I vaguely knew of Barrett Brown. If you had asked me about him I would have suggested he’s someone tangentially related to Anonymous? Or maybe it was Wikileaks.
I could picture him from clips in documentaries, and I knew he had been prosecuted and imprisoned; for what, though, was never entirely clear to me. It turns out it was never entirely clear to the state either, but regardless, rather than face a Texas jury and a potential sentence of over 100 years [?!] for “crimes” that had journalists from all over the world shrieking in horror, Brown took a plea deal on lesser charges and is currently serving 63 months in prison.
Lucky for me (and now for you), I recently stumbled across some of his writing at The Intercept, and decided to dig a little deeper. Brown is an accomplished journalist, satirist and author; he co-wrote Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny, a book comically skewering anti-evolutionists. He has written for the Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, The Guardian and other publications, and most recently The Intercept.
Also, this might be of particular interest to mah fellow godless heathens:
Brown served as the Director of Communications for Enlighten the Vote, an atheist PAC that provides financial and strategic assistance to political candidates that advocate strict enforcement of the Establishment Clause.
But while none of that was of particular interest to the agents in charge of protecting our Free Country™—with the exception of reviewing for The Guardian some rather revealing leaked emails— this most certainly was:
[Brown] founded Project PM, a research collaboration and wiki, to facilitate analysis of the troves of hacked emails and other leaked information concerning the inner workings of the cyber-military-industrial complex. Project PM aims to operate a wiki in order to provide a centralized, actionable data set regarding the intelligence contracting industry, the public relations industry’s interface with governments, the infosec cybersecurity industry, and other issues constituting what the project’s members regard as threats to human rights, civic transparency, individual privacy, and the health of democratic institutions.
As I noted recently, believing that “freedom of speech” is a cherished principle in these United States, or that the rule of law operates here, or that the US is a democracy, or that the permanent power factions in DC (i.e. the deep state) even value the concept of democracy for anything other than the ease with which they can exploit it, is a mistake. A really big mistake. And in fact, I doubt Barrett Brown believes any of that himself. But I’ve come to believe that he very much values those principles, even if America’s Owners demonstrably do not.
That alone would be a very good reason to read his writing of course, but there are better ones: he is brilliant, fearless and really fucking funny.
Brown’s official statement following his sentencing will give you some idea of his smart-ass wit:
“Good news! — The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex. For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment. — Wish me luck!”
And some assignment it has turned out to be. Throughout his incarceration Brown has produced a series of hilarious and eloquent missives documenting the lawless shenanigans, petty tyrannies and farcical buffoonery presently manifest in every facet of our injustice system. He pulls no punches on the judge, prosecutors, FBI investigators, prison guards, wardens, DOJ officials, or indeed any agent of the state involved in his case or imprisonment. Brown doesn’t entirely spare himself, either. He is candid about his neurotic foibles and quixotic obsessions, his history of drug addicion and mental health problems, and the explicitly non-violent though “admittedly ill-conceived” threat he made in a YouTube video to investigate and dox the FBI agent who, in an attempt to coerce Brown into cooperating with the Feds against Anonymous, threatened to indict Brown’s mother for obstruction of justice (and eventually did).
Of another charge related to the video, Brown said:
A separate declaration I made to the effect that I’d defend my family from any illegal armed raids by the government, while silly and bombastic, was not actually illegal under the threats statutes. To judge from similar comments made by Senator Joni Ernst, it would not even have necessarily precluded me from delivering the G.O.P.’s recent response to the State of the Union address.
But Brown isn’t quite as tough on himself as his critics are—and I don’t mean the DOJ.
Brown is a complex and problematic figure. He is not accepted by traditional journalists who don’t agree with the lines he blurred by participating in digital activism. Nor was he ever fully recognized by some members of Anonymous who resented his attention-grabbing public persona. They called him a “famewhore” more often than not, and Gawker’s Adrian Chen has called him a “a megalomaniacal troll.”
Unlike the Aaron Swartzes of the world, Brown is not a sympathetic character. It is difficult to martyr him. He’s been accused of being egomaniacal, paranoid, and stubborn. He is a recovering heroin addict. He chain-smokes more than the average Russian Bond villain. He’s unapologetic.
But if Brown is convicted, the ramifications for digital journalism and information sharing could be significant. The case raises serious questions about what we can legally share in the digital space, and where the government is willing to draw a line in the sand. Brown’s case could also set a precedent criminalizing actions like linking, which the New York Times, The Guardian, the Washington Post, and any other outlet that links to stolen files would be guilty of as well.
Even Chen, one of Brown’s most outspoken critics has said, “the charges against Brown give me shivers as a journalist.”
Of course it is not necessary to like the guy personally to appreciate his work and the sacrifices he has made on behalf of it, willingly and otherwise. Frankly, the fact that “traditional journalists” renounce someone is nothing short of a resounding endorsement, given what passes for our esteemed Fourth Estate these days. But even his most dedicated haters agree that Brown’s prosecution should be terrifying—and not just to media types either, but to all citizens of the Free World™. And to hear Brown tell it (and you should, you should definitely go hear Brown tell it), we don’t even have the whole picture.
But what should worry Americans most is not that the various frightening aspects of this case can fill a rather wordy article. What should worry them is that this is not even that article. The great bulk of the government’s demonstrable lies, contradictions, and instances of perjury are still sealed and thus unavailable to the public. Other matters are just now coming to light, such as the revelation, two days before my sentencing, that the D.O.J. had withheld from my defense team sealed chat transcripts from the Jeremy Hammond hacking case which contradicted its key claim that I was a co-conspirator in the Stratfor hack. And there are still other aspects of all this, such as the F.B.I.’s seizure of my copy of the Declaration of Independence as evidence of my criminal activity, that I blush to even commit to print, lest I not be believed, even despite the F.B.I. itself having now confirmed it.
One might wonder, as I do, whether Barrett Brown is either exceedingly foolish, or principled and, you know, brave. Truth be told, I have often wondered where that line exists, assuming it even exists at all. Maybe he is a megalomaniacal attention-seeker, and none of us could stand being in the same room with him for ten seconds. But even that would not preclude him from being exactly what he appears to be: an extraordinarily gifted writer and observer whose sole aim is to provide the rest of us with edifying dispatches from the darkest crevices of the sick and dying empire in which we find ourselves. (Lard knows Tom Friedman ain’t gonna do it, people.) Maybe it’s so exceedingly rare any more that we encounter the kind of adversarial journalism necessary to sustain a functioning democracy that Brown’s work stands out like a blinding beacon (if you’re like me and would prefer to know the truth about the state), or a big red bulls eye (if you’re the state and would prefer that no one know these truths). Either way, reading him is such a delicious pleasure that I have collected links to much of his work here, for the infotainment of us all.
The Guardian (Dec. 2010 – Jul. 2013)
Vice (Aug. 2013 – Dec. 2013)
D Magazine (Jan. 2014 – Jun. 2015)
Daily Beast (Jan. 2015: one article, immediately post-sentencing)
The Intercept (Jul. 2015 – present) Incidentally, Brown just won the National Magazine Award for his column in The Intercept. On February 1 when the award was announced, he was being held in solitary confinement, and not for the first time.
For more about Brown’s case and/or to contribute to his legal defense fund, go to freebarrettbrown.org. You can also write to him:
Barrett Brown #45047-177
FCI Three Rivers
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 4200
Three Rivers, TX 78071
If you’d be inclined to send him a book his Amazon wish list is here (though it doesn’t appear to be updated as of this writing). But for fuck’s sake people, whatever you do, do not send him any Jonathan Franzen novels.
IRIS ♥ BARRETT BROWN.