The Barrett Brown Review of Arts & Letters & Civil Strife is written monthly by Barrett Brown, winner of the 2016 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary.
Over 40 years ago, a vastly criminalized presidential administration was brought down through a combination of leaks, reporting, and Congressional action. Watergate came to serve as a sort of founding myth of modern American civics: Any transgression against the norms of democracy and our Constitution itself would surely be discovered by an intrepid press corps and punished by an attentive and responsible Congress.
Twenty-five years later, two former Nixon administration officials, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, managed to take firm control of yet another presidential administration. This one, too, was marked by revelations of unconstitutional and criminal acts, including torture, mass surveillance, the unprecedented negligence of emergency preparedness functions, the politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys, and the most disastrous military engagements since Vietnam. The second of these two wars, incidentally, was originally billed as the natural outgrowth of Iraq's intransigence. A memo would later become public confirming the suspicion that it was in fact planned from the start by Rumsfeld, with the ostensible issue of WMDs having been listed as one of several convenient pretexts by which this might be accomplished.
Ten years later, many now regard the Bush Administration with actual nostalgia.
And 10 years from today, will we look back to 2017 with the same longing?
It has become more and more difficult, as the years proceed, to maintain the fiction that the American republic is fundamentally sound. An associated myth—that the great majority of the American electorate are decent people who are entirely capable of overseeing the single most powerful apparatus in history—has also become less viable. The "establishment," as we may as well join in terming it, has likewise lost credibility, for reasons ranging from nonsensical to inarguable. The end result is a crisis of moral authority, and even of amoral authority; this is a society that cannot even produce a proper strongman. But it can certainly produce a disaster, for ourselves and for the world.
And so that we can place the idea of disaster in its proper context, recall that the baseline of 21st century America involves a sort of constitutional police state with unprecedented incarceration rates, increasingly militarized law enforcement, an unaccountable intelligence community with a long history of unconstitutional behavior, and a judicial and legislative culture that, all told, has officially rendered tens of millions of Americans criminals via prohibitions on drugs, prostitution, and gambling; meanwhile, due to unchecked growth in federal statutes of extraordinary broadness, it has been convincingly estimated that the average American unwittingly commits three felonies a day. This is a country that can continue to exist above the level of a fully-mobilized gulag state only to the extent that its laws are not actually enforced.
This was the situation prior to the current administration, and it will remain the situation after this administration is gone—regardless of how it goes. Do not be taken in, as many were after Watergate, by the idea that a successful dislodging of a criminal presidency will signal renewed commitment to the rule of law. Rumsfeld understood the real lesson of Watergate: the risks of violating our Constitution are vastly eclipsed by the rewards. A theory may be tested by its ability to predict. The Rumsfeld Doctrine has proven correct, time and time again.
Consider whether there is any realistic scenario by which things may improve. Watergate provides another useful precedent; just six years after the fall of Nixon, another man became president who had solidified his following by his continual denunciations not of the criminal conduct of that administration, but of the investigation that had brought these things to light. Naturally, further crimes were organized under Reagan, and even those that were discovered and pursued by Congress led to no real consequences for anyone involved. Meanwhile, the intelligence apparatus continued to expand, with the aid of every president. It still expands today.
What is the proper role, then, for the citizen who takes citizenship seriously, and counts it a duty to defend the rights not just of Americans but of those populations abroad who ultimately bear the brunt of our civic failings? For many, the answer is to continue the hard work of engaging within the system—voting, working for better candidates, donating time and money to the organizations that do what they can to prevent things from deteriorating even further. This is entirely appropriate. But even the reformers are likely to recognize, now, that this may not be sufficient in the face of the political conditions we face—and that the consequences of a morally failed American republic, continuing on its present course for even just another decade, would be irreparable. No competent observer of our current trajectory can today disregard this scenario, or others far worse.
That this problem is now widely recognized is the first of two reasons why a solution is now in reach.
Years ago, I created a group called Project PM, billed as a "distributed think tank" and intended to build a platform for vastly improved civic collaboration and media analysis. To the alarm and confusion of my various editors, I used my columns to recruit some 75 participants ranging from a former IRS attorney to university professors to grad students to programmers to journalists. Towards the end of 2010, however, the Tunisian revolution broke out, and I was invited by a key participant in the Anonymous movement to work out of a particular chat server frequented by hackers and activists—some of them Tunisian themselves—who were seeking to aid the democratic opposition in a variety of rather novel ways.
The most important fact of the 21st century is that any individual can now collaborate with any other individual on the planet.
Shortly afterwards, some of my new friends and I got into a conflict with a state-linked "intelligence contractor" that turned out to have been planning a campaign, set in motion by the Department of Justice, to attack journalists and activist groups deemed supportive of Wikileaks. This plot, discovered in the 70,000 emails Anonymous stole from the contractor's servers, involved illegal computer intrusions of the same sort for which hacktivists are routinely prosecuted; attempts to expose activists to charges of fraud and libel by providing them falsified documents which they would be encouraged to release to the public; and a campaign of intimidation against Glenn Greenwald, a noted supporter of that group and an otherwise consistent critic of government wrongdoing. Greenwald, these men wrote, must be forced to choose "cause over career" as a result of their attacks. "Damn it feels good to be a gangster," wrote one of the personnel involved—an employee of the powerful information technology firm Palantir, which later promoted him, and which itself has close ties to the current administration via its co-founder, Peter Thiel.
After the initial spate of press coverage and an aborted Congressional inquiry, though, the story died out—even as it became clear that this indefensible operation was merely the tip of the iceberg, with the emails themselves, only barely examined thus far, serving as a potential window into a previously opaque congregation of state-corporate criminality. And so I re-purposed Project PM into a crowd-sourced investigation into these matters. We were sufficiently successful in unveiling other previously clandestine programs and unsavory practices as to have attracted the attention of the FBI, which obtained search warrants for my communications not long after we began looking further into the DOJ's own misdeeds. A year later, another search warrant was executed on my home, and that of my mother; the warrant listed the very intelligence contractors we'd caught committing crimes as subjects for search, along with the website on which we'd compiled our research.
Months after that, I was charged in relation to another hack against the firm Stratfor, whose executives I had called on behalf of the hackers to offer a chance to redact anything sensitive from the 5 million emails they'd managed to steal; later the data all went to Wikileaks. And as confirmed in court documents filed in other cases, the intrusion had been overseen by the FBI itself, which had turned one of the hackers some months prior and thus could have ended it at any time, but chose not to (this, presumably, is why Stratfor had not even been listed on my search warrant). Other evidence, directly contradicting the DOJ's claims about my role in this incident, was withheld from my defense team, and only became public after I'd been sentenced.
While incarcerated, I won the National Magazine Award for this column, which ran at The Intercept at the time. A month after my release, I signed a book deal. And thus ends our story of how I gained mainstream acceptance by providing material aid to an international anarchist insurgency and going to prison.
This rather bizarre tale, which has already been told over and over again in documentaries and books and articles, is nonetheless necessary to my purpose here, for it is uniquely representative of both the problems and possibilities of our era. This is an age in which anything can happen, and does, and shall.
Here we have the second reason why a solution is now within reach. The most important fact of the 21st century is that any individual can now collaborate with any other individual on the planet. This has happened with extraordinary suddenness, in historical terms; by the same accounting, it has also happened quite recently, and so remains largely unexplored. We cannot hope to know what this means as of yet, then, any more than someone who observed the advent of the printing press or gunpowder could have predicted, respectively, the Reformation or Europe's eventual seizure of much of the world. Nonetheless, the implications are becoming clearer as the years proceed; the internet itself has quickened the pace of our history, even as it makes the future more unpredictable.
In 2007 Anonymous was still an amusing inside-joke, a loose culture originating from an odd corner of the web. A year later it carried out an unprecedented global campaign of protests covering dozens of major cities and targeting the Church of Scientology, continuing regularly for years and serving as the centerpiece of a comprehensive and effective effort to reduce the Church's ability to recruit new victims. Thereafter came Tunisia—itself a revolution made possible by the internet—and then a series of hacks that revealed the extent of U.S.-facilitated black operations programs against American citizens and populations abroad.
One of the world's great corporations, Sony, was brought to its knees by Anonymous hackers in retaliation for its attempt to ruin a young man who had merely shown people how to reconfigure their PlayStations in a YouTube video. Anonymous aided the democratic resistance in Bahrain (my own role in this having been cited by the DOJ in its court filings as some mark of poor character) and served a major role in global protests against SOPA, along with countless other attempts by governments around the world to gain tighter control of the internet. In January of 2012, Polish parliamentarians donned the Guy Fawkes mask in tribute to Anonymous' legacy of standing up to the powerful men who violate the law under guise of state prerogative and corporate immunity, before bringing down its full force on those who challenge their monopoly on lawlessness.
It is an absolute certainty that, with sufficient thought, a new mechanism may someday be designed, capable of integrating thousands of talented individuals and existing organizations into a sort of parallel civic ecosystem
Some may not approve of everything that was done out of the handful of internet servers from which much of this activity was coordinated, or by the large numbers of others who acted on the margins. I was openly critical of some of it myself, despite having been deemed the "spokesperson for Anonymous" by much of the press even as I repeatedly declared that I was no such thing. Nonetheless, it was not a criminal movement, any more than the anti-war movement of the '60s was inherently criminal simply because some portion of its participants also burned draft cards and engaged in sit-ins and incited riots. Indeed, the group of radicals who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 and stole files revealing that agency's vastly criminal COINTELPRO apparatus, directed against the citizenry and against our very Constitution—these, too, were not criminals. Or, if they were, then so was the bulk of the FBI. Was the Nixon Administration a criminal enterprise? Was the CIA? Was the U.S.?
None of this should lead us to an automatic reverence for the mob. Anonymous is important to my case not as a model to be replicated, but rather as a proof of concept; its successes demonstrated the potential of net-driven mass collaboration, while its failures give us clues as to what a superior framework might require. Other efforts, less ambitious but still similarly geared towards harnessing the talents and energies of otherwise unconnected people for purposeful ends, have yielded impressive results as well, and thus further lessons. It is an absolute certainty that, with sufficient thought, a new mechanism may someday be designed, capable of integrating thousands of talented individuals and existing organizations into a sort of parallel civic ecosystem, growing ever more refined in its functioning while perpetually expanding its user base on an invitation basis, and in such a way as to maintain a high average level of competence. If one were to start with a sufficiently resourceful group of initial participants with broad agreement on keystone issues—opposition to the drug war, police state, and mass surveillance, for instance, with these issues chosen in order to establish a reasoned polity sharing common values, if not ideological unanimity—one could expect such a system to quickly expand into a vast and formidable new force in world affairs, capable of advancing reform and confronting criminalized institutions across the globe.
I propose that such a thing be built now.
Certainly this wouldn't be easy. One would first have to design a software-driven framework by which each user would have the equal ability to create and grow civic entities within a common online ecosystem, allowing for clear delineation of relationships as delegated by a group's creator and agreed upon by all who are accepted into a given entity. And the blueprint for such an apparatus would have to be sufficiently compelling so as to elicit the interest of those one would need for the project to go forward.
After all, one would have to recruit software developers with specialized skills as well as backgrounds in cryptography and open-source development. It would be necessary to convince journalists, producers, and editors that such a project would enable them to conduct meaningful crowd-sourced research of a sort that would improve upon conventional practices, and to enlist their support. Ideally, one would obtain assistance from some of the more dynamic political parties, particularly in Europe, and establish a partnership with their governing bodies. One would need to begin outreach to nonprofits and NGOs and make plans to assist existing organizations in using the platform to better make use of their supporters. Eventually, a non-profit would have to be established to oversee additional funding and ongoing operations. As such, one would need to establish a board of directors and fill it with prominent figures representing a range of sectors. The project would have to be floated in a handful of news outlets so as to attract early support and volunteers; ongoing and staggered media exposure would be necessary as well, covering at least a year and involving everything from documentaries to national outlets to a major book release, so as to further broaden the potential constituency for an effort that, being not only ambitious but also rather unconventional, will require extraordinary institutional support if it is to be taken seriously, and thereafter prove successful.
Again, this would be a considerable undertaking. It's just as well, then, that I've already done all of these things.
The Pursuance System, the culmination of eight years of thought and refinement, will be launched later this year, operating under a basic software framework explained at our website and overseen by a non-profit that we've set up for the purpose. The board of directors includes Icelandic Member of Parliament, poet, and Pirate Party stalwart Birgitta Jonsdottir; actor and filmmaker Alex Winter; CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou; former Columbia Journalism Review board member, author, and WhoWhatWhy founder Russ Baker; Professor Mano Singham of Case Western University (retired); Professor Robert Tynes of Bard University; author, intelligence critic, and former CIA Directorate of Operations covert asset Barry Eisler; activist-focused criminal defense attorney Jay Leiderman; and Pirate Party International board member Raymond Johansen. Our project manager Steve Phillips, a security researcher, occasional Def Con speaker and open-source software developer, has a long history of running hackerspaces and overseeing collaborative projects with others in the privacy and crypto communities, and has recruited additional programmers for this effort. Other of our core participants, such as Kevin Gallagher and Devin Balkind, have similarly prolific histories of involvement with some of the more effective activist and reform movements, and both have worked for foundations and non-profits.
Existing applications for research, collaboration, and information management, such as Transparency Toolkit, will be integrated from the beginning, along with a customized task management system and a range of encryption tools. We've developed ties to the Pirate Party International, the Icelandic Pirate Party, the New Zealand Internet Party, and other non-traditional political groups, and begun applying for grants to maintain and grow the project.
Since my release from prison eight months ago, the Pursuance System has been explained in broad terms via outlets like Wired; it will be detailed further in broadcasts by NPR, PBS, and VICE, as well as the upcoming documentary Sensational. This media push will culminate next year with the publication of my upcoming book, a "memoir-manifesto" that will make the larger case for why the Pursuance System is not only necessary, but inevitable.
Those who would like to donate or be considered for participation may do so at pursuanceproject.org. Open-source software engineers interested in contributing their time to the project can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @elimisteve. Public updates will be delivered via Twitter @pursuanceproj.
Now that I've set in motion my insurrectionist master plan, this column can return to its previous format, concluding my year-long hiatus with a new home here at Motherboard. Next time, then, we'll take a look at the four years worth of Thomas Friedman columns that I missed while I was in prison and I'll explain all the ways in which they are wrong.