Barrett Brown is an award-winning journalist and author who spent time in federal prison for work he did exposing various elements of the military-industrial complex, including publicizing the hacked emails of private intelligence company Stratfor. Since being released from prison, Brown has worked to establish the Pursuance Project, an initiative aimed at developing a new model of journalism based on crowdsourcing and diverse networks of collaboration using an internet-based platform.
In November 2018, Brown was the subject of a terrorist threat made against his publisher, Dallas-based D Magazine. However, unlike most such terrorist threats against journalists/media outlets elsewhere in the country, this threat was not handled in the normal manner. You might even say that Dallas PD, in collaboration with the Dallas Morning News, moved to cover it up. Was this a case of gross incompetence by the police? Hatred of a well-known local muckraking journalist seen as an enemy of Dallas police and corporate media? Or was it something else?
The following is an edited transcript of an interview between Barrett Brown and CounterPunch Radio host, Eric Draitser. The full interview can be heard at patreon.com/ericdraitser ($1 subscription required).
Eric Draitser: You recently had an interesting, let’s call it, series of interactions with law enforcement and local government in Dallas. And it stems from a very grisly murder that took place a few months ago. But this isn’t just about a murder… this is really a story of corruption, of bad journalism, of hackery, of the complete abdication of professional ethics and responsibility.
So, tell us, where does our story start? What happened a few months ago in Dallas and how did things snowball from there?
Barrett Brown: So I’ve been covering local politics for D Magazine for the first time in my life after I got out of prison a few years ago. I was covering city council. And then Botham Jean, a local resident, was shot to death in his own apartment by Amber Guyger, a white police officer (Botham Jean was black).
There are very few large cities where the press was going to be less well-equipped to handle such a story than Dallas. Dallas is a very go along to get along city. There’s something called the Dallas Way. That’s an old sort of political philosophy that launders oligarchy and makes of it a virtue, makes of it a partnership, a cooperation between press, police, and local officials. This is especially true in the case of any interaction between the press and the Dallas police, you have regular deference.
And so, when Amber Guyger and the police union officials, including police union head Mike Mata, started putting out the first explanation of why Amber Guyger shot somebody to death in his apartment below hers, several journalists with the Dallas Morning News printed these claims as more or less fact. And they did the same thing a few days later when Amber Guyger’s story changed dramatically. It was really extraordinary, and I say that as somebody who has been a media critic, ne’er-do-well and malcontent for a long time. It was pretty wild.
So I wrote an article for D Magazine down here, analyzing the specifics and attacking the Dallas Morning News. And you know they were not fond of that. So, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, attacked me from his Twitter account for a minor error removed from the article, while ignoring all the things that remained. The things that were clearly the case about his own journalists and his own editors. And so bad blood had been accrued there between both me and the Dallas Morning News and me and the mayor’s office, which, of course, was responsible for the handling of the Amber Guyger-Bother Jean shooting…
Draitser: So basically, if I understand correctly, you wrote a piece which alleged that these journalists are basically just taking the cops’ word for it and the story keeps changing in rather implausible ways. And these journalists are just stenographers. Is that basically right?
Brown: It is. And it’s to an extent that is even more than you see in national journalism or regional journalism elsewhere. It’s to an extent that is pretty unusual. It’s perhaps best embodied by the occasion when there was the ambush against the police officers a few years ago and several were killed. One of those police officers, it turned out, had a great deal of of white nationalist symbology tattooed upon himself. And that never came up in the press.
And here we have a case in which it’s even more bothersome, in which the errors are so blatant. So, I got into a fight that obviously upset these journalists at Dallas Morning News. I’ve already had a bad relationship with some of them.
Flashforward to November. I’m informed by D Magazine editor Tim Rogers that there’s been a bomb threat delivered to D Magazine’s office, which is in a twenty-story building in downtown Dallas. The person who made the threat said that they were going to blow up the D Magazine offices if they continued to publish my articles. And so, after I told Rogers I had never heard of this person, he goes to the FBI and the cops and the first thing he tells me after he’s spoken with them is “Don’t make this public.”
I listened to him. I read his comments. I acknowledged his comments. And I made it public.
Because he was getting instructions from the police, from the FBI, and I’ve dealt with both in this city. I’ve reported on both for his magazine and I just know that that’s not how these things are done. When CNN had a very similar bomb threat, under almost identical circumstances – an internet threat to blow up CNN’s offices in New York a few weeks after this affair that I’m not done describing – occurred, the NYPD arrived immediately. The building was evacuated. It was news, national news for a couple hours until the all clear was given. In this case, that’s not what happened. This is the only city in the country in which journalists would be expected to help the police keep this under wraps.
Draitser: This is already insane to me. How is it possible? I work in a high-rise building in Manhattan. There are thousands of people who work in a twenty story building in the downtown area. It is already almost inconceivable that this would be kept under wraps.
Brown: It is. It was actually shocking even to me and I look for these things. I search for incidents of poor press conduct and things indicative of the Republic’s collapse.
I’ve dealt with this magazine and this editor since I was fifteen years old when I was interning at the alternative weeklies down here. It’s not quite the Village Voice. It’s not something that’s really out there to shake things up but it is a good magazine. And I’ve been happy to write for it. It is where I started my column that went to the Intercept later on and I got the National Magazine Award. It was a magazine that had given me a lot of breath that I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.
So I was a little bit taken aback to be given this instruction delivered from the police to my editor and then to me. And so of course I, you know, violated it and immediately announced without naming any names or publication that a threat had been made against a magazine that I work for over my work…
Draitser: So was the threat explicit that it was not only about you but about your coverage of the Guyger-Botham Jean story? Or was it more implied that this is what it was about? Or was it more a general kind of threat?
Brown: The threat was made on Facebook but I never saw it myself. All I have is the assistant police chief’s email, which we’ll get to later. His characterization – the characterization of the assistant chief of police – that it was a threat over me and that it was a threat that was conditional such that if they continued to publish my work, this person would blow up the building. And the same fellow also made a threat, a very similar threat against the downtown public library, which is a very large facility – not a bad one for a city of this size – if the Democrats and in this case the assistant chief of police quoted the fellow: something along the lines of “If the Democrats don’t stop with their conspiracies, I’m going to blow up your library.” And so… but there was no mention that I know of of specific coverage.
I would say though that the last article that I’ve done for D had been this piece on the Dallas Morning News and the media and the police and the police’s misconduct and why one should not take their word for anything. And the one previous to that had been one in which I had sat there with a police scanner off and on for a couple weeks and written down my observations of what the police… of how the Dallas police conduct themselves. And, you know, scored a few hits in there that I was fond of. But bottom line is that I’ve been very, very openly anti-police for a number of years here. After all, I was raided by SWAT team after sort of challenging the police based on my understanding which is now I think sort of the accepted view among everyone that they were retaliating against me and my mother illegally.
So there was already bad blood and that had been accelerated in recent times. And so when this happened, I published some information about it and the editor got mad at me. But there were no articles about this. There was nowhere where you could really go and see that a response team had been sent to the Dallas public library to search for bombs or that a threat, one of several threats over the last few months against media outlets and against journalists, had been carried out or had been made.
Remember the context of this: We’ve had shootings in newspapers in the last year in this country. We’ve had some guy threaten a journalist on Twitter down in Florida and when he was ignored he sent some would-be pipe bombs to a bunch of other figures. We’ve just had a bunch of this accelerated anti-press violence and threats of violence.
And so there is a protocol for when this happens. The protocol is that you immediately announce it. And that’s how it’s happened in every other situation. And it’s not how it happened here.
As time went on I got more and more concerned because when you do have this situation, when you do have this environment, you follow the protocol that has been established the country which is that you take it seriously. At the very least, you arrest the person. I know that because I was arrested by a SWAT team for making totally non-violent threats against an FBI agent as a journalist who was about to expose him. But in this case, rather than sending a SWAT team and beating someone down to the ground, bruising his ribs and charging him immediately, they did something entirely different. We’re not entirely sure what it was.
I eventually asked my city councilman, Philip Kingston, who is an unusually carefree politician, to check in with the Dallas police and ask them what was going on. Because the editor has stopped talking to me and he was upset that I’ve put the stuff out.
Draitser: So this is where the story really gets quite interesting because now you’ve involved not just representatives of the police or the police union or journalists. Now you have an elected official and the kinds of information that is exchanged between a law enforcement officer and an elected official is supposed to be at least quite different from how they interact with normal civilians. So I want to hear the details about this exchange between your local city councilman and the assistant police chief.
Brown: Right, so [assistant police chief] Lonzo Anderson. Philip Kingston inquired with Lonzo Anderson and got an email back. Kingston forwarded it to me. It’s a few paragraphs long and it very matter-of-factly notes that on November 13th somebody made what this benighted police pseudo-chief described as “a veil threat.” He means veiled, although that’s kind of a strange use of the term veiled even if you do it appropriately because the threats involved “blowing your fucking library up” which is not very, highly well-veiled. And then, of course, the threat to blow up the magazine in Lonzo’s words: “if they continue to publish Barrett Brown.”
And so he goes on to cite two actual charges, two specific charges that this suspect, who did it under his own name, was going to be charged with. And noted that he had been taken into custody on November 15th and was interviewed at the station and the investigation is ongoing. So, from that you get the sense that the cops are on it. They’ve brought somebody in, which is, you know, reasonable enough…so I’m thinking “Well I guess Tim Rogers is right. They really are on it, maybe I should have trusted him this time. They’re not going to allow a terroristic threats against the press and against public institutions pass in this day and age.
But it turns out I was wrong to have briefly trusted them because the guy was never arrested. And because [D Magazine Editor] Tim Rogers was meanwhile being told something entirely different from this investigator that had been assigned to the case. That investigator told him that no one had been brought in. It was all ongoing and they don’t have anything to tell him.
And so eventually, me and Tim Rogers get into this sort of public dispute about how this should be handled. I was obviously had an opinion about it and he had a different opinion. And at some point he says, “Look, you’re writing about this. You don’t know what’s going on. Trust me.”
And I said, “Well look, I’ve got a statement here from the assistant police chief my city councilman sent to me.” So and I posted it on his Twitter reel and he reads it and is like okay. So he writes an article explaining the situation. Explaining that they had told him all this, this and this and now suddenly he’s getting these statements delivered thirdhand that contradict what he’s been told.
And here’s where the story kicks in as of what happened today. Rogers recorded this conversation between him and the police officer, the investigator who called him after they ran that story. It does include the investigator being very abrasive, he’s obviously not used to dealing with someone saying “No, what you just said contradicts that other thing you just said and that doesn’t make sense.” He’s just not up to that kind of thing. Frankly, I think we’re fortunate that he wasn’t actually in charge of catching somebody with an actual bomb because this would have been a shorter story.
The cop berates Rogers for putting this information out. Tim reminds him that they didn’t put the information out. It was the Dallas police that put the information out through a city councilman through Barrett Brown – the named victim, the named subject who this person is clearly focused on. This is all very revealing of how police see the press and how Dallas operates.
But the important part is when the cop claims, I guess in a bid to win an exchange in this argument, that contrary to what Rogers had heard, the information that the assistant police chief had given the city councilman was “not true” in his words. He expands upon that and says that it’s not what happened. The information is truth be told not correct.
And so, Tim understandably says, “Well, are you saying that this assistant police chief gave false information to a city official about a matter of terrorist threats against the press? That seems very important.” And the police investigator goes, “Well, there you go again” and he throws out a bunch of incompatible metaphors and aphorisms and cliches that he’s picked up somewhere and strings them into a sentence. If you didn’t already have a distaste for cops in general, which I did actually, you would be hard pressed to make a contribution to the policeman’s ball this year after hearing this tape.
Draitser: Well, I’m certainly canceling my recurring donation. That’s for sure.
Brown: I’d advise that, yes.
Anyway, there’s one other element here. The cop is confirming that in prior conversations one of the first things he did when he was speaking to Tim and four or five other staffers at D Magazine was to tell them: (a) not to tell anybody and (b) not to tell me anything else beyond what I have already been told. So, the only reason I knew about this in the first place is because Tim had asked me about this guy who had been making the threat before he went to the police. And so that’s revealing. Aside from everything else being aside from protocol, outside of the normal way of doing things, not letting the focus of a terrorist threat know anything about the case and obviously preferring that he not know that it happened. That’s what convinced me when I got this recording that there was something wrong here that I suspected all along. And so, there you have it. Now it’s out.
Draitser: Was there any indication that there was a formal arrest versus a “Oh, we took somebody into custody?” And if so, wouldn’t the obvious move for a journalist at that point be to find the records of the arrest? It seems like nothing was done. I mean it seems like it’s just all words here. It’s all words and opinions.
Brown: Right, so yeah the first thing that I looked at – and I think anyone would look at – is the actual phrasing of what the assistant police chief told Philip Kingston in this email. First of all he talks in the future tense about the charges so that, in fairness to Tim and to anybody else, you wouldn’t be able to look up any charges because they would be nonexistent yet. Having said that, there are ways of getting records of who has been arrested.
The assistant police chief uses terminology that makes it very ambiguous as to what’s going on. They say: “On November 15th, the DPD took the subject into custody for a DPD alias warrant. The subject was interviewed” – which means he had an existing warrant for something else entirely. Probably a minor warrant. “The subject was interviewed at headquarters. The investigation is ongoing. I will contact intelligence, updates” blah blah. So he doesn’t say he was arrested. He doesn’t say he wasn’t arrested. He just says interviewed at headquarters.
So I wasn’t satisfied; I posted it on Twitter. I did what I could to try to bring attention to it and finally I went to city council and confronted the mayor and the councilmen and explained in the three minutes I had allotted to me as a regular citizen what had gone on here and why I was unhappy about it and why I thought it was something they ought to look into.
So anyway, the mayor apologized right there. There’s a video of it. Then he once again he confirms, as if this was something that I was really hoping to hear, that the investigation is ongoing. And so, three months later, here we are.
Draitser: So one of the things that I find really kind of bizarre about all of this is the fact that they keep saying an investigation is ongoing. But this isn’t the OJ trial. This is a fairly straightforward case, it’s handled fairly routinely in pretty much every major city.
So I guess I have to ask the question, and pardon me if it’s too blunt or whatever, but are we looking at a Dallas police cover-up here?
Brown: Well, I mean in a way, literally yes in so much as this investigating officer told D Magazine to keep this quiet, to not tell the target, me, about it, etc. Also, D Magazine put up a short piece sort of commenting on it and, of course, castigating me for having broken the blue bond of silence or whatever it is that I guess we had formed between the press and police down here.
And then the next day, they deleted the article without explanation. And that was the only piece in the entire city about this. It was actually really the only coverage at all except for I think it was a blog post by some independent fellow who’s out there trying his best somewhere on his website. Beyond that, beyond my Twitter account, beyond the arguments that Tim Rogers got into with some people from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and EFF and all that who were telling him that like, hey, like this is serious. This is not how you should handle this. You shouldn’t be putting out a blog post attacking your journalist for this. You’ve done wrong here.
That was the only coverage. And Dallas Morning News knew about it. I made sure they knew about it because I had a feeling that they would be reluctant to cover it given that it does produce sympathy and raises one’s stature when one is having buildings blown up and even in people’s imaginations blown up.
And so as I suspected, they did not cover it. They went out of their way not to cover it. Even after I went to city hall and the press was there and a couple of them asked me, gave me their cards and said that they’d call me, nothing ever happened. So I gave up. I was frankly pretty upset back then and I feel like I’ve gone through enough bizarre commotions just in Dallas alone that I should have a pretty thick skin. I was rearrested illegally in 2017 after giving an interview to Vice and PBS. When the bureau of prisons claimed I was not supposed to do that without getting their permission, which is patently false, I was put in jail for four days and Democracy Now! did a thing on that and otherwise it was, you know, all quiet on the front.
And I would be shocked frankly given my time in this city and having grown up here if anything were to come of it tomorrow. There’s just no one who has anything to gain from talking about it. Obviously to the extent that Dallas Morning News does start talking about it, it brings up the question of why they ignored this situation back then. This is not something that happens when an outlet is threatened. You don’t play politics and place an embargo because you don’t like the journalist that was mentioned in the threat. That’s not how it happens anywhere else in this country.
So there you have it. I’m always on the lookout for examples of why we need press reform; why crowdsourced research and why some of these experimental protocols we’re developing such as the Pursuance Project, why they’re needed. Why things are worse in the press than people even realize until they’ve had a chance to both write for it and be covered by it extensively. And this is a great example. It’s an example that really astonishes me and I thought I’ve seen quite a bit in my day.
Draitser: Honestly, it seems like we have multiple cover-ups overlapping with each other here. Because, as far as I understand it, the Amber Guyger story itself was potentially a cover up where the police were essentially running interference for a suspected murderer. They were giving her access to her smartphone. They were letting her go home and talk to other people and so forth. And this was all whitewashed in the press with no actual interrogation of the facts. There was no investigation or anything and so the story continued to shift and the coverage just shifted with that.
And then here we have the second piece of this story where exactly the same thing is happening. So not only do we have collusion between the press and the police, but it seems that like they’re both actively working multiple cover-ups.
Brown: Yeah, well, there’s different kinds. There’s some cover-up within the police that probably has to do with mishandling the case or maybe the person who did this. Maybe he has well connected or wealthy family, which certainly would explain it. Maybe it’s one of those more baroque situations where the guy is suffering mental illness and for that reason as the FBI has done in the past, often times of Muslim youth, has been trying to get him to do something that would provide the DOJ with a great press release when they catch him doing the thing they told him to do. There are a number of possibilities and I don’t have a strong opinion on any one of them.
So there’s some kind of cover up there. There’s a dispute whereby this police officer thought it would make sense to claim that the original report of the guy being charged was false and thought it would work to, I guess, accuse his commanding officer, his superior of lying to the press or lying to the city council. He did not expect to be recorded. I guarantee that because that’s the kind of thing you can say on the phone to a guy, you know, and it’s hearsay but he had no reason to expect a recording would get to me. And frankly, I’m kind of surprised it did. It was only because of the foibles, the sort of the personal foibles of some of the people involved in this that I did get it.
Here we have an unusual sort of vivisection where we get to see more about the day-to-day just how these things do get covered up. We see how it doesn’t require a strong plan. It doesn’t require that you hide every element. All these elements have been out there. Not just out there but I’ve been pushing them down people’s throats.
So it’s one of those things just like the stuff I went to prison for. The HBGary hack where we suddenly got a great view from all these emails of how these intelligence contractors work and how the FBI deals with these private firms and how the DOJ acts like a concierge service for Bank of America and sends them to espionage firms that commits crimes with the DOJ’s blessing. You know it’s another great example. It’s a great opportunity that will not be taken here in Dallas and that, ultimately, I will describe in my book, which I’ve just completed now.
This whole fiasco is just one more argument as to why we need scaffolding around these institutions. Why we need to start building something that can address them from bottom to top because there’s very little that the press has done commendably in the last ten years on any of these issues. And even in the election, it didn’t take.
It didn’t cause them to stop and say, “Hey maybe we need to pay attention to what Palantir’s doing since they just got caught once again this time helping to manipulate the election with Cambridge Analytica. Maybe if next time we talk about Palantir, let’s remark about that. Let’s keep pointing that out from a few years ago.”
Let’s not adopt collective amnesia in a way that makes it easy for even dumb conspirators to get away with anything. And so that’s the story here as far as I am concerned.
Draitser: There’s also the absolute abdication of responsibility for journalists but especially those who are advocates for and defenders of journalists. You’re not Beyoncé, Barrett, but you’re not the lowest profile guy either. And you have a somewhat substantial Twitter following. You are notorious in many ways – certainly notorious in Dallas. And the fact that we don’t have even one journalistic ethics or any such organization whether Committee to Protect Journalists or any other groups of that kind defending you on this case. I think it’s also somewhat telling.
And so my question is: (a) have you reached out to any of those types of organizations (you know, CPJ and others)? And then (b) do you think that nobody has picked up on this story and is kind of, you know, speaking out on your behalf because you’re toxic? Is that what this is about? Because people are afraid that you’re toxic?
Brown: I don’t think so actually. The bizarre thing is that, you know, since going to prison and becoming a convict and then getting out and announcing I was going to start this very subversive group, I mean I run a non-profit now. I’m more mainstream than I ever was. I’ve got a board of directors with, you know, two ex-CIA agents who are, of course, dissidents. They’re reconstructed CIA agents. I’ve got professors at colleges. I’m addressing the Texas Library Association in Austin in April. And then a week later at the Tennessee Library Association in Chattanooga. So I don’t think it’s that I’m toxic. It’s not that.
It’s more that people look at institutions from the outside as I did before I first started interning at weekly newspapers. And you see print; you see a news organization; you see the CIA; or you see a company. And you have this sense of a solid thing that acts all at once. So people say, “Oh, this is what the CIA wants.” Or, “Oh, the New York Times always wants to do this.” However, we must constantly remind ourselves that these are collections of individuals and these are individuals that were not designed or evolved to oversee a press outlet or to oversee a kingdom or a nation-state. These are all haphazard things that we’ve constructed and accepted by inertia.
And so, we have jealousy and we have fear. We have minor, petty concerns for what our publisher thinks that we want them to do. We have people who are underpaid and they don’t have time to even develop sources in a way that they would had they more pragmatic or practical impetus to do so. They can get away with just, you know, putting in the bare minimum. I know because I’ve done it as a freelancer years ago. I’ve done the same thing.
We have a model of journalism that is fundamentally unchanged from what it was in seventeenth-century London where it was the editor and the writer. And it has never reexamined itself. It’s adopted hyperlinks and maybe LexisNexis and a few things like that, but it’s never stopped and said, “Hey, let us consciously reconstruct ourselves.” And knowing that the internet exists, let’s do crowdsourced journalism. Let’s bring in a structure here that doesn’t require the journalist to have to decide who is actually an expert and who isn’t. And that still hasn’t been done. There’s no impetus to do it from the inside for the most part and so it has to be done from the outside. And that’s just a reminder here.
In this case, I do not think there is any one reason for the cover-ups. Obviously, I’ve articulated that Dallas Morning News, there is no one at the Dallas Morning News who would benefit career-wise by writing stuff sympathetic to me at this point. And there are others who simply do not understand these issues.
One of the terrible things about journalism, and about the US press generally, is that editors and producers – and they would never articulate this out loud – do tend to think that if something important had happened and there’s evidence for it, then someone else would have covered it. And they all think that. And they know that even if they know their own weaknesses, they tend not to see the weaknesses in others in a strange way.
This is an environment that’s very haphazard – as I keep saying – a perfect ecosystem for misdeeds, for conspiracy, for disinformation. And that’s what we’ve gotten. And even the deterioration in the last few years has not been enough quite yet to overcome the day-to-day, mundane, mediocre careerism that permeates all of this.
And so we should not expect better than this is what I’m saying.