One day last September, I received an e-mail that began, “As I’ve told you, you have libeled me repeatedly,” and ended with this: “Please respond immediately and let me know if you’d prefer to speak through my lawyer Tom Mills at this point.” The e-mail was from Barrett Brown, a left-wing gadfly who spent several months presenting himself as the media mouthpiece for the international computer hacking conspiracy known as “Anonymous.” This wasn’t the first time Brown had accused me of libel, and I frankly didn’t have time to deal with his latest bogus threat of litigation. Having earned my living as a newsman since 1986, I’m thoroughly familiar with libel law, and was unimpressed by this “talk-to-my-lawyer” nonsense from an arrogant young punk trying to scapegoat me for problems he had created for himself.
For the past nine months, Barrett Brown has been in federal custody, charged with enough felonies to put him away for a long time. Recent revelations about surveillance programs at the National Security Agency and the death last week of award-winning journalist Michael Hastings have inspired renewed attention to Brown’s plight. The Nation published a long feature on Brown that described his case as a “reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who report on leaks.” Perhaps this is true, but Brown wasn’t arrested for “reporting,” and his saga seems more properly understood as a morality tale about unsupervised amateurs who impudently imagine they can achieve fame and fortune by producing an ersatz imitation of actual journalism.
When Brown first accosted me online in September 2009, I dismissed him as a pretentious wannabe, a sadly familiar type in an era where the Internet permits all kinds of cranks and kooks to pose as self-declared experts, pundits or even “investigative reporters.” It was therefore rather amusing when, in February 2011, an e-mail tip informed me that Brown had refashioned himself as the spokesman for Anonymous, the so-called “hacktivist collective” that had made headlines with online attacks in support of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks. The hackers had gone after several of Assange’s opponents, relying on their swarming numbers and online anonymity to shield them from criminal liability. Common sense suggested that their exploits — including distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks on the Web sites of Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal — would attract heavy scrutiny from law enforcement.
Common sense is an increasingly rare commodity these days, however, and Barrett Brown seemed to have none at all, eagerly throwing himself into the limelight as the public face of Anonymous. So when an e-mail tipster told me about this development in the young poseur’s career, the headline on my blog post was, “Is the FBI Watching Barrett Brown? (And If They’re Not Already, Shouldn’t They?).” Brown could not claim to speak for the hackers if he was not in communication with them. Logically, all the FBI had to do was to monitor Brown’s communications and, like Hansel and Gretel strewing bread crumbs behind them, he would inevitably leave a digital trail that would unlock that shadowy network of online anarchists. This was mere common sense, as I say, and if there was anything that could be certainly predicted at that point, it was that Brown’s high-profile stint as front-man for Anonymous would end badly. Just how badly it eventually ended, however, no one possibly could have imagined in February 2011. And for more than a year, it appeared Brown had finally found the ticket to fame he had coveted for so long.
Only 29 years old when he began speaking on behalf of Anonymous, he was featured in a March 2011 NBC News report by Michael Isikoff who described Brown as “an underground commander in a new kind of warfare.” If that wasn’t enough to put Brown on the FBI’s radar, Congress should investigate the Bureau for incompetence. Knowing Brown’s past history of amateurish stunts, however, I suggested as a plausible alternative that he was “one of the most successful hoaxers in recent memory.” The syllogism of the young Texan’s actions presented itself in the form of a dilemma: Either this recovering heroin addict had managed to make himself the notorious kingpin of an international criminal conspiracy, or else Brown was dishonestly exploiting Anonymous as the latest vehicle for his lifelong pursuit of personal glory.
Suspicion among Anons (as members of the hacker collective call themselves) steadily began leaning toward the latter explanation, especially after authorities began busting their members. In June 2011, British officials arrested Ryan Cleary, a 19-year-old member of an Anonymous splinter cell known as “LulzSec,” who was reported to be cooperating with police. That story got Brown quoted in the New York Times, and kindled understandable resentment among some members of Anonymous: Here was one of their comrades under arrest and snitching them out, while Brown was glory-hogging as an “expert” in the mainstream press. That the antics of an egomaniacal self-promoter like Brown would irritate the radical-egalitarian mob mentality of Anonymous was another predictable consequence of their unholy alliance. In November 2011, when Brown announced that he and Gregg Housh had signed a “six-figure” deal for a book about Anonymous, Adrian Chen of Gawker noted that many hackers viewed Brown “as a famewhore riding Anonymous to, well, lucrative book deals.”
Because I was busy at the time as an American Spectator correspondent covering the multi-candidate battle for the Republican presidential nomination, I paid only sporadic attention to Brown’s activities. However, my reputation as one of Brown’s most prominent critics — at a time when big-name journalists were treating him as a reputable and authoritative source — meant that I would occasionally get notices on Twitter or via e-mail of his latest publicity stunts. And then one day in March 2012, the FBI arrested several LulzSec hackers and also raided (but did not arrest) Barrett Brown. It turned out that one notorious LulzSec hacker, Hector Xavier “Sabu” Monsegur,” had been arrested in June 2011 on a sealed indictment and had, in return for leniency by federal prosecutors, agreed to turn informant against his comrades. This knowledge, combined with Brown’s suspicious non-arrest, destroyed whatever trust had ever existed between Anonymous and its erstwhile spokesman. Brown denounced Sabu as a “degenerate traitor” and worse, but this did nothing to dispel the radioactive reputation of the “famewhore” whose plans to cash in on the Anonymous phenomenon were now jeopardized by his apparent complicity in criminality. If Brown would sell out Anonymous for a six-figure book deal, many of its members reckoned, he would certainly not hesitate to sell them out to avoid going to federal prison. Any possibility that Brown might escape prosecution by turning snitch was therefore voided by the understandable fear among Anons that Brown was already snitching.
Brown had instantly gone from hero to zero in the hacker universe and found himself unfortunately at the mercy of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Dallas. It was in this context that Brown, who hadn’t contacted me directly in more than a year, suddenly popped up and began harassing me on Twitter in early September 2012. He accused me of libel and menaced me with threats of terrible consequences if I did not immediately respond to his demands that I answer various insulting questions. This bullying motif — “Answer my question, or else!” — is characteristic of a style that I’ve come to think of as Cargo Cult Journalism. Like the rituals of certain South Pacific islanders, the Cargo Cult Journalist hopes that his simulacrum of what he ignorantly imitates will magically bring the same result as the real thing. Cargo Cult Journalism is the kind of stuff we once encountered in smudgy mimeographed newsletters, “underground” newspaper tabloids, cheaply printed pamphlets and self-published books by crackpots who warn about conspiracies involving the Bavarian Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission and/or the Military-Industrial Complex. In the digital age, however, many people have trouble distinguishing between this kook-fringe imitation of “reporting” and genuine journalism, a distinction blurred by the increasingly shabby quality of product issued by respectable organs of the mainstream media. If a monomaniacal hysteric like Glenn Greenwald is a “serious journalist,” then the threshold of seriousness is dangerously low, indeed.
What one usually finds among practitioners of Cargo Cult Journalism is a grandiose posture of contempt for the unglamorous toil of the workaday reporter. Many people who have never covered a county commission meeting, a high-school basketball tournament or a Fourth of July parade — such local tedium is beneath their notice — seem to harbor Walter Mitty fantasies of gaining worldwide journalistic significance. The Internet is a medium that permits these would-be Seymour Hersh types to catapult past the minor leagues of journalism where real reporters learn their craft. While I enthusiastically encourage the burgeoning phenomenon of online citizen-journalism, it is important at the same time to discourage the type of “famewhore” act that led Barrett Brown to his pathetic fate. Thinking himself a sort of one-man Woodward and Bernstein who would heroically expose the Hidden Secrets of the Surveillance State, Brown instead exposed himself as a blundering amateur who got himself in so far over his head that he couldn’t handle the catastrophic result.
So there I was last Labor Day, preparing a last-minute departure for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, when Barrett Brown erupted in an angry rant directed at me. Rather than engage him in a silly Twitter fight, I replied privately: “The last e-mail I had from you was in March 2011. Now you pop up on Twitter making outrageously false claims, threatening me with … well, I’m not exactly sure. But anyway, you demand that I call you immediately. Look at yourself, Barrett: Publishing error-strewn ‘documents’ on Pastebin. … You’re publicly self-destructing, and it’s not a pretty sight. Seek professional help.” To this he replied with an accusation of libel, and to that accusation I replied with an e-mail which I also published on my blog, ending with this helpful advice: “You don’t need a lawyer, Barrett. You need a psychiatrist, or perhaps a priest to exorcise your demons. You are traveling a road to destruction, as harmful to yourself as to any of your chosen enemies. Get help.” Watching someone sink into a whirlpool of helpless paranoia is never a pleasant experience, but Brown would heed no word of caution. Instead he listened to the flattery of sycophants who told him he was being persecuted as a courageous truth-teller. Any psychologist can explain that paranoia is an extreme manifestation of a narcissistic personality, whereby an inability to cope with failure feeds a cycle of increasingly desperate rationalizations that turn into mad delusions. Brown had been failing spectacularly for months, and his rationalizations required scapegoats to blame. Entire books have been written about the phenomenon of paranoia, and the fact that Barrett Brown had legitimate cause to fear — federal prosecutors were preparing to press felony charges against him — doesn’t mean that he was not also crazy.
Just how crazy he was became blazingly apparent not long after Brown made his threats against me. On the evening of Wednesday, September 12, he uploaded a series of video rants to YouTube, the last of which was entitled, “Why I’m Going to Destroy FBI Agent Robert Smith.” Click the link, if you want to watch 13 minutes of raving lunacy, strewn with obscene epithets and demented gibberish about paid informants. After that video was posted, a friend called to tell me about Brown’s “hilarious” online meltdown, but apparently the FBI didn’t see the humor in his threats to “destroy” one of their agents. Brown was swiftly arrested and, over the course of the next few months, a grand jury indicted him on multiple federal felony charges. Perhaps the weirdest part of this strange story is that, after Edward Snowden became the world’s most famous international fugitive by illegally leaking classified documents about NSA surveillance programs, some people have belatedly realized that Barrett Brown may have been on to a real story. What helped drive him over the edge — what he was babbling incoherently about in his notorious YouTube rant — was Brown’s obsession with private security contractors, including a proposed consortium known as “Team Themis.” Whether or not the firms that Brown was ranting about were part of a sinister conspiracy against him (or anyone else) is a story nobody has been able to untangle. Considering how Snowden got access to NSA documents as a contract employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, however, journalists and politicians are now taking a serious look at the way Uncle Sam has been outsourcing top-secret security work to private firms. Indeed, it has been claimed that, before his fatal car crash in Los Angeles last week, Hastings had been planning to interview Brown. And a columnist for the British Guardian newspaper declared Monday, “Given the revelations about domestic surveillance, Brown could speak volumes about the nexus between corporations and the state.”
Maybe so, but his belated relevance is unlikely to save Brown from being sent to federal prison. If it turns out we’re living in an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance for profit — Big Brother, Inc. — that story will be told by professional journalists, not amateurish “famewhores” who use YouTube to make delirious threats against the FBI. It appears the evidence against Brown should make his an open-and-shut case, and federal law prohibits criminals from profiting by telling the story of their crimes. So if Brown is convicted, and if his story is of any commercial value, someone else will get paid to tell that tale. An obscure Internet punk is probably too insignificant for his biography to merit a “six-figure” advance, but if any publishers are interested in having me write that story, let them make an offer for the thrilling blockbuster entitled, Barrett Brown: The Kook Who Knew Too Much.