The curious case of Barrett Brown

You’ve probably never heard of Barrett Brown.

He’s been called the unofficial spokesperson for Anonymous, a journalist and a junkie. Our government calls him a criminal and is threatening him with 105 years in federal prison.

And sure, a reason for the silence is his federal gag order, tied to 17 counts related to his research and an ugly YouTube episode where he threatened the life of an FBI agent.

It’s an odd story. Listen up.

Before 2010 Brown was working on a book about political pundits. But he dropped the book when Anonymous, the computer hacking organization caught his eye.

He started following Anonymous’ activities closely, writing a defense of the group’s affiliation with the Arab Spring.

And then Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, got cocky. Barr claimed to have a list of the names of Anonymous leaders — although he only had a handful of screen names.

The Internet Feds, soon to be re-named LulzSec, hacked HBGary servers, releasing some 70,000 emails and posting them on WikiLeaks.

Brown was intrigued. He began sifting through leaked Gary emails, which detailed a plan to deface WikiLeaks and Guardian journalist Glenn Greewald.

But the leak was too big for one person, so Brown launched a Wiki page, ProjectPM, and invited investigative journalists to help comb through documents.

ProjectPM uncovered an HBGary pitch to the United States Air Force to develop false crowdsourcing software — a social media manipulator which could allow a single user to bluff grassroots support or opposition to an issue.

The group kept sifting, and began to untangle a web of shady connections between corporations, banks, the Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Justice and private military and security firms.

ProjectPM discovered lobbyists and government contractors formed a group called “Team Themis” to smear WikiLeaks and ChamberWatch, an organization critical of the Chamber of Commerce.

By the way, themis means “divine right” in greek. I know, full-on god complex.

These incestuous private and public groups weren’t just after big names in leaking and accountability, but free speech itself.

This is the part where things start to unravel.

In June 2011, the FBI tracked down Hector Xavier Monsigur, LulzSec leader who went by the online handle Sabu. He was arrested and converted into an informant a day later.

Three days before he was busted, Sabu started a group called AntiSec along with former LulzSec members and members of Anonymous.

And about seven months after that, on Christmas Eve, AntiSec released about 5 million emails belonging to the private security company Strategic Forcasting inc., or Stratfor.

Brown decided Stratfor leaks were worth sifting through. So he copied a link to the dump from an Anonymous chatroom and pasted it on ProjectPM’s private editors chat.

Brown honed in on Endgame Systems, a security firm that provided Team Themis with report on WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

Endgame makes maps of the computer infrastructure inside public buildings and then suggests cyber attacks to bludgeon the system. These wired weapons come customized by global region and can cost as much as $2.5 million.

And that’s when Uncle Sam came knocking. The FBI obtained a warrant for Brown’s laptop, with authority to snatch information related to HBGary, Anonymous or Endgame as well as all of his sources.

He was at his mother’s house when agents raided his apartment. They later returned with a warrant for his mother’s house, arrested him and charged his mother with obstructing a search warrant, which held a penalty of 12 months in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Brown’s mother, Karen Lancaster McCutchen was sentenced to six months probation Nov. 9. McCutchen told a judge her maternal instinct clouded her better judgement.

After the raid, a different kind of instinct — heroin withdrawal — spurred Brown to post a ranty YouTube video threatening an FBI agent’s life.

The fed based their case on the YouTube threat and credit card numbers and passwords in emails. Right. I doubt an ex-junkie could pose a threat to a trained killing machine. And Brown has no motive to steal bank info. He was never an official Anonymous member.

Sure, the shadowy ties between public and private entities are concerning. But what’s scarier is the government’s willingness to heavily prosecute someone willing to expose those ties.

Follow his trial. Follow what happens when someone digs too deep.