Project PM: Why Barrett Brown’s journalism still matters

by Jeb Boone

Just one year ago, a small group of hackers, activists, journalists and agitators watched live via webcam as the FBI unexpectedly swept into the home of journalist and activist Barrett Brown. Brown’s screams could be heard between shouts of “FBI” and “put your hands down”. Brown was being restrained and presumably handcuffed.

Moments after Brown’s laptop powered down, a stunned silence fell over the chat full of typically boisterous and good-humored individuals who had just witnessed what amounted to the first ever live stream of a FBI raid on the home of a journalist.

“Whoa, is Barrett getting fucking raided by the fucking FBI?” were the first words to break the silence. “V&!” filled the streams text chat, pronounced “vanned”, a verb defined by the online community to mean “put in the van” – arrested.

At the time of Brown’s arrest, I was lurking in various #anonops Internet Chat Relays (IRCs) hoping to stumble upon a new operation that was worth covering. It was a relatively dark time in the collective, still recovering from a spate of arrests, indictments and new attempts by the US and EU to regulate the internet and crackdown on copyright violators.

Just after midnight, as I reached for my keys to go and replenish my cigarette stash, Brown’s name began appearing in several IRC channels.

“LOL, BB [Barrett Brown] just faked an FBI raid on cam,” wrote one Anon, echoing the skepticism many others shared that night. Perhaps Brown was engaged in some first class, grade A trolling. I chuckled a bit and continued to make my way into thick humidity of a Georgia September night for more tools of the journalism trade - nicotine and caffeine. Before cranking up my truck, I decided to check and make sure that Brown was just trolling as many Anons speculated.

That’s when I found his booking photo.

Brown is a polarizing figure in nearly all circles in which he associates. Even within Anonymous, he is sometimes seen as a contemptible “moralfag” and a “fame-whore”. Gawker’s Adrian Chen does not count himself among Brown’s adoring fans either.

But Brown has also found friends among prominent academics and journalists including Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald and the late Michael Hastings.

“Barrett Brown is a journalist, plain and simple. He’s also a colleague and friend, and one of the brilliant, if highly unconventional, American writers of his generation,” wrote Hastings before his death last June.

Perhaps Hastings understood the importance of Brown’s work as a journalist and, as many others have, overlooked the role he played in the “ultra-coordinated internet motherfuckery” of Anonymous in its earliest and least palatable incarnation.

Often disregarded in the coverage of Brown’s imprisonment, legal battles and past is his work as a journalist and the organization he founded – Project PM.

I’d spoken to Brown just two weeks before his arrest in September of 2012, shortly after he dumped his personal email correspondence with New York Times reporters. Brown was upset with the “failure of the press” to give adequate coverage to Trapwire, what some say is a global system of surveillance run by the US government.

At the time, I dismissed Brown’s concerns about a global system of surveillance by what he termed the “cyber intelligence complex”. It sounded like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. A few months after his arrest, the US and the rest of the world came to learn deeply about this complex and the ties contractors and corporations share with the NSA and global surveillance.

To quote Brown’s indictment, Project PM is “a IRC/wiki-based blogger networked created to allow Brown and those he associated with to share information and achieve or pursue certain goals. Barrett Lancaster Brown used the website wiki.echelon2.org to operate Project PM.”

Crowd-sourcing the analysis of emails stolen from intelligence contractors Stratfor and HB Gary Federal by Anonymous, Project PM was beginning to uncover the global surveillance initiative undertaken by the NSA and the cyber intelligence complex.

In particular, Project PM was uncovering the intelligence community’s efforts to spy on private citizens around the globe, contracting the work out to firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, Palantir Technologies and Cubic. In addition, through Project PM, Brown discovered HB Gary Federal’s attempts to publicly defame Glenn Greenwald through a targeted disinformation campaign.

“He knew from what he’d seen already, in the leaked e-mails, that this was huge, and that the media wasn’t doing enough. He was upset about the lack of coverage of this issue in general, and that the Romas/COIN report he authored didn’t get more traction or picked up by more outlets,” said Kevin Gallagher, director of freebarrettbrown.org.

According to Brown and Project PM, Romas/COIN (COIN meaning counter-intelligence, one of the many believed acronyms of the intelligence community) was a clandestine surveillance campaign targeting political dissidents around the globe.

“For at least two years, the U.S. has been conducting a secretive and immensely sophisticated campaign of mass surveillance and data mining against the Arab world, allowing the intelligence community to monitor the habits, conversations, and activity of millions of individuals at once,” reads Project PM’s report on the program.

In September of 2012, I thought the allegations sounded a lot like a conspiracy theory. One year later, those allegations join a host of other facts taken from classified information revealed by Edward Snowden. In less than 12 months, my understanding of Project PM’s reports went from conspiracy theory to what has very nearly become a post-Snowden cliché.

Brown is undergoing prosecution for linking to this information, given to him by Anonymous after they stole it from HB Gary and Stratfor – not dissimilar from the manner in which Edward Snowden handed over stolen, classified documents to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Brown, often chided by Anons for his lack of technical ability, took no part in the theft of the information. The charges against him are numerous.

The difference between Greenwald and Brown is that one has been in prison for a year, facing several more, and the other remains free.

“Brown is a serious journalist who has spent the last several years doggedly investigating the shadowy and highly secretive underworld of private intelligence and defense contractors, who work hand-in-hand with the agencies of the Surveillance and National Security State in all sorts of ways that remain completely unknown to the public. It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism,” wrote Greenwald in a statement published on freebarrettbrown.org.

Brown and his attorneys are now subject to a gag order and will continue their legal battles in silence. However, Project PM’s research will continue. In a post-Snowden journalism space, that research is even more essential to good journalism.

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