Barrett Brown, an investigative journalist who has been described as a spokesperson for the hacktivist group Anonymous, was indicted by a federal grand jury in December in connection with the theft of several million emails snatched from a well-known and well-connected private intelligence firm.
The feds alleged that the 31-year-old Texan was culpable in the release of thousands of Stratfor Global Intelligence customers' credit-card details, but Brown has joined former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a martyr-like figure in the overall narrative of the conflict between government agencies and the activists who release secret documents, en masse, into the public domain.
When WikiLeaks released 250,000 diplomatic cables in 2010, we were astounded by the amount of information the data dump contained on San Diego affairs, from a Russian politician's sketchy real-estate holdings in Carlsbad to Rep. Darrell Issa's lobbying for Qualcomm in Israel. With the Stratfor emails—dubbed the "Global Intelligence Files" project—WikiLeaks has been managing the email database and has granted access to a limited number of news outlets, including CityBeat.
Peer into any workplace email system and you'll be overwhelmed by mundane chatter and uninformative reply alls. The Stratfor emails are no different: Employees forwarded each other memes and had epic debates over Easter "Peeps" marshmallows. But, buried in the emails, CityBeat found several official documents that open a window into regional border security and anti-terrorism operations. Some are from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), others from the FBI and the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center (SDLECC, also known as the San Diego fusion center, which has come under recent scrutiny for excessive spending). Most are unclassified but labeled "law enforcement sensitive"—that is, they should've been distributed only for law-enforcement or other security purposes (which explains why Stratfor had them). Quite a few are already publicly available through websites like Public Intelligence.
Here are a few things we found most interesting:
The accidental ambush. Using intelligence mostly gathered from cases in Tijuana, SDLECC compiled a bulletin on how Mexican cartels have established "sophisticated counter surveillance techniques" and are willing to use them to mount armed ambushes, even on police officers.
The bulletin details a specific incident in which Mexican cartel operatives and San Diego street-gang members mistook undercover San Diego Police officers as a competing "rip crew," the term for an armed criminal group that launches assaults on other criminals to steal narcotics shipments.
According to SDPD's intelligence, the leaders of the drug-trafficking organization used push-to-talk devices and sophisticated tactical driving to lead the officers into an ambush in Southeast San Diego, where gang members were waiting with automatic weapons collected from a stash house. The bulletin does not detail the outcome, but it is described as only an "attempt," not a successful one.
The bulletin concludes that local law-enforcement needs to be further trained in counter-surveillance techniques, because it is a "moderate" threat that they may again be mistaken as a competing cartel "rip crew."
Terror-tory. FBI data on run-ins with known or suspected terrorists is on a six-month time lag; an "Intelligence Review" prepared by the agency's Terrorism Screening Center for May 2011 wasn't released until November 2011. Even though it covers only a single month, the document is a startling glimpse of how many watch-listed individuals touch down in San Diego.
In May 2011, the FBI documented 264 encounters with 176 individuals on its terrorist watch list in the Southwestern region, which covers Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and nine Southern California counties. Of those, 111 encounters, or 42 percent, occurred in Southern California. San Diego was the location for 25, or 9.4 percent, of the encounters, mostly at the San Ysidro border crossing.
Sunni extremists, including members of Hamas, were the most frequently encountered group in the region, though Shi'a groups, such as Hizballah, were also significantly represented. Only 5 percent, or 12 encounters, involved suspected domestic terrorists.
Do-disturb signs. In March 2011, SDLECC issued a bulletin with the title "Hotels as Potential Bomb Labs," which explained that hotels provide a "relatively inexpensive and low profile base of operations for the construction of explosive devices near potential targets." The paper goes on to outline prominent recent cases, including the 2009 suicide bombing of Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the 2010 plot to bomb the New York subway system.
"You have a lot of hotels here, and you have a lot of potential targets because of our military bases and installations," says SDPD Sgt. Wayne Spees, who works out of SDLECC, in response to a CityBeat inquiry about why the bulletin was produced.
The document also includes a handy guide to identifying what items one might find in the hotel room of a bomb maker, including coffee filters, food blenders, acetone, hydrogen peroxide and goggles.
"Many of these items are innocuous when found independently," the bulletin states. "However, the presence of any combination of these items in a hotel room could be an indicator of a hotel bomb lab and should be treated as a potential explosive hazard."
Informing the informants. On June 14, 2011, DHS investigators in El Centro received credible intelligence that Sinaloa Cartel leaders had developed a list of people they believed to be confidential informants for U.S. agents. Cartel enforcers, the source said, had been told to "clean house" and eliminate all suspects after a series of bulk-cash and narcotics seizures in the region.
"All Law Enforcement Officers should advise their Confidential Informants to exercise caution if called to meet [certain cartel leaders]," the brief says. "If the informant receives such a call it is highly probably that the informant will be killed."
Yet, the information was not distributed to San Diego law-enforcement agents until three days later.
Risk management. DHS's "San Diego Sector Threat Assessment" for 2010 is 50 pages thick and reads like an encyclopedia of border intelligence, mapping out the leadership, territory and modi operandi of more than a dozen cartels, organized crime syndicates and human traffickers.
Alien smuggling organizations (ASO), the report says, "ranked as the most complex and pressing threat on a day-to-day basis." For example, the Pelucas use pangas—small boats—to transport undocumented immigrants by water, and the Enriquez smugglers prefer minivans, while the Pirana group uses ladders to breach the border fence.
Between 2009 and 2010, the average probability of apprehension of an illegal border-crosser hovered around 50 percent. DHS provided an exhaustive map of all foot-guide apprehensions, which showed a heavy concentration of busts in the Chula Vista area.
The document also provides details of DHS's "Alien Transfer Exit Program" (ATEP), which deports undocumented immigrants through a different port than the one closest to where they were nabbed. Someone caught in the San Diego area, for example, would be returned to Mexico through Yuma, Tucson or El Centro.
"Aliens typically pay a smuggler a fee and, if apprehended, return to the same ASO until crossing successfully or quitting the process entirely," the report says. "ATEP disrupts this cycle by making it more difficult for UDAs to return to the sector where their guide is operating."
Between October 2009 and June 2010, 47 percent of the aliens processed in San Diego were re-arrested crossing the border. Of those, 71 percent were rearrested in San Diego, despite being deported further to the east.
Correction, Jan. 23, 2015: We have edited this story to describe Barrett Brown as an investigative reporter. Brown has repeatedly denied that he was a spokesperson for Anonymous, a group that by definition can have no public, appointed spokesperson. In the two years since this story ran, it has become clear that the initial crime for which he was investigated was no crime at all: merely linking to documents obtained by hackers. Reporters around the country have committed the same act, including this author in this very piece. Ultimately, these charges were dropped from Brown's case, but he has been sentenced to 63 months in prison for other actions, including making threats against an FBI agent. For more information, read Brown's sentencing statement.