Trials and Tribulations with a Dead Press

Photograph Source: barockschloss – CC BY 2.0

I have lived a life marked by many roles, some of them mutually exclusive. According to The Dallas Morning News, for instance, I’m an “investigative journalist whose prison sentence was derided by free press advocates”, as well as an “Anonymous activist and award-winning journalist”.

Also according to the Dallas Morning News, I merely “describe[.. my]self as an investigative journalist” and am more properly characterized as an “Anonymous hacking conspirator”, as well as a “writer often quoted on the workings of Anonymous”.

Also according to The Dallas Morning News, I’m a “[s]elf-proclaimed Anonymous spokesman”.

Also according to The Dallas Morning News, I’m a “journalist-turned-hacktivist”.

Also according to The Dallas Morning News, I’ve “claimed responsibility for bringing down the Church of Scientology and the attacks on Visa and Mastercard”.

I’m citing The Dallas Morning News not just because of its wide selection of possible realities from which we may choose, but because it’s my hometown paper – or, as the Dallas Morning News put it in 2012, “Brown’s history in Dallas spans back more than a decade”. Indeed it did, for I had just turned thirty. So… indeed.

To be fair, Dallas has the single dumbest fucking press corps of any major Western city, something that’s gradually become clear to outside observers over the course of a murder prosecution in which the cop defendant put out three entirely different accounts of how it was that she came to shoot her neighbor to death in his own home and all three accounts were run as fact by reporters who meanwhile denounced the “misinformation swirling on the internet”.  But a review of the measurably less deranged national and international press does little to help clarify my status.

Let’s turn to Adrian Chen, a longtime contributor to The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and New York Magazine, and thus a sort of living avatar of the 21st-century American journalist as molded and overseen by our highest editorial talent. Promptly we confirm that I am the “spokesman for Anonymous”, as well as the “Face of Anonymous”, and that I will remain so until I transition like the seasons into the “former spokesman for the hacktivist collective Anonymous”. Later he would change his mind and reveal that I was, in fact, the “self-appointed Face of Anonymous” who “once started a bogus ‘war’ with the Zetas drug cartel for attention”. And in case my false flag narco psyops campaign is not self-evident, Chen links to one of his several prior articles on my doings, itself entitled “It Pays to Be the Face of Anonymous” and opening with the masterfully spare line, “Barrett Brown, the ‘Face’ of Anonymous, has had a busy week…” This may not do much to support the whole “self-appointed” thing, but to object to what is absent would be to miss what is now present, which in this case is the fleshing-out of Chen’s subject, “[a] spastic freelance writer and admitted heroin addict from Texas with no hacking skill”. Aside from the obvious homage to Nixon White House felon Chuck Colson’s delicious bon mot from his deranged memoir Born Again at the expense of Daniel Ellsburg (“who by his own admission once experimented with LSD”), Chen is sporting enough to refrain from noting that I have no Greek and thus can expect no better future than as a little office boy at forty pounds a year, or whatever the fuck.

As for the Zetas and the false flag black ops and the traditional turning of the frogs towards the vice Anglais via chemicals, Chen spends several paragraphs citing me as the source of various declarations that were in fact coming from the Mexicans who were actually doing the things that were being done in Mexico, and very often. Finally, he concludes that the whole affair was “probably bullshit—a lot of sound and fury signifying people’s lurid obsession with the boogeymen of Anonymous and the drug cartels”. Sad as it is that Chen was forced to write three articles about events that were both sordid and imaginary, the silver lining was that perhaps everything was true: “Brown seems legitimately concerned about his safety in its wake.” Under the editorship of John Cook, a clickbait construct of stray and poorly-organized thoughts to the effect that some complicated affair was perhaps not what it appeared was more than enough to justify an accusation that a journalist and activist who’d relayed updates from those involved had in fact concocted the whole thing in order to lie to all mankind. This explains his subsequent tenure as the first editor of The Intercept about as well as anything else – but we’ll get into that on some other occasion.

On the other hand, the DOJ never got around to alleging any such improbable act of mass deceit over the course of the extended and highly public prosecution in which I was facing a hundred and five years worth of charges to which I couldn’t even plea without subjecting countless others to a dangerous precedent. Whether this occurred to Chen is hard to say given that it would have no impact on what he told his readers. But shortly after I was placed under a gag order over an article I’d written for The Guardian that the prosecution denounced in open court as “critical of the government”, Adrian Chen attended a legal fundraiser for Jeremy Hammond and myself, commemorating the affair in a piece entitled “Stand by Your Troll: Rallying For Barrett Brown Over Wine and Cheese”. After an obligatory reference to my status as a “fameball” – which would certainly explain why I’ve gotten sole notice on the marquis, with Hammond barely receiving mention – Chen begins working the crowd, quickly running into Gregg Housh, who served in the same ambiguous role of de facto press liaison for individual Anonymous operations that I would eventually be asked to serve in as well. As Chen puts it:

I’d last seen Housh in 2011 at a South-by-Southwest party hosted by Silicon Valley Bank where venture capitalists had urged him to write a guidebook for key influencers based on the lessons he’s learned from Anonymous. Housh actually did land a big book deal that year, along with Brown, for an account of their time with Anonymous. The project should be even more interesting now if Brown, who faces up to 105 years in prison, is freed this century, and if the feds return the laptop containing large chunks of the manuscript.

The press has always interested me, which is why I worked for so many unproductive years as a journalist before finally giving up and joining the digital insurgency from which I was able to accomplish so much more – though not nearly as much as could have been accomplished had we not found ourselves routinely sabotaged in ways that cannot be forgiven, whether on my own behalf or that of the populations that suffered as a result of the rot. And how deep does that rot go? For now, suffice to say that it’s so bad that this isn’t even an article about Adrian Chen, which would require some 30 pages – or at least that’s how much it came to in my upcoming memoirs, after cuts for length. And there is much more to say regarding my hometown paper, some of which has already been noted at this outlet.

We’ll take a closer look at Chen – and those who have supported him and kept quiet about the help he’s given to the FBI in discrediting activists, such as fellow The Nation contributors Aaron Mate and Max Blumenthal – on another occasion in the very near future. For now, let’s look at a very different sort of example of how poorly served is the American citizenry and its victims abroad, and why this is the case.

In the summer of 2011, al-Jazeera commissioned me to write three articles concerning some of the things I’d been digging up that year, among which was the highly complex data mining, surveillance, and propaganda apparatus known as Romas/COIN. Though the exact workings were never clear, I’d been able to document much about what it consisted of via a months-long review of hacked emails covering a period in 2010 during which the firms Archimedes Global, HBGary Federal, TASC, and White Canvas Group had worked together in a bid to beat Northrop Grunman and SAIC for the U.S. government contract to refine and oversee the program.

Here follows my exchange with Christopher Arsenault, an editor at al-Jazeera who inexplicably jumped into the editorial discussion over the Romas piece a day after it had already been accepted by another editor and set to run.

May 26, 2016
Hi Barrett,

I hope this message finds you well. My name is Chris Arsenault and I am an editor with Al jazeera’s english language website. I just read your first piece on data mining. While I really like the investigative angle and the research, I think the piece lacks pull and will need some additions and re-writes.

To over-simplify, I am left thinking: Who cares about all these e-mails and junk after I read it. You need to humanise the issue a little bit. And explain clearly to someone who isn’t familiar with the issue why they should care about this. As it stands, the piece reads too much like a technical document.

I am hoping you can talk to some privacy advocates (start with the ACLU and go from there) aout why this is scarey, and then have them comment on particular aspects of the case. Ideally, I would like you to talk to someone who is a victim of data mining. Please do at least 4 solid interviews.

At one point you list a bunch of companies and then a bunch of services provided. Some of this information could be interesting, but you need to walk the reader through why it is important.

Take a look at some of the stuff the Guardian and other papers have done with Wikileaks. We are really excited about the investigation and look forward to running it. However, let’s really make it punchy. thanks

let me know when you can send a new version.

After spending much of the next day trying to determine how one might productively respond to such insolence, I replied with the following:

I’m sorry, but what you’re proposing is not at all appropriate. For one thing, it’s not really about data mining; it’s about a classified military apparatus that makes use of data mining in addition to a large number of other capabilities. And victims of data mining don’t know they’ve been data mined; data mining is done secretly and on a massive scale. It’s not something like identify theft. Why this is a problem is made quite clear throughout the piece.

As for “humanizing” and making the piece more “punchy,” that’s not something I do, as I think it’s bad for journalism. The “pull” in this case comes from the fact that I am revealing a massive, advanced surveillance apparatus which the U.S. is using to monitor a great portion of the Arab world, and that I am explaining this as someone who has been leading a crowd-sourced investigation into the intelligence contracting industry for several months, which is why a number of journalists and others are already reporting that I’m about to reveal something big. Quotes from other privacy advocates would add nothing of substance to the piece; obviously they’d be opposed to it for the same reasons I’ve already noted. That’s a major reason why I don’t interview for articles.

I understand that you have an opinion about how an article like this should be written but I do as well, and since this is the most important piece I’ve ever done in terms of what it reveals, I need it to be done in accordance with my own views on journalism and in my own style. As such, I’m going to have to publish this piece elsewhere.

I was relieved when Hashem Said, my original editor, jumped in to assuage my puritanical rage, as this was the only paying work I had at the moment. “If you feel passionately that this piece is good as is, we will run it as it stands without alteration,” he wrote. “Please let us know if you would still like to proceed, and we will publish this as is. It’s already been templated, edited and ready to go, so as soon as we hear the word, it will go up.” I thanked him and agreed to move forward, and then happily made some changes to the first few paragraph at his request. When Said now informed me that “the powers that be feel that your article is a little too ‘features’ oriented and not enough ‘op/ed’ oriented,” I agreed to inject more opinion, and did so. Then came several weeks in which I received assurances that everything was still a go and that all that was needed was approval from a certain Nasir Yousafzai Khan (who today describes himself as “a follower of #Imran_khan” and an anchor on “Afghan TV”, while Arsenault bears the more prosaic title of Reuters contributor).

Finally, I was met with silence.

Later I would meet others who’d worked for AJ in various capacities and who assured me that this was not terribly abnormal for the outlet, and that its minders in the Qatari government had likely stepped in for some reason or another. One possibility, I imagine, is that some of those firms participating in the attempt to win the contract were also providing services to the regime, illicit or otherwise. Apple and Google, whose respective national security representatives met with HBGary Federal’s soon-to-be-notorious CEO Aaron Barr and other principals about participating in the recompete, are possible contenders here; but so is Archimedes, which shared executives with SCL and Cambridge Analytica and would later come to public attention in that firm’s Facebook data-mining programs on behalf of the Trump campaign — and so is White Canvas Group, the first firm to come under scrutiny by the Mueller investigation over the same election, and which was co-run by Michael Flynn.

The $350 I was to be paid for the Romas piece never materialized. I ended up giving it to The Guardian – for free, as their web editor had run through much of his budget.

In public lectures and interviews, I’ll sometimes note what a relief it was when a SWAT team extracted me from the efficiency apartment I could no longer afford to rent, and placed me in a prison far from the press corps I could no longer afford to trust. It always gets a laugh because people think I’m joking.

But I’m happy to be out of prison, and off probation, and closer to my goal of leaving the country forever. And I’m even happier to have in my possession dirt on reporters and editors from every major news outlet in the Western world – because as any one of them could have discovered for themselves, my foremost role has always been that of press critic.

Barrett Brown is a journalist, activist, and founder of the crowd-sourced research outfit Project PM, which was listed in a search warrant executed by the FBI in 2012 along with HBGary and Endgame Systems, two firms linked to the U.S. intelligence community that the group had investigated along with Palantir, Booz Allen Hamilton, and others. After finishing a four-year stint in federal prison over controversial charges involving the “global analysis” firm Stratfor, which was hacked with the involvement of the FBI, Brown created Pursuance, a non-profit intent on building a universal software framework for mass civic collaboration while encouraging the development of crowd-sourcing. In 2015, Brown won the National Magazine Award in the category of columns and commentary for his monthly prison column for The Intercept, “The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison”, along with other journalism awards. His third book, “My Glorious Defeats”, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.