The rusted matatu van’s exhaust coughed and puttered down the dirt street, merging onto the bustling main road that was paved but littered with potholes. On either side, piles of burning tires surrounded by sweat drenched Kenyans wielding machetes stood shouting. I pressed my face against the dusty glass and watched the riots unfold right outside my van.
If I had known then that just one hundred yards away was a man who would dominate international media in the next few years with the revelation of millions of top secret documents I would have been curious to meet him and see what it was all about. The journalist in me would have needed to know, but back then only a handful of people knew who he was. Julian Assange was attending the World Social Forum in Nairobi. I didn’t even know it was going on, nor what it was at the time, but the forum was a radical parody of the World Economic Forum, where rich influential people gathered in Switzerland to discuss money, whereas this forum consisted of poor and powerless people gathered to discuss justice.
During the event, tens of thousands gathered in Nairobi’s Freedom Park chanting in English and Swahili “Another world is possible!” as my matatu van drove on by. Assange was networking in the city he would spend the next two years, eventually exposing the corrupt Kenyan government which made headlines from Nairobi to London.
By 2009 we all knew the name Julian Assange and his non-profit organization that published submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers. WikiLeaks stood for complete and utter transparency, anticensorship, and free speech: not bad if lives aren’t at risk.
On May 5th 2010, at the Contingency Operation Station Hammer in the sweltering Iraqi desert, U.S. Private Bradley Manning, 22, posted on his Facebook that he was “left with a sinking feeling that he doesn’t have anything left.” There were varying personal factors contributing to his emotional turmoil, but overall Manning had direct access to what he felt was an injustice. When he released thousands of confidential files to Julian Assange the U.S. media seemed to demonize WikiLeaks for publishing the material online. Although Bradley Manning broke the law, he, like WikiLeaks, believed in transparency, but moreover he felt convicted to expose the scandals around him, that were eating away at his conscience and keeping him up at night. To him, the evidence of the corruption he had access to belonged in the public domain and he acted upon it in a way that he felt was the safest and noblest. “I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are, because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public. If I knew what I knew now, kind of thing. Or maybe I’m just young, naive, and stupid.” Appalled by the apathy of those around him, he eventually got in touch with Assange himself. He had 24/7 access to what he considered “crazy, almost criminal, political back-dealing” content. Becoming paranoid, he spilled his secrets to who he thought was a trusted source: Adrian Lamo, a former American hacker who had been sentenced to two years probation for having hacked into computers in a range of enterprises including The New York Times. Lamo eventually turned him over to the U.S. government, saying: “I wouldn’t have done this, if lives weren’t in danger. He was in a war zone, and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could, and just throwing it up into the air.”
The coverage of Manning made him out to be nothing more than a mole within the U.S. military acting against his country. In a sense, there was an element of truth to that but Manning merely exposed the corruption he had access to out of conviction not necessarily out of spite. “Try and figure out how I could get my side of the story out before everything was twisted around to make me look like Nidal Hassan [The U.S. army major charged with multiple murder at Fort Hood, TX shooting in 2009]. I don’t think it’s going to happen.” He had found himself wrapped up in something so big, with access to files revealing scandal after scandal and what he described as the “non-PR versions of world events and crises.” Nevertheless it was through Manning that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks became the center of international attention. Despite the varying opinions about Assange from one extreme to the other, as cyber terrorist to defender of truth and liberty, I had to hand it to him, it all seemed straight out of a Bond movie or a Steig Larsson novel, and that I thought was extremely interesting and thrilling. There was nothing I craved more than danger, instability and the occasional criminal conspiracy. My love for the fictional Lisbeth Salander contributed to that. Evidentially WikiLeaks became something I followed very closely.
Less than four months later, in the Fall of 2010, I began my senior year of college at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. I started the semester with a growing discomfort and a feeling that my season in the South had ended. Nothing held me at Asbury and I had an unrelenting craving for a change of pace and scenery: a new setting, new people, and a new chapter. My overactive imagination’s continuous curiosity was ready to move onto something fresh.
By January 2011 I was at the Washington Journalism Center in Washington, DC landing an internship at Tucker Carlson’s national news website: The Daily Caller. All it took was a little step out, a few paces in a new direction and there I was, doing something I always wanted to do and eventually finding myself wrapped up in something much bigger than I could have ever imagined. Washington was thrilling. Like me, it was fast paced and filled with high profiles. I got swept up into the scene and met so many journalists and members of Congress. At times I was amazed at all the access I had to buildings, people and information. I had no idea that my first short blurb of a story would turn into what would become my reporting beat.
I would consider my story to be an unusual one. It was nothing I had searched for but something stumbled upon by accident. The ongoing story that would become the source of most of my investigations had found me, and early on.
At the start of the semester, Egypt had exploded. Soon after the Tunisian government fell, the protests had spread to Cairo. People demanded rights and social media had allowed for them have a freedom of expression that they wanted in person as well as online. “The Twitter Revolution” as it was called swept the Middle East from Morocco to Yemen, Bahrain to Syria, and at the center of it all was Egypt. On January 28th Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shutdown the Internet throughout his country. Ironically, upon the countries Internet restoration, the government websites of Egypt were down and could not be accessed. A globally scattered online hacker subculture known as ‘Anonymous’ had hacked and defaced the websites during Mubarak’s Internet shutdown. The shadowy hacker group spawned ‘Operation Egypt’ stating on its Facebook page: “Standing in solidarity with the people of Egypt, fighting peacefully for freedom of speech and democracy in Egypt and for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of dictatorship!” The group, described as defenders of WikiLeaks who claimed to fight for freedom and anticensorship had gone from mere hackers to key geopolitical players in a new age of digital technology. David Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington told me that “the activism online reflects the activism that you see on the streets. Taking down the government’s websites has effectively shut down one means of communication for the government and helped amplify the voice of protestors.” It turned out that Anonymous was also responsible for taking down the government websites of Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Algeria, proving to be another way in which the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East were spurred and assembled digitally. It also showed how these revolutions weren’t confined to Egypt or Libya, but because of the Internet’s social media and hackers like Anonymous, others throughout the world had an opportunity to take part in some way shape or form.
It was by accident that I discovered a lonely article about Anonymous. I was simply fascinated and wrote my first story for the Caller which was recommended on Facebook and then reposted and re-tweeted by 40 others in just a few minutes. After that I began researching and networking. Who were these ‘Anonymous?’ what did they stand for and just how much power did they really have? Conducting research on Anonymous was more like watching a Bond movie play out. I started to dig up everything I could find on the group for a possible feature story that my editor later approved. The more I learned the more I realized how fascinating this loose knit collective subculture really was. In October 2010, Anonymous hackers defended Julian Assange by attacking the corporate websites of Vias, Mastercard, and PayPal in a distributed denial or service attack (DDoS) after the companies withdrew from WikiLeaks disabling money transaction to the site.
Events started to unfold quickly. It turned out that Anonymous helped spark the Tunisian revolution and created Operations: Iran, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, and Syria. What amazed me the most about this story was seeing the new form of warfare play out with real people and real governments behind the shroud of the Internet. The new cyber-wars that Anonymous had launched on the corrupt and oppressive regimes of the Middle East had shaken their long embedded political systems. In the newsroom, while we watched the coverage of the events unfolding in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, I felt like I had an inside scoop on how this all got started. Something that stuck with me was seeing a Tunisian man hold up a Guy Fawkes mask, which Anonymous has used as its symbol, and thanking the group for helping the protestors topple their governments in the name of freedom.
Later I found a New York Times article that had just been published where the reporter had interviewed a Boston native named Gregg Housh who was said to be a key spokesperson for ‘Anonymous.’ I finally found Housh on Facebook and added him as a friend. Eventually we struck up conversation and he started pointing me to sources within Anonymous that answered all of my questions and informed me about their operations. These ‘Anonymous’ seemed eager to talk to the press and I made sure my coverage of them would be fair and that their voices would be heard. As I started writing the feature, I had an email interview with a source Housh had directed me to. He identified himself as ‘Topiary Gardenslayer’ a self-described supporter of Anonymous Operations, WikiLeaks, and maintaining freedom on the Internet. Gardenslayer answered every single one of my questions and brought Anonymous to me from an inside perspective yet in a way I could understand and share with the American public. Cleary Anonymous was an important story, and one that I was getting a hold on.
Gardenslayer said: “Various factors constitute an Anonymous Operation. If we feel a target has done something particularly corrupt or oppressive, or that it has gone too far with censorship, attacks are planned. Not every target gets the full “wrath” of Anonymous – for example, we chose to DDoS PayPal, Mastercard and Visa as opposed to hacking them, as we felt that, despite being cowardly in pulling away from WikiLeaks, they weren’t directly abusing their customers, and they didn’t deserve to be hacked. We felt differently about the Tunisian government, however, and hacked/defaced their websites instead of DDoSing them.” He also went on to say that “We just wanted to let the protesters (especially in Tunisia and Egypt) know that we had their backs, and that we’d fight for them in any way we could. We didn’t expect such a globally positive reaction from them. It was warming to see a video of Tunisian protesters holding up a Guy Fawkes mask and thanking Anonymous for all its help.” Anonymous had no hierarchy or direction, just a generally unified global body that worked together, at least for the most part.
Just days earlier, Anonymous had taken down HBGary Federal, a top cyber security firm used by the U.S. government. The company had began researching and tracking members of Anonymous after the Visa, Mastercard and PayPal attack and when they discovered members of the group were tampering with other governments affairs, even if they did happen to be oppressive. HBGary Federal planned to turn this information over to the FBI, selling it for personal gain according to Gardenslayer. It was then that Anonymous swept in, hacked and stole the file containing those being tracked, defaced their websites, hacked the CEO’s Twitter account, spread over 70,000 of their company emails throughout the Internet as well as obtaining code for Stuxnet, a computer virus used against Iran’s nuclear facilities in a covert operation last year. It was a massive punch, total humiliation and a grave underestimation of Anonymous. A source within the U.S. department of defense who jokingly told me he knew things that could “make my career” grew silent at the mention of HBGary.
Gardenslayer said that Anonymous fought for freedom as a swarm and not as an organization or business. “Seeing protesters appreciate this is meaningful to us, and we appreciate it every time we feel we’ve made a difference. It’s just a shame the FBI doesn’t see our efforts in the same light. There are other things implied about U.S. foreign policy when the government pursues Anonymous at the neglect of Tunisia’s plight because we’re interfering with their politics. Though, we’d hope for others to carry on that conversation.” And they did, with various comments and opinions posted beneath my story that was published and led The Daily Caller’s front page headline for the whole day. I had a national story, international really, and it fascinated me incredibly.
Sources within Anonymous told me about upcoming attacks on websites in New Zealand and Operation Iran and Libya. I tested this information and within just a few short days riots broke out in Iran and websites in New Zealand had been hacked. In those moments it felt strangeky awesome to know that I knew who was responsible. I called think tanks on technology and cyber security and they gave me more insight into Anonymous and what they personally thought of the subculture and its actions. The responses were mixed. When things started to heat up, I wasn’t nervous like I had been about calling people because I had enough background research covered. Soon I started getting strange emails from sources within Anonymous, some would come in the middle of the night saying things like, “Tomorrow. China. It’s us” and waking up the next day to see a Jasmine Revolution in China that originated online. I made sure to be very polite and always thanked my sources for information because I knew with a click of a button they could probably destroy my life.
There seemed to be no task too big for Anonymous. They were nowhere to be found and they were all around me. They were everyone and they were no one. Whenever I sat alone on the Metro and got an email on my phone, I couldn’t help but think maybe some of them were as far as eastern Europe or central Africa or as close as the very same subway. Anonymous didn’t have any set in stone statements but their goals were clear: to defend freedom of speech and information, and to bring down censorship and corruption, whether originating from individuals, groups or even entire governments. Some laughed and said they were scattered college kids throughout the world playing video games and living in their parent’s basement while others would say even if that were true, they wield incredible power. One look at the wreckage of the security firm HBGary and one would have to agree.
Later, a press release was posted on AnonNews, a website affiliated with the activities of Anonymous. The message was a threatening warning to the Westboro Baptist Church over its protesting of military funerals. The post said it would shut down Westboro’s online identity if it kept it up, claiming Anonymous would fight for their right to say whatever they wanted, but that Westboro had gone too far with the disrespectful protests. The Topeka, KS church/cult, known for its radical hatred against homosexuality and protesting funerals of American soldiers as well as desecrating the American flag, had caught the attention of the online vigilantes. Westboro shot back with a statement of their own claiming that “God hates fags and lousy hackers” telling Anonymous to ‘bring it.’ A bold statement considering what Anonymous had proved capable of. I contacted my sources and wrote up the story. Later, the nationally syndicated radio and television show ‘The David Pakman Show’ decided to invite Shirley Phelps Roper of the Westboro Baptist Cult and a member of Anonymous to speak on his show and have it out. One side of the screen showed Shirley, bold and boisterous, and the other side an image of a great white shark with the words ‘Topiary’ underneath. My source had gone on the show to reason with Westboro but Shirley wouldn’t have it, just claiming he was going to hell. The show became pretty funny and then in the middle of the live interview, Westboro’s site was taken down by Anonymous. Soon after, a Wikipedia page was made for Topiary Gardenslayer, and my article was listed as the fist reference.
Meanwhile, just 36 miles south of my DC apartment, Bradley Manning was being held in solitary confinement at Quantico Military Brig in Virginia. He spent 23 hours a day alone in a 6 ft by 12 ft cell, with one hour’s exercise in which he walked figures of eight in an empty room. According to his lawyer, Manning wasn’t allowed to sleep after being wakened at 5 am. If he tried to, he would be immediately made to stand up by the guards who were not allowed to converse with him. Every five minutes the guards checked on Manning asking him if he was okay in which he was required to respond in some affirmative manner. During the evening, if the guards couldn’t see him clearly because of a blanket over his head or being curled up against the wall, they woke him up in order to ensure he was okay. Each of his meals were given to him in his cell and he didn’t have sheets or a pillow or personal items of any kind. Anonymous caught wind of this and created Operation Bradical that stood against the harsh conditions and torture Bradley was forced to face. The reason for his apparent torture was to break him and have him implicate Julian Assange in a conspiracy charge. Every day the potentially suicidal Manning deteriorated mentally and physically, becoming less able to express complex ideas. Anonymous threatened to disrupt all communication at Quantico unless their demands had been met. Bradley was to be given sheets, blankets, any religious text he desired, adequate reading material, clothes and a ball. The threat was taken seriously, especially after the demise of HBGary Federal, but little is known if there were communications disruptions, however, some of the demands were reportedly met.
“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” said the snarky Anonymous activist Barrett Brown. Leaning back in his chair and answering questions through a cloud of cigarette smoke, Brown, a college dropout and part-time freelance writer, was interviewed by MSNBC. “When we break laws, we do it in the service of civil disobedience. We do so ethically. We do it against targets that have asked for it.”
On March 21st, I woke up only to discover that a massive protest to free Bradley Manning was being staged at Quantico. Buses left from Union Station and others drove to the gates of the military base to stand in solidarity with Manning. I would have known about this earlier had I upgraded from a stupid flip phone to the iPhone 4 earlier, but unfortunately it was too late, and by the time I would have reached my car which was parked out at the Greenbelt Metro Station, I wouldn’t have made it in time. If there was anything I regretted it was missing that. I would have loved to have been there covering the story, especially when I heard that it became riotous and that in attendance was Daniel Ellsburg, the former U.S. military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers: a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War, to The New York Times. Ellsburg, along with 35 other demonstrators, were arrested that day.
“What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:3)
Days later, on a Monday, hashtag #BlackMonday was trending on Twitter. Anonymous had released documents from Bank of America that exposed an email exchange between a former employee who claimed the bank committed mortgage fraud and hid foreclosure information from its clients. Bank of America was apparently “run like a cult.” Julian Assange had hinted to look out for a ‘large American bank’ that WikiLeaks was set to expose. When I asked my sources if this was the information Assange was talking about, they responded in their shadowy authoritarian way, “Maybe, maybe not.”
I learned not to press Anonymous for answers but to rather phrase my questions in such a way that they would answer them. They always responded, but sometimes their answers were short. I learned to never assume that they knew what I meant or that they would give me more information than what I had asked.
Last month, The Daily Caller’s homepage editor received a call about the Play Station Network being taken down by hackers. I went to my trusted sources within Anonymous who confirmed that they had conducted the attack. The source, identifying himself as ‘Jack Daniels’ described a lawsuit that Sony had claimed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, against 21-year-old New Jersey security researcher George Hotz, better known as GeoHot. Hotz was 17 when he drew attention for jail-breaking the first iPhone. Hotz had allegedly received donations in response to published PS3 jailbreak information. Anonymous said that the Japanese tech giant had victimized its customers who possessed jail break information, saying in a statement that Sony had saw a hornet’s nest and stuck their penises in it. For days the network was down and to this day remains disabled. For people like my Uncle Jim who enjoys playing BlackOps, this was truly a tragedy. Sony is now attempting to rebuild their Play Station network.
Just before Osama Bin Laden was found and killed by a brave group of Navy Seals in Pakistan, Anonymous reinforced their Operation Iran, hoping to reignite protests and stand against the extremely oppressive government.
Sitting in my Kentucky dorm room in November of last year I would have never anticipated anything like this to conclude my college career as a journalist. Who knew such a giant story was just around the corner, turning the page into the next chapter of the life I only dreamed of living. I covered the story from such a close distance where I had direct sources I could rely on. It will be interesting to see what develops next with Anonymous and if they will have an even bigger role in the world scene as society leaps forward into the digital age. The stories are all connected and have become a continuing saga shaping the Internet and geopolitical communication. So, here is the ‘on the record’ version of how it all transpired.
Helpful explainations and Resources:
Who is Anonymous?
Anonymous vs. Westboro Baptist Church
Anonymous and the Tea Party
Bank of America exposed
War on Sony
The early days of WikiLeaks
Barrett Brown and Anonymous
The origins of Anonymous