Last year, D Magazine Editor Tim Rogers wrote a portrait of Barrett Brown, who claims to be a spokesman for the hacktivist group Anonymous. Rogers won a much-deserved National Magazine Award for the piece, from which emerged a bright, alternately charming and irritating, always interesting, profoundly screwed-up young man. My first thought was, "The paper should hire this guy." (That was before I got to the part about him being a heroin addict.)
Can't now, anyway. He's in the federal pen. Brown, 31, was arrested on September 13, then indicted October 3, on charges of making Internet threats and conspiring to publish "restricted personal information of an employee of the United States."
Brown posted a video on September 12, the day before he was raided and arrested in his apartment, saying all kinds of crazy shit about a particular FBI agent, who apparently had searched and raided Brown's mother's home months before.
I'll get to what he said. But hang with me for a second, so we can get the sequence down. The raid on Brown's mother's home took place last March. According to what Brown later said, and according to what my own source close to the matter has told me, federal agents may have seized Brown's laptop in that raid.
The source told me that the laptop was hidden in some dishes in the mother's house, and that the FBI has now accused the mother of helping to hide it. (Note to self: Mom's dishes no good for hiding.)
So why was the FBI raiding his mom's house in the first place? I called the FBI, of course, and spokesperson Katherine Chaumont told me that she could not comment on the Brown investigation, of course. We really need a different name for those FBI spokespeople.
Why the raid? None of the allegedly threatening online speech referenced in the October 3 indictment took place before the March raid. (I tried to reach Brown's mother or attorney and was not successful.)
According to this source, the March raid had nothing to do with threats or speech on the Internet. It was, says the source, all about Anonymous, the international hacker group organized as autonomous cells connected by the Internet.
Anonymous is sort of related, sort of not related, to Occupy Wall Street. The group became famous in 2008 after mounting a series of Internet sabotage campaigns against credit card companies in support of Wikileaks. They also attacked Scientology, carried out cyber attacks against the Pentagon and, most unthinkable of all, threatened to hurt Facebook.
I want to go back to Rogers' profile of Brown, because I think it remains the best personal examination of a person who claims publicly to be associated with Anonymous. Why would Anonymous have a spokesman anyway? It's not like they're the Masons.
In fact, there are people who claim to be associated with Anonymous who claim that Brown is a phony, a so-called "name-fag" falsely associating himself with Anonymous so he can get guys like Rogers to write about him.
Here is the one indisputable fact about Brown: He's fragile. He's on heroin. He's off heroin. He's on withdrawal drugs. He's off them. And he wants to talk about all of it. He's 31, and he still wants to talk about his parents' divorce. His benighted mother is still cleaning up his apartment for him.
On YouTube, he looks high. The online chat in which he was engaged when the cops raided his apartment sounded like junkies mumbling in a public bathroom.
He is either a weak link or, if he's not really linked to anything, just weak. But weak he is.
In March, at about the time of the raid on Brown's mom's house in Dallas, the FBI brought criminal charges against four people in England and Ireland associated with a hacker group called Lulzsec, maybe an offshoot or associated somehow with Anonymous. At that time it became known that the FBI had a mole inside the group.
So, March 2011. The FBI's maybe got some teeth into Anonymous. Agents in Dallas go get the laptop of self-described Anonymous spokesman Barrett Brown from inside his mom's dish cabinet. Brown goes crazier.
The FBI agent who is the object of Brown's threats has been named by some news sources, by the way, but his name is redacted in the indictment. I'm going with the redaction because otherwise I have to trust the other news sources.
After the raid on his mom's dishes, Brown publishes writing and video of himself saying the following things about Agent Redacted: "Threat to put my mom in prison last mistake Agent Redacted will ever fucking make.
"That's why Agent Redacted's life is over, but when I say his life is over I don't say I'm going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids."
Yeah, well, it sure sounds like he's saying he's going to kill him and mess with his family, doesn't it? Even with the not-so-clever codicil.
But, look, you and I are lay persons where freedom of speech is concerned. The fact is that one hell of a lot of very outrageous ugly speech is allowed and tolerated by law in this country as "protected speech" under the First Amendment.
I spent some of last week looking into the acquittals of the Hutaree Christian Militia, whose case was thrown out in March. In the acquittal order, a federal judge cited threats against law enforcement by members of the ragtag militia group, including email orders to "stand ready" to go to war against federal officers, references to a particular gun as a "cop killer," discussion of how a certain type of bomb would be good for blowing up a police convoy and specific plans to do just that.
"While vile," the judge wrote, "all of this speech is protected by the First Amendment."
The lawyers for the defendants in the Hutaree case said they felt they won because it was clear from the beginning that the militia members were bullshit and were never going to do anything real. But even they admit the line between bullshit and a real threat is always going to be hard to find.
It's like a drunk in a bar saying he'd like to blow the president's head off, says attorney Arthur Jay Weiss of Farmington, Michigan, who worked the case. It's against the law to threaten the president, but what jury is going to believe the guy was ever going to act? That's the line. Lots of luck ever finding it in a law book.
"I don't know if you are ever going to find a line or a case that will definitively tell you, you can go up to this point but you can't go further," Weiss says.
William Swor, another defense attorney in the Hutaree acquittals, says he thought the feds bit off more than they could chew: "The government was representing unequivocally that they were going to prove not just speech but violent action and that the speech was part and parcel of the action."
The judge in that case looked at these militia people, who were a hell of a lot more imposing than Barrett Brown, and basically said, you gotta be kidding me. She let them all walk, pretty much on the basis of manifest harmlessness.
I couldn't find anyone who thought Brown's words about Agent Redacted were anything but a clear verbal threat. "It seems that Mr. Brown would have a hard time convincing a jury that an objective, reasonable person would not consider his words were a true threat," Wayne Krause Yang, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, normally staunch defenders of free speech, wrote in an email.
In other words, it's a threat. But is it a hollow threat or a threat connected to potential action? Was Brown ever going to act?
That's what I'm stuck on. When I look at the chronology of events, when I look at Barrett Brown through the words of Tim Rogers, when I look at Barrett Brown on Youtube, I do not believe that the FBI was ever acting on what it thought was a credible threat against one of its agents.
Disrespectful, yeah. Ugly, sure. But Brown's threats were the kind of crap that every arrested drunk screams in the back of the patrol car from the curb all the way to the calaboose.
Remember this: His ranting did not initiate this chain of events. It was a response to the raid on his mom's house. I'm not saying that's an excuse, exactly, but it certainly detracts from a case against Brown as some kind of determined anti-FBI plotter. Plus, we know from Rogers that he's not a determined anything except maybe a determined mess.
The danger is this: What if this is really the government making threats but masquerading as the victim, all of it aimed ultimately at suppressing speech?
So what about Barrett Brown? Do you love him now? Yeah, well, that's the thing about free speech. We don't get to pick our standard bearers. Often it winds up being somebody we wouldn't want to take home to Mom, or, even less, be his mom. If he does come over, keep him away from the dishes.
But watch this. The Barrett Brown case feels like the long shadow of government falling on free speech on the Internet, using a weak link to get there.
And I just thought of something else. What if the FBI doesn't even have his laptop? Did they think to look under the dirty clothes?