You are hereD Magazine: Barrett Brown is Anonymous

D Magazine: Barrett Brown is Anonymous

From a tiny Uptown apartment he's organizing a worldwide collective of hackers that brought down HBGary and helped overthrow the government of Tunisia.

March 23, 2011- The night before Michael Isikoff came to Dallas, I got an e-mail from Barrett Brown. “Apparently Isikoff is freaked out about having another journalist here,” it said. “But I’ll secretly record the proceedings and provide to you.”

A little context: Michael Isikoff is a former investigative reporter for Newsweek. Now he’s a correspondent for NBC News. He flew in from Washington, D.C., in late February with a producer and a cameraman to talk to Brown about his involvement with a notorious international group of hackers called Anonymous that recently used their Low Orbit Ion Cannon to bring down the websites of MasterCard and Visa and the Swedish government, among others, because the institutions had made moves hostile to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. It’s complicated—as Isikoff would learn. But more on that in a moment.

Me, I first encountered Brown in 1998, when he was a 16-year-old intern at the Met, a now-defunct alternative weekly where I worked. Brown and I had not kept in contact, but last year he returned to Dallas from New York City, we got reacquainted, and he wrote a story for this magazine. I’d been talking with him for a few weeks about his work with Anonymous, about how they’d exposed a scheme by a government cyber-security contractor to conspire with Bank of America to ruin the careers of journalists sympathetic to WikiLeaks, about how Anonymous helped the protesters in Tunisia and other Arab countries. I wasn’t about to miss out on the surreal scene of Isikoff and a television crew descending on Brown’s apartment.

I had been to Brown’s Uptown bachelor pad before. The 378-square-foot efficiency was dimly lit and ill-kept. Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink. A taxidermied bobcat lay on the kitchen counter. Brown is an inveterate smoker—Marlboro 100’s, weed, whatever is at hand—and the place smelled like it. An overflowing ashtray sat on his work table, which stood just a few feet from his bed in the apartment’s “living room.” Two green plastic patio chairs faced the desk. I left with the feeling that I needed a bath.

On the morning of Isikoff’s visit, though, I see that much has changed. Brown’s mother, having heard that company was coming, paid to have the carpet shampooed. The kitchen is now tidy. The bobcat has been hung on a wall, replaced on the kitchen counter by a bowl of fresh fruit. A lamp casts a warm glow on Brown’s work table. His 24-year-old girlfriend, a graphic designer named Nikki Loehr, sits on his bed with a laptop. She borrowed a framed Peter Saul drawing worth tens of thousands of dollars from her client, Dallas art dealer Chris Byrne, to spruce up the place. Brown, of course, would have none of it. Bobcat? Yes. Fancy artwork? Television viewers might get the wrong impression. The drawing sits in his closet.

Isikoff’s cameraman and producer are the first through the door. Then the man himself, suited, gray hair, short. We shake hands. It feels awkward.

Ever the congenial host, Brown introduces us. “Tim’s a friend,” he says to Isikoff. “He’s writing a story. You guys can have a turf war if you want, but I’m on day four of withdrawals from opiates, so I don’t want to get involved.” Only, because he speaks in a low, rapid baritonal mumble, like he is the world’s worst auctioneer, it comes out: “Timsafriendhes‑writingastoryyouguyscanhaveaturfwarifyou

Having mumbled the introduction, Brown steps out onto the tiny second-floor patio to smoke a cigarette, leaving me with Loehr, Isikoff, and his two-man crew. The guys from D.C. stare at me.

“What did he just say?” the producer asks.

“Barrett said that I’m a friend of his and that he’s on day four of withdrawals from opiates.”

Brown has used heroin at various points in his life. On the night about a year ago that he met Loehr, in fact, at the Quarter Bar on McKinney Avenue, he told her he was an ex-junkie. “Ex” is a relative prefix. To manage his addiction, Brown was prescribed Suboxone, a semisynthetic opioid that is meant to be taken orally, but he had been dissolving the film strips in water and shooting the solution to produce a more satisfying high. On the Sunday before Isikoff’s visit, Brown showed me the track marks on his arm. He said he had run out of Suboxone, though, and was saving his last dose because he didn’t want to suffer through withdrawals during his big television interview. Then Isikoff rescheduled from Tuesday to Thursday. Brown couldn’t wait. Now he is hurting.

Isikoff and his crew seem to have trouble processing it all. Was Brown kidding about the drugs? Who is this friend again? And will he have to interpret everything Brown says? They are too befuddled to fight any “turf war.” In any case, Brown returns from his smoke break and launches into a primer on Anonymous, sending the cameraman scrambling to set up his lights. The producer clips mics to Brown and Isikoff. I slip into the kitchen, where I can eat the grapes that Brown’s mother bought for him while I watch the proceedings.

For the next five hours, Brown explains the concept of Anonymous (an interview session topped off with a B-roll stroll for the cameraman on the nearby Katy Trail). Several factors complicate this process. First, Brown lives under the flight path to Love Field. Southwest Airlines jets continually drown out Brown’s mumblings, forcing the producer to close the patio’s sliding glass door. The bright camera lights proceed to heat up the small room in no time. Exacerbating the stuffiness, Brown chain-smokes flamboyantly throughout the entire interview.

Second, Brown’s computer setup makes it tough to ride shotgun. His parents gave him a large Toshiba Qosmio laptop, but Brown used it to play video games before spilling Dr Pepper on the keyboard. It is out of commission. He does his work on a Sony Vaio notebook that’s so small it looks like a toy. Brown claims to have 20/16 vision, so the tiny screen doesn’t bother him, but Isikoff has to squint and lean in as Brown takes him on a tour of Internet Relay Chat rooms, or IRC, where Anonymous does much of its work. (I tag along, from my iPad in the kitchen, just a few feet away. When they enter a room where Anonymous discusses its operations in Libya, I type, “Say hi to Isikoff for me.” Isikoff: “Who’s that?” Brown, laughing: “That’s a writer I know.” As they click over to another room, I pop in again: “Isikoff is clearly a government agent.” So I don’t help, either.)

Finally, there is the inscrutable topic itself. Anonymous is sometimes referred to in the mainstream media as a group or a collective—the Christian Science Monitor went with “a shadowy circle of activists”—but Anonymous, per se, doesn’t exist. It has no hierarchy, no leadership. So even though Bloomberg and others have called Brown a spokesman for the group (which, again, isn’t a group at all), Brown denies having any position within Anonymous.

“Anonymous is a process more than it is a thing,” Brown tells Isikoff. “I can’t speak on behalf of Anonymous, because there’s no one who can authorize me to do that.”

When he explains Anonymous to a newbie, Brown relishes the inevitable confusion and will toggle between sincerity and irony to heighten it. Until you’ve spent some time with him, it’s hard to know what to believe. When you’ve gotten to know him better, it’s even harder.

“You have to remember,” Brown says, reclining in the green lawn chair, one arm slung over its back, a cigarette dangling between his fingers, “we’re the Freemasons. Only, we’ve got a sense of humor. You have to wield power with a sense of humor. Otherwise you become the FBI.” Here Brown is half-kidding.

Later, when Isikoff gets confused by the online lingo used by Anonymous, Brown says, “I think we’ve done more than Chaucer to enrich the English language. We should get a medal. Where’s the medal, Michael?” Here he is entirely kidding.

I think.



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