRETT BROWN: Take it over, debase it.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: —take over the websites of government contractors.
BARRETT BROWN: And governments, of course. In Tunisia and in Libya, Algeria and Egypt and Iran, we either took down or replaced government websites. We replaced them with messages from us to the people of those nations, explaining what we’re doing and why and what we’ll provide if they choose to revolt.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Are you worried you’re going to get prosecuted?
BARRETT BROWN: I’m not worried about it, but I am going to get prosecuted at some point, yes.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Because you’re involved in hacking activity.
BARRETT BROWN: Because they could do whatever they want to anyone they want.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: But you’re not worried?
BARRETT BROWN: No, because, again, like I said, I’m well protected right now.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: What do you mean, well protected?
BARRETT BROWN: I’ve got a lot of lawyers. I’ve got a lot of higher-up people. I’ve got people to talk to who will—who support us. And if they come after me, they’re going to find that they’re not going to like everything that they see.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Barrett Brown talking to NBC’s Michael Isikoff. Well, the fact is, Barrett Brown has been in prison now for 300 days, and he faces decades in prison. Can you explain—that’s when he was an Anonymous spokesperson—what Anonymous is? And then also talk about the groups he exposed, like Endgame and others, though he wasn’t the only one to do that.
PETER LUDLOW: Sure. I have to think he was a little bit optimistic there in his claims about how he was all lawyered up there. But he was a—he was related to Anonymous, which is—it’s not a group, per se. You know, you or I could claim to be members of Anonymous. It’s more like a flag that you fly if you choose to. And so, there was a loosely knit group of hacktivists. Some of them were intersecting. They carried out hacks against—as he says, against various private intelligence contractors and other kinds of targets. He’s quite right that during the Arab Spring and the Tunisian uprising and so forth, members of Anonymous did a lot of work in keeping protesters online and in minimizing the effectiveness of the governments in the Middle East in that time.
And then you asked about—
AMY GOODMAN: Endgame.
PETER LUDLOW: —things like Endgame Systems, for example. Yeah, Endgame is a very interesting thing. I mean, Endgame is this kind of very secretive private intelligence company. And you even see in the HBGary hack, you see these messages where someone from Endgame says in an email, “We don’t ever want to see our name in a press release from you guys.” And what makes it particularly interesting is, if you read the search warrant that’s issued to Barrett when he’s busted, it says, “Well, we’re looking for stuff related to HBGary and Endgame Systems.” You know, like, why Endgame Systems?
And this is a corporation that’s involved in what are called “zero-day exploits.” Now, what’s a zero-day exploit? Basically, what that means is that there are certain security flaws in the software that we have and that we use, and sometimes the company doesn’t know about it. Sometimes it’s known about it for seven days, and they’ve had seven days to work on it. A zero-day exploit is one that the software company doesn’t know about. And Endgame Systems packages these things and sells them. So, for example, they have one where you get—it’s a subscription for like $2.5 million a year, and you get these exploits. So it’s things that a hacker would do, but because they’re a business and they’re making money for it, it’s—apparently it’s OK, right? And it seems that the Justice Department is kind of running interference for these guys. And there’s a—I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a great article in Businessweek on this in which they talk about the guys from Endgame, you know, running—setting up slides and showing you targets in airports, telling you what the computers are running there, and what kind of the—what the vulnerabilities are and so forth.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And who runs Endgame? Where are they based?
PETER LUDLOW: They’re based in Atlanta, Georgia, I believe. Someone recently posted a video on YouTube in which he walked into the place and—just to see what was going on there. And the people—I think it’s an ex—it’s started by an ex-intelligence person and by a security guy at IBM.
AMY GOODMAN: And, very quickly, Project PM?
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah. Project PM is basically Barrett’s—I mean, one of the genius things about Barrett was that he wanted to crowdsource all this information, because you get a hack of Stratfor and it’s five million emails, and how do you sort through all that? So he had a number of friends and acquaintances, including Michael Hastings, by the way, who were members of Project PM.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hastings, the reporter who just died in a fiery car crash.
PETER LUDLOW: The reporter who just died in the suspicious car accident, yeah, exactly right. And so, they would—he would basically crowdsource this. And so, the case where he copied that link, he was basically notifying the members of Project PM where they could find the information from the Stratfor hack.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what’s the schedule of—we just have 30 seconds—
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —of what will happen to Barrett Brown right now? He’s in jail in Texas.
PETER LUDLOW: Yeah. I mean, he’s got a great legal team. Charles Swift is one of them, the guy from the judge advocate general’s thing that took that Gitmo case all the way to the Supreme Court.
AMY GOODMAN: From the JAG.
PETER LUDLOW: Ahmed Ghappour, who’s at University of Texas Law School. There’s a group of individuals with freebarrettbrown.org who are raising money for him there, and they’re available if you have questions and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly follow this case, Peter Ludlow, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. He’s written extensively on hacktivist actions against private intelligence firms and the surveillance state. His most recent piece is in The Nation; it’s called “The Strange Case of Barrett Brown.” We will link to it at democracynow.org.
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