Meet the Journalist Who Connects the Dots Between Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and the NSA


Barrett Brown is a journalist imprisoned without bail, facing over 100 years of potential jail time, much of it for posting an http link to a public forum. He had been writing about several private intelligence companies and set up a Wikipedia-like site, ProjectPM, for crowdsourced analysis of the documents released by Anonymous after several hacking attacks. Some people are petitioning for Brown's freedom from what they view as a politically targeted prosecution, but this article will concentrate on what the information Brown has uncovered can do to explain how PRISM and related spying programs may be used against Americans. The official government line has been that PRISM is targeted at foreign terrorists, but it's just as likely that the program will be used to frustrate expressions of political opinion at home.

The procedure the NSA used in 2007 to avoid targeting U.S. persons for surveillance was straightforward — and disturbing. The agency maintained a database of "telephone numbers and electronic communications accounts/addresses/identifiers that the NSA has reason to believe are being used by United States persons." In the absence of specific information about the target, it was presumed to be a non-U.S. person on whom they could conduct surveillance. In other words, Americans had a right not to have the contents of their communications intercepted — provided the NSA knew who they were. Though communications between people from the U.S. were generally "minimized," the identity database itself includes IP and MAC addresses cross-referenced against other available databases. The minimization procedures also had exceptions that included "evidence of a crime that has been, is being, or is about to be committed" and "information needed to assess a communication security vulnerability,", such as encrypted content or data "retained for cryptanalytic, traffic analytic, or signal exploitation purposes". Together these practices encompassed a substantial database of communications by American citizens.

The potential use of such a database is illustrated in hacked documents that Barrett Brown reported in the Guardian in 2011. If genuine, the document describes a proposal by "Team Themis" members Palantir Technologies, HBGary Federal, and Berico Technologies to "combat the Wikileaks threat." It cites a number of goals: "Feed the fuel between the feuding groups. Disinformation. Create messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization." To further these goals, WikiLeaks'mainmedia contacts were identified, including a half-dozen American citizens such as Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Appelbaum.

Brown's work has repeatedly appeared in the Guardian, and the documents were published after Anonymous hacks in which he played no part. Nonetheless, he has been cast by some sources as an "Anonymous spokesman" for doing so, a claim which he fervently denies. For Brown, the mere act of citing his source so that others could collaborate in reporting their contents was found to be reason for very serious felony charges. Glenn Greenwald or any other journalist, simply by reporting on the issues, faces the risk of being targeted for disruption. Meanwhile, the Team Themis companies and their competitors also vied for a lucrative contract from the Air Force to shape opinion from the other end — a "persona management" scheme to create multiple false online personas to comment in social media spaces.

There is no indication that Team Themis' Wikileaks proposal was ever funded or carried out. It offers at best a tiny window into a sprawling, secretive private industry where dozens of firms offer their special expertise to the market. Some of the players are listed among Wikileaks' "Spy Files", Namebase, Sourcewatch, or detailed at Brown's ProjectPM. For example, ProjectPM had completed an entry for Booz Allen Hamilton several months before Edward Snowden took employment there. The last company Brown investigated before his arrest, Endgame Systems, was recently featured in a New York Times article about companies that sell zero-day exploits to governments.

While the American public has been learning more about the spying programs underway, the scope of these programs continues to increase. According to Snowden, the Bush-era NSA program described above was ended in 2011, replaced by a "One End Foreign" definition and codenamed EvilOlive, which permits twice as many communications to be intercepted.