Barrett Brown. (Photo courtesy of Barrett Brown’s YouTube channel.)
In early 2010, journalist and satirist Barrett Brown was working on a book on political pundits, when the hacktivist collective Anonymous caught his attention. He soon began writing about its activities and potential. In a defense of the group’s anti-censorship operations in Australia published on February 10, Brown declared, “I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world’s most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.”
By then, Brown was already considered by his fans to be the Hunter S. Thompson of his generation. In point of fact he wasn’t like Hunter S. Thompson, but was more of a throwback—a sharp-witted, irreverent journalist and satirist in the mold of Ambrose Bierce or Dorothy Parker. His acid tongue was on display in his co-authored 2007 book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny, in which he declared: “This will not be a polite book. Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who will always take advantage of any well-intended concession.”
But it wasn’t Brown’s acid tongue so much as his love of minutiae (and ability to organize and explain minutiae) that would ultimately land him in trouble. Abandoning his book on pundits in favor of a book on Anonymous, he could not have known that delving into the territory of hackers and leaks would ultimately lead to his facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In light of the bombshell revelations published by Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman about government and corporate spying, Brown’s case is a good—and underreported—reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who report on leaks.
In February 2011, a year after Brown penned his defense of Anonymous, and against the background of its actions during the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, claimed to have identified the leadership of the hacktivist collective. (In fact, he only had screen names of a few members). Barr’s boasting provoked a brutal hack of HBGary by a related group called Internet Feds (it would soon change its name to “LulzSec”). Splashy enough to attract the attention of The Colbert Report, the hack defaced and destroyed servers and websites belonging to HBGary. Some 70,000 company e-mails were downloaded and posted online. As a final insult to injury, even the contents of Aaron Barr’s iPad were remotely wiped.
The HBGary hack may have been designed to humiliate the company, but it had the collateral effect of dropping a gold mine of information into Brown’s lap. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to neutralize Glenn Greenwald’s defense of Wikileaks by undermining them both. (“Without the support of people like Glenn, wikileaks would fold,” read one slide.) The plan called for “disinformation,” exploiting strife within the organization and fomenting external rivalries—“creating messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization,” as well as a plan to submit fake documents and then call out the error.” Greenwald, it was argued, “if pushed,” would “choose professional preservation over cause.”