I was sitting in my jail cell the other day, plotting the next step in My Eternal and Sacred War Against All Things That Are Not Me, when the mail arrived. Aside from the usual newsletters from Anti-Racist Action and the Anarchist Black Cross, I also received an advance review copy of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman’s long-anticipated volume on the Anonymous activist collective. I’ve known Professor Coleman for several years, during which we regularly encountered each other on the various chat servers from which much of Anonymous’ activity has been organized. She also spent several months as a sort of anthropologist-in-virtual-residence at the chat server used by my own group, Project PM, to coordinate investigations of state-corporate surveillance and propaganda operations. She and I were among a small handful of people who were regularly quoted in the press about Anonymous and related phenomena, and once even appeared on a network television panel together.
So I had reason to hope that her book’s representation of my work with Anonymous and Project PM would be more accurate than what one finds elsewhere. An earlier book on Anonymous by Forbes reporter Parmy Olson, for instance, weirdly misrepresents the evidence I put forth in a recorded 2011 talk during which I accused Booz Allen Hamilton of involvement in massive and unprecedented state-run surveillance programs both at home and abroad; indeed, from the way Olson worded her version of that particular section, it’s clear she considered my obsession with Booz to be a sort of silly eccentricity — well-meaning, perhaps, but not the sort of thing that would be taken seriously within the hallowed halls of Forbes. Elsewhere in the book, she explains that I live in Houston, a city in which I have spent a total of six hours and whose tacky, crypto-fascist residents I have always despised. Thanks to ex-Booz employee Edward Snowden, my old warnings about the sinister megacorp are no longer smiled upon by other, more respectable journalists. Yet my ongoing calls for the destruction of Houston before it produces the Beast prophesized in the Book of Revelation are still written off as the disturbed rantings of a jailhouse crank. Well, time will tell.
Unlike Olson’s confused and factually haphazard tome, which presents an account that’s drawn largely from interviews with my old frenemy Topiary — best known to the public as the personality behind an Anonymous offshoot called LulzSec, which wreaked mostly pointless havoc on more or less random targets over the summer of 2011 — Coleman’s own attempt to write what the accompanying press release calls “the definitive story of the rise and transformation of Anonymous” probably has some value, at least to the extent that it sticks to broad strokes. Coleman is a respected anthropologist who happens to be well-versed in the various strains of internet culture that produced Anonymous, and so she has interesting things to say about trolls, hackers, and gamers. Like the creators of the old Shadowrun role-playing game or William Gibson in his Count Zero — both notable influences on hacker culture — she delights in evoking West African/Caribbean folkloric archetypes to explore the anti-heroes of the information age; Topiary and I, it is explained, are best understood as “tricksters” in the tradition of the Afro-Caribbean figure Anansi, “a spider who sometimes imparts knowledge or wisdom — and sometimes casts doubt or seeds confusion.” This kind of stuff is harmless enough, and at any rate it’s not something one can refute. (“But Professor Coleman, any fool can see that I’m actually a pre-Singularity manifestation of the Slavic forest witch Baba Yaga, whereas my colleague Topiary here is most productively viewed as as pre-post-scarcity version of the Irish folk-prankster Finn Mac Cool, while Sabu is Puss-i-Don, Greek god of snitches.”) The trouble arises when Coleman strays from the unfalsifiable playground of institutional academia and attempts to establish herself as an authority on actual, real-life things involving facts and dates and consequences.
By the beginning February 2011, I’d been working for a little over a month out of Anonops, an Anonymous-run chat server that served as a sort of virtual staging ground for efforts to assist the budding Tunisian protest movement that would soon grow into the Arab Spring. Things started to get complicated when Aaron Barr, CEO of the contracting firm HBGary Federal, publicly claimed to have infiltrated Anonymous and pieced together the real-world identities of its alleged “leadership,” which he was supposedly about to hand over to the FBI. The next day, several Anon hackers infiltrated him back, breaking into servers run by his parent company, HBGary, and stealing some 70,000 e-mails from the two firms detailing, among other things, an illicit and probably criminal attempt to discredit and intimidate activists and journalists deemed to be critical of the firm’s prospective corporate clients (and this troubling campaign turned out to have been set in motion by the Department of Justice itself, which narrowly avoided a House investigation into its clandestine black-ops programs with help from Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, who chaired the relevant committee).
But all that would come later. At the time of the hack, as I explained to Barr in a recorded phone conversation that day, and as I would expand upon in countless interviews and my own writings on the subject, those of us who had been working out of Anonops were furious at the idea of a state-affiliated contractor like Barr trying to identify people in a chat server frequented by protest leaders who, if discovered by their U.S.-supported governments, were subject to arrest and torture. For instance, one of the Tunisian Anonymous participants frequenting our Operation Tunisian channel, Slim Amamou, had indeed spent a good portion of early January being tortured by state security officials; Slim404, as he was known to us, would eventually become Minister of Youth and Sport under the new government before resigning in protest. Nor were we thrilled about the prospect of Barr handing over information to the FBI about alleged American Anonymous participants, information which, as was obvious from the hilariously flawed sample info he had given to a gullible reporter at Financial Times, was largely false and which could thus get more or less random people raided by the feds. Just a few days prior, 40 U.S. homes had been hit by armed FBI agents in the course of a ludicrously draconian investigation into a digital protest campaign that had taken down the websites of several financial firms for literally seconds.
Coleman does concede that we were right to be concerned with Barr’s recklessness — but she still insists that our worries were overblown. “According to the leaked e-mails, there were no plans to reach out to law enforcement,” she writes, after quoting chat transcripts in which several Anons accuse him of seeking to do just that. And a page later, in the midst of a paragraph describing the phone call between Barr and me in which he again denies contacting the FBI (and which may be found on YouTube), Coleman repeats her assertion: “Again, the emails support Barr on this point — there is no evidence that he had contacted the FBI …” Clearly, Coleman believes that this FBI e-mail question is an important aspect of what she herself notes to be a key event in the history of Anonymous.
The problem is that Coleman is absolutely wrong on this, as I told her in a message sent through a mutual contact. She replied that she was open to being proven wrong but had gone through the e-mails herself and even consulted a couple of Anons, including the British hacker Tflow. I replied that the e-mail from Barr to the FBI did indeed exist and had been sent between one and two weeks prior to the hacking incident. And I turned out to be right; Coleman apologized and said she’d make sure a correction was made in later printings and on the book’s website.
I kept reading. A few pages after her mistake on the FBI e-mail, she summarizes an argument that had occurred at the Anonops server several weeks after the hack over a quote I’d given to Gawker, which had run a story entitled “Inside Anonymous’ Secret War Room.” The piece drew upon logs someone had leaked to them of conversations in a chat channel called “#HQ,” which, as I told Gawker, was not any sort of secret war room, much less Anonymous’ headquarters. Specifically, I noted that “the actual coordination of performed hacks will not appear in those logs.” Tflow, who was one of several longtime server administrators who presided over #HQ and was touchy about any effort to downplay the significance of that private channel, was openly furious with me, as was Kayla, a hacker who had been involved in the HBGary raid. Coleman frames one portion of the debate as such: “With that settled, they moved on to other upsetting topics, notably how Brown claimed insider knowledge about #HQ, the HBGary breach, and the hacking, when he had not witnessed the operation, much less contributed to it. Even worse, he was simply wrong about #HQ; it was where the HBGary hack was coordinated.”
Once again, it is actually Coleman who is wrong. I had “insider knowledge” of #HQ because I had actually spent time, er, “inside” it, having been invited into the room by a couple of the administrators awhile back. This is plainly demonstrated by channel chat logs, including some of those at issue in my case. In fact, my presence in the channel is being used by the FBI as evidence of my supposedly leading role in Anonymous, despite the fact that lots of guests such as myself hung out in #HQ all the time. It’s where I met the graffiti artist Banksy, who presumably is running Anonymous, too. And what I told Gawker about the details of actual hacks not appearing in the logs was entirely true. I never denied that the HBGary affair was discussed in the channel; it was also discussed in other channels, as well as in private messages. For instance, the one I received from Topiary, in which he gave me advance notice of the hack so that I would be ready to present Anonymous’ side of the story to the media in the immediate aftermath, which is exactly what I did. This, too, is shown in chat logs within the scope of my case (and naturally the DOJ is seeking to give me additional prison time on account of this for reasons that escape me, and which they don’t appear to be quite clear on, either). The information I gave out to reporters about the hack was likewise given to me by Topiary and Sabu — who, unlike Tflow, actually performed a memorable role in the hack and thus would seem to have the right to give me details. And they were correct to do so; HBGary would try to peddle their own, dishonest version of events, both to the public and to the FBI, and this had to be countered. Next to that, Tflow’s hurt feelings over what I told the public about his not-so-secret digital clubhouse struck me as irrelevant.
None of this is secret, and much of it has appeared in other published accounts of what happened that day. But Coleman does not see fit to mention these things, and so when she depicts me as falsely claiming “inside knowledge” about important matters — a serious charge to make against a journalist — the average reader is likely to be convinced that I have done just that. This is particularly true if the average reader is unaware that I actually had to help her get her own facts straight in her “definitive” account of Anonymous and even of this very incident, that I had to do so from the jail in which I currently live, and that I did so relying solely on memory whereas she and Tflow — whose blurb on the back cover notes that this is “the ultimate book on Anonymous” and an “informative” “masterpiece” that “succeeds where other have failed” — could not locate that important smoking gun e-mail despite actually having had access to that e-mail archive. To protect my reputation and those of the outlets for which I write, I suppose I now have to make all this known in as public a manner as possible.
I will present a more complete account of what this book gets demonstrably wrong later, when I again have access to my files, chat logs, and the like. Since all of these things are included in the evidence in my case, you might expect that I would have a reasonable degree of access to them right now, but you would be wrong. For “security” reasons, inmates whose cases involve large amounts of digital discovery are rarely able to get their hands on it in a searchable archive. Once in a while, a good lawyer will successfully get a client access to a laptop or at least an external hard drive, for instance, but that is very rare — and exactly how the Department of Justice likes it.
For now, I’ll simply note that Coleman also claims, strangely, that I didn’t found my distributed think-tank Project PM until well into 2011, even though she spent much of a year sitting in our chat channel and even quotes from a 2010 Vanity Fair article I wrote in defense of the late Michael Hastings in which I note that I know him through his involvement in Project PM, which, thus visible as having existed by 2010, could hardly have been founded in 2011. Incidentally, Hastings and I had fleshed out some of the early ideas for Project PM in a couple of phone discussions a year before.
And as long as I’m talking openly about these matters, I suppose I’ll go ahead and ask for public support in getting the FBI to make public another phone conversation I had with Hastings a few weeks before his claim to his editors to be under investigation by the FBI and his subsequent death; the FBI themselves referenced this phone call at the gag order hearing, as may be seen from the transcript, and I believe it will shed some light on a couple of things that really could use some illumination, such as the FBI’s dishonest initial claim after his death that they had not been investigating him, when a subsequent Freedom of Information Act request proved otherwise. But I digress.
It’s also probably worth pointing out that Coleman claims that after the government dropped 11 ludicrous fraud charges against me awhile back, I was still facing 105 years in prison. One hundred and five years is what I had previously been looking at; the whole point of having one’s charges dropped is that one is no longer at risk of serving time for those charges. She gets this wrong even despite, as noted in the acknowledgements section, having had one of my lawyers explain the case to her. And, again, there are quite a few other basic errors, weird phrasings, and odd omissions that I’ll address later. For now, keep in mind that what I have pointed out here concerns just the dozen or so pages involving me, and just those things that I am in a position to discuss at this time. Extrapolate from that, and one can probably understand my concerns about the book as a whole.
If people’s lives and reputations were not at stake, Colemans’ consistent failure to get things right even while declaring others to be wrong would not be an issue. And many of her errors could have easily been avoided if the model Coleman uses to understand Anonymous were a useful one — one that provided her with insight into, say, who one should ask about important e-mails and whether or not I was ever in a chat room that I clearly was in (hint: the person to ask is not Tflow). And now she’s peddling this broken model to the public, for, although Coleman conceded to me in an e-mail a few days ago that “some mistakes need to be fixed” for later printing, the press copies of the first printing are already in the hands of God knows what other journalists, and the release of this fucked-up version is still set for November 5. The publisher, Verso, which proudly displays on its press release a quote from Harper’s about how it is very much a “radical” publishing house, needs to maximize its radical profits, after all. In all seriousness, I’m familiar with Verso and suspect that they simply don’t know as of yet how flawed this book is, or they wouldn’t be releasing it in its present condition.
I’m still at a loss as to why Coleman didn’t simply ask me for my side of the story, or at least for help on some of the other tricky parts — because who better to ask about tricky matters than a trickster spirit? For, behold, it is said by the elders that I am like unto Anansi the spider, and he that utters my name will find me, for I shall climb down into the world of things upon a web of gossamer and dreams, and I shall answer three questions of any and all who should ask them of me, and I shall make visible to the eyes of men all those e-mails which until then were invisible, apparently, and then I’ll explain how 2011 comes after 2010 and how 105 minus anything is less than 105 and why it’s unethical to portray a jailed journalist as a phony based on facts that you yourself have gotten wrong. I SHALL COME TO YOU IN THE FORM OF A SPIDER.
In conclusion, if you’re a publisher, please don’t send me books like this to review. I really don’t like reviewing books. I like to write about prisoners attacking each other with padlocks over the right to sell homemade pies at a certain table, and that sort of thing.
Having just broken my rule about not complaining to the public, I want to make amends by thanking everyone who has supported me, donated to my legal defense fund, written to my judge, or just spread the word about my case. Not long ago, I was facing a century worth of charges, most of them spurious. In a few weeks, I’ll be sentenced — and if the letters from supporters to the judge have the intended effect, I could very well be released with “time served.” In a very real way, you have given me my life back, and I thank you for it.
Bible Verse of the Day:
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
[Editor’s note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated since September 2012. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas. This is the 14th installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here to read earlier installments. Go here if you’d like to send him a book or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]