How a case of guilt by association reflects the problems with the nation’s intelligence community.
CORRECTIONS: It was previously reported that the request for more time was made by the government. The request was actually made by the defense team. It was also reported that the Operation Cartel emails were downloaded initially via a link to The Pirate Bay. It was actually linked to wikisend link to an .tar .gz archive file.
Finally, it was reported the Barrett Brown’s mother was sentenced for obstruction of justice. This implied an improper assumption of guilt; she actually accepted a plea agreement.
In the dimly-lit shadows of the Aaron Swartz case, in which the United States Department of Justice sought to win a felony conviction for the unauthorized distribution of academic journals, the Bradley Manning case and the Edward Snowden situation, which has aggravated the Obama administration beyond reprieve, an atmosphere of apprehension and distrust has settled over the federal government.
Questions on what the government knows, why the government needs to know these things and what the government would do to bring secrets revealers to justice are redefining the relationship the people have with its government and the expectations of privacy and freedom of association an American citizen can assume.
Such a question is slowly being answered in Texas, where journalist and activist Barrett Lancaster Brown sits in federal custody, charged with 17 counts, including identity theft, credit card fraud and threats to a federal agent. Brown, the alleged “face” of Anonymous, the international hacktivist collective that seeks to be a “voice for the truth,” (usually at the federal government’s expense), is facing 105 years imprisonment if found guilty.
This case has taken a turn for the strange: not so much for the case matter, but for the way the federal government has prosecuted it. For example, on April 17, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which is hearing this case, ordered the $20,000 collected for Brown’s legal defense sealed and placed in the court’s custody on the grounds that the funds may be used to pay for his court-appointed counsel. On May 1 the court reversed itself on this.
The federal government has also filed an Opposition to Continuance motion, which would delay the opening of Brown’s trial, which is scheduled for September. The government argues that it needs more time to sort through the case’s evidence, despite the fact that the case has been delayed so far for 11 months. Finally, the government has requested a media gag order, arguing that there is a risk that this case could be decided by the public and not by the court.
While Brown’s defense argues that there is no valid legal basis for these motions, the government’s actions may suggest just how important this case is to it and the challenges it will face in arguing it.
Guilt by association
Brown, who is not a hacker and therefore is not part of Anonymous, has made his mark speaking for the group. Brown sold his story about his time with Anonymous — Anonymous: Tales From Inside the Accidental Cyberwar, which, according to Publishers Marketplace, Brown pitched as “Barbarians at the Gate for the digital era” — to Amazon for a six-figure paycheck. Brown quicky became a media mainstay, speaking with the major news outlets with regard to Anonymous’ campaign to reveal a list of Zetas collaborators based on 25,000 stolen “Mexican government” emails.
On Oct. 6, 2011, an Anonymous member posting on YouTube as “MrAnonymousguyfawkes” released a video stating that Los Zetas, who the American government recognizes as the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico,” must release an Anonymous member that the cartel allegedly kidnapped in Veracruz during another Anonymous operation — Operation Paperstorm — or he would release the names and photos of individuals that have worked with the cartel, including police officers and taxi drivers.
“You made a huge mistake by taking one of us. Release him,” said the masked man on the video in Spanish. “We cannot defend ourselves with a weapon … but we can do this with their cars, homes, bars, brothels and everything else in their possession.” The global intelligence group Stratfor weighed in on the situation, releasing a report stating that Anonymous risked escalating the situation and causing more reprisals and deaths if they went through with their threat, codenamed “Operation Cartel.” It was feared that Los Zetas had a computer counterterrorism unit in place that could track the anti-cartel campaigns online, endangering journalists, bloggers and Anonymous members who were involved.
On Nov. 4, 2011, Anonymous announced that the kidnapped collective member had been released and that “Operation Cartel” had been abandoned. This left Brown exposed, as he was the only known face to this scandal that was still public after the remaining factors went quiet.
Enemies in high places
It is this public exposure more than anything else that has led to Brown’s current predicament.
In 2011, Aaron Barr, the CEO of security firm HBGary Federal, believed that he had claimed the gold medal in the network security industry: infiltration of the Anonymous Collective. In a private email to colleagues in HBGary Federal, Barr bragged that he figured out the encryption that anonymized the real-world locations and identities of the collective’s members: “They think I have nothing but a heirarchy based on IRC [Internet Relay Chat] aliases!” he wrote. “As 1337 as these guys are suppsed to be they don’t get it. I have pwned them! :)”
The following January, Barr published his findings, with the story being picked up in February by the Financial Times. The FBI, the director of National Intelligence and the U.S. military all made a beeline to Barr’s door, as Anonymous has been a desired target for all of these agencies for a long time. This created an expected backlash from Anonymous, who attacked and compromised HBGary Federal’s website — which was replaced with an Anonymous message — and hacked the company’s email server, downloading over 40,000 emails and putting them on The Pirate Bay, a popular peer-to-peer downloading message board.
It can be argued that Barr wanted this to happen. Barr has stated that he hoped his work would “start a verbal braul [sic] between us and keep it going because that will bring more media and more attention to a very important topic.” With the federal government watching, the situation definitely turned a few heads. Unfortunately, Barr’s research has failed to turn up anyone tangible from the collective. Barr was ultimately released from HBGary.
But, it just so happened that at this time Brown was being looked at carefully by the FBI due to his involvement with “Operation Cartel,” and Brown happened to publish a link to The Pirate Bay web page, where the stolen emails were linked on Project PM. According to the federal government, this amounted to an attempt to distribute stolen materials, a felony-level computer crime. More damning, however, is The Guardian piece Brown wrote in response to these emails, detailing revelations of a classified intelligence program known as Romas/COIN, which, according to Project PM, is a massive data mining and electronic surveillance program aimed against the Middle East “allowing the intelligence community to monitor the habits, conversations, and activity of millions of individuals at once.”
“The new revelation provides for a disturbing picture, particularly when viewed in a wider context,” Project PM wrote in its analysis. “Unprecedented surveillance capabilities are being produced by an industry that works in secret on applications that are nonetheless funded by the American public – and which in some cases are used against that very same public. Their products are developed on demand for an intelligence community that is not subject to Congressional oversight and which has been repeatedly shown to have misused its existing powers in ways that violate U.S. law as well as American ideals.”
Brown also alleged that HBGary, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies were contracted by the federal government and by Bank of America to feed discrediting, false reports to WikiLeaks.
The case against Brown
Brown is currently facing three indictments. The first indictment came after the aftermath of “Operation Cartel,” and includes charges of making Internet threats, conspiracy to make public restricted personal information about a federal employee and retaliation against a federal law enforcement officer. This indictment centers around a stream of Twitter messages and YouTube videos, in which Brown alleges mistreatment from his investigating FBI agent. Brown made verbal anger-driven threats about the agent and, at one point in a YouTube video, shared the agent’s personal email address.
“I will shoot them and kill them … I have no choice left but to defend my family, myself, my girlfriend, my reputation, my work, my activism, my ideas and the revelation that my friends are going to prison so we can have a chance to get out for other people,” Brown said on YouTube. “So they would matter. And frankly, you know, it was pretty obvious I was going to be dead before I was 40 or so, so I wouldn’t mind going out with two FBI side arms like a f***ing Egyptian pharaoh. Adios.”
The second indictment contains one count of trafficking stolen authentication features, one count of access device fraud and 11 counts of aggravated identity fraud. Brown copied a link from one IRC chat with Anonymous members to another. In doing this, he transferred a link to stolen documents obtained by Anonymous from Stratfor from the collective’s retaliation against the company’s “Operation Cartel” report. One of the stolen documents contain the credit card information for 12 active accounts, including the full address and card verification value (CVV).
The federal prosecutors argue that the credit card information was used illegally, which leads to the third indictment, which contains two obstruction of justice charges for the concealment of evidence. The prosecutors argue that Brown hid two laptops that held records of the credit card use in his mother’s house. The laptops were recovered two days later.
Brown’s mother was charged and sentenced for obstruction and was sentenced to $10,000 in fines and six months probation.
While this case is complicated and highly emotional, it also serves as a “what-if” to the question of what might have happened if Edward Snowden were surrendered to the federal authorities. This arguably heavy-handed application of charges, alleged mishandling while in custody and lack of motivation for a prompt and speedy trial have many Snowden supporters feeling vindicated in its distrust of the government.
But, for Brown, the question is not so much the fairness of his imprisonment and trial, but the fairness in not making the public aware of what is being done in their name. “There’s incredible potential from their standpoint, to take control of the conversation, to monitor and to manipulate the information flow, which is frankly important both for democracy and for dictatorships,” Brown said from prison to Vice. “And what we’ve seen, just from the HBGary emails and others here and there, is that there’s a very endemic problem that’s going on that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. And it’s not being addressed by Congress.”
“It’s almost arbitrary what that breaking point [for public awareness] is. My goal for the last couple years has and will continue to be to cause that point into coming to being. And I still am able to speak out from this prison, I still have the potential to force this issue, and whether or not I’m incarcerated for a while or whether I get out… whatever. Either way, I and other people in this movement are going to try and make that happen. Everyone, especially journalists, should be interested in this. They should know more about it.”