My Friend Barrett Brown

Barrett Brown
Image by Nikki Loehr.

Much has been said about Barrett Brown online and in the press. Some of it true, some of it lies, most of it sensationalist. Not much of it has been personal. I don't know where I am going with this, but here goes.

I first talked to Barrett by email on February 11th, 2010. He had written an article titled Anonymous, Australia, and the Inevitable Fall of the Nation-State that I found interesting, so I emailed him. We talked via email for a short period before he asked to join people on IRC and wanted to know where everyone was hanging out. He wanted to write some more articles about Anonymous and about other related topics. Barrett took very quickly to IRC and the culture in general.

A couple months went by with random Anonymous happenings and Barrett seemingly focused on other things. On the evening of March 23rd 2010 he emailed me asking a couple questions for an article in the New York Observer, also in this email was a mention of a new project he was working on. He didn't name the project at that time, just said it was important to him. Then with great timing on April 1st 2010 he sent me an email describing Project PM. It seemed like an ambitious project, but it also seemed like something he could do. I had come to appreciate his ability to dig through mountains of data for something relevant or revealing. The type of work that most of us find so boring and tedious that we avoid it at all costs. He also sent along an idea for a software based solution for working on Project PM and distributed research. That software didn't end up getting made, but it still seems like a good idea to me.

Throughout the first year I knew Barrett we found that we had many friends in common, including Sean Carasov. I met Sean through his work on Project Chanology and Encyclopedia dramatica. As another Anon outted by the Church of Scientology, we had a lot in common. Sean was working with Barrett on Project PM. When Sean committed suicide it actually hit us both pretty hard. It was nice to have another person who didn't just know him online, but was also one of his good friends to talk to about the event and Sean in general. It was also one of those moments that I think changed our relationship from a working one related only to activism and research into an actual friendship.

From that point on we didn't just talk about articles he wanted to write or what the latest news from Project PM was, we talked like he was one of my friends I had known since childhood. Getting closer to him also led me to understand the problems he had with drugs a lot better. Some readers will already know this, but for the ones that don't: I have no experience with any alcohol, drugs, or tobacco. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I could end up where I am without so much as a cigarette or a sip of beer, but it is a decision I made early in life and stuck with. So his problems were as far from my world as could be. Because of that, it was difficult for me to relate to the problems that he was facing. I had many conversations with him about getting completely clean and about his desire to end up off of everything. The talks always seemed productive and I do believe that is something he really wants. He ended up being very open online about his drug problems and surprisingly to me this didn't seem to affect his ability to write or get published. At this point besides the obvious problems being addicted to drugs bring, the only online effects it was having were related to people who disliked Barrett for one reason or another. For his detractors it became the most used term when describing the man. I never saw this bother Barrett, but who really knows how it actually affected him. I like to think he just shrugged it off as enemies trying to smear him and didn't let it get to him.

There's no shortage of people online who would like to see Barrett miserable. Many of them have reached out to me specifically in attempts to convince me to disavow him and give them dirt. Most of them base their opinions on the public persona, everything they can see online, and that's fine because it's all they know and all they have had access to. I would argue that getting to know him in person might change a few of their minds, but again this is just speculation and some people just can't be swayed.

For anyone who loves long conversations filled with heated debate about hot-button issues Barrett was a great person to spend time with. No topic is off limits when talking with Barrett and that made any conversations with him interesting. I think this is one of the reasons many other journalists and reporters enjoyed their time spent talking to him. I was told that nearly verbatim by Michael Hastings.

The first time I actually met Barrett in person was at a rally in support of Wikileaks and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning in New York City on April 7th 2011. We got to meet up early that morning and talk about the rally and everything else going on that day. We got along just as good in person as we had remotely. It was at this event that he first introduced me to Hastings. After the rally a bunch of us went out to dinner, including a few of the reporters who had shown up to cover the event. By the end of the night it was just me, Barrett, and Michael. They had known each other for years already and so were catching up on a lot of things unrelated to current events. I was just happy to meet Michael, he ended up being a great friend for the next couple years. I am glad I got to know him and spend time with him before his life was tragically ended way too young. That evenings conversations turned political after they had finally finished catching up. It was a night full of talking about everything from politics to philosophy, and one of the best times I've ever had. Those two really had a way of playing off of each other that made the conversation both lively and meaningful. The night ended way too late and I nearly missed my bus the next morning.

In early 2011 things really got more public for Barrett. He had already been public with his reporting, but he started doing a lot more related to activism and Anonymous. Most of this was just due to the type of person he is, some of it was also my fault. I had been getting more requests for interviews than I could handle at the time and started passing some of them on to him so I could spend time with my family. I was still doing what press I could, but there was just too much of it coming in. There was the Arab Spring that hacktivists played a big role in and then on February 5th Anonymous hacked HBGary Federal in response to a failed attempt by Aaron Barr to expose members of the group. These events generated a lot of interest in hacking, hacktivism and Anonymous. By May of 2011 Barrett was more interested in working on Project PM and focusing on the intelligence and private surveillance industries. In an interview with Threatpost he mentioned that he was tired of the drama and wanted to focus more on research.

Most of 2011 and 2012 was filled with Barrett and the people at Project PM doing research into the various companies they felt were doing wrong. A lot of good information came out of this and a surprising amount of work was put into the effort. This seemed to be really good for Barrett, doing research was just a natural thing for him.

During this time he really showed no fear of the government or the rich and powerful people he was angering with his research. I had a few long conversations with him about that fact. I figured as a friend I should at least take the time to tell him he might be heading down a path to jail time, whether he broke any laws or not, he was making the wrong people angry. He always responded with explanations related to not letting the fear of jail scare him out of his work. He really felt what he was doing was for the greater good. Exposing the hidden world of intelligence contractors was very important to him. It was important to a lot of us who were paying attention as well. Research was never a particularly strong skill of mine (compared to people like Barrett.) Our conversations during this time revolved around him telling me the latest from Project PM, or general chat between friends. I didn't do much with Project PM mostly because I just didn't have the time.

I was really torn when I saw the YouTube videos in September 2012. It was quite clear that they would do something about them and there wasn't much that could be done to stop it. The government would have been better off sending him to rehab after those videos instead of the year in jail he has already served. Everyone close to Barrett knew the government would love to arrest him, he had already been raided in relation to the Stratfor hack, something he didn't take part in. The videos were a huge mistake on his part, but they are no reason to put him in jail for the rest of his life. Strangely they have chosen to put over a 100 years worth of charges on his head and the majority of those years are for a charge even dumber than the videos. During his time in jail he has been able to make some phone calls and has called me on multiple occasions. On the phone he has always seemed in high spirits believing the charges to be spurious at best.

Throughout all of this he was a great person to know, both caring and friendly. If you take the time to really get to know Barrett he is really easy to get along with. Barrett is one of those friends that you start to miss when they become unavailable. I really think with a full defense he could end up with very little time spent in prison for the charges he is facing. This will require a lot of money, it's sad that a fair trial against an angry government is only available in this country to someone rich enough to afford it. That is the country we live in though and his defense team will need around $200,000 to actually mount a hopefully successful defense. So consider this a plea for support, even if you can only afford $1, anything and everything helps. Donate at freebarrettbrown.org.

You don't have to agree with the things Barrett has done to agree that the charges and the precedent they will set are bad for America and bad for Journalism. Even if you don't like the man himself you should think long and hard about the charges and whether or not you want anyone going to jail for linking to documents online.

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Gregg Housh

I am an activist focused on internet freedoms, censorship, over-prosecution, and Anonymous. I have appeared in many publications around the world to speak about hacktivism, computers and the internet.