I never really got a chance to play any pen-and-paper role-playing games growing up, so being thrown into a prison system in which such things as Dungeons and Dragons are relatively common constituted one of the silver linings of my 2012 arrest, along with not having to deal with an infestation of those little German roaches that had colonized my kitchen or having to see “World War Z.”
As it happens, I’d actually learned about the prevalence of tabletop games among inmates a few months before my own incarceration, in the days after the FBI first raided both my apartment and my mother’s home in March 2012 and seized laptops and papers without yet making an arrest. As they themselves noted in the search warrant, which the late Michael Hastings published at BuzzFeed, the focus of the investigation was my collaborative journalism outfit Project PM as well as echelon2.org, the online repository where we posted our ongoing findings on the still-mysterious “intelligence contracting” sector (which has since been moved here). The warrant listed HBGary Federal and Endgame Systems — two firms on which we’d focused particular attention — as topics for the FBI’s search. This was revealing. A year prior, a raid by Anonymous on the servers of HBGary had revealed, among other things, the firm’s leading role in a conspiracy by a consortium calling itself Team Themis to conduct an array of covert operations against WikiLeaks and even journalists like Glenn Greenwald, prompting a congressional inquiry that would ultimately be squashed by a Republican committee chairman.
It’s often been reported, incorrectly, that I was the one to reveal the Themis conspiracy, different aspects of which were in fact discovered more or less simultaneously by several parties shortly after HBGary’s emails were made public. My own initial role, which began when I was informed of the hack as it was being conducted, was merely to explain developments to the press. But as it became clear that the media was losing interest despite clear evidence there was much more to the story, I began working with a rotating team of volunteer researchers to determine further details of Themis and related programs by searching through the remaining 70,000 emails that the hackers had seized and following up on the various mysterious references found therein. Although we made a number of significant discoveries and managed to shed light on other matters, the press didn’t generally realize the significance of these things until later.
On the other hand, I did get to indirectly gum up the works at Endgame Systems, which, though one of the four firms involved in Themis’s proposed operations against journalists and activists, managed to avoid being mentioned in most of the press coverage that followed the original exposure of the plot. You see, Endgame’s execs had insisted in one particular email thread that its name never appear in any Themis operational materials, explaining that the nature of the firm’s central activities was such that any public scrutiny would lead to disaster, and that this was a particular concern of their partners. Other emails ended up working against it, though, as I was able to pique the interest of Bloomberg Businessweek by forwarding this hilariously sinister “NO ONE MUST EVER KNOW” exchange to a contact I had there. A few months later, the magazine ran a long feature on Endgame revealing its ability to seize control of computers across the world and that it was offering this service to unknown customers outside of the U.S. government. This in turn prompted sufficient discomfort that the firm had to stop doing this, or at least claim to have stopped. Perhaps that’s why Endgame Systems was listed on my search warrant — and never mentioned again in a single other filing by the government in my case.
But the chief enemy I’d made was apparently the Department of Justice — because when Team Themis was exposed, the emails revealed that the whole indefensible conspiracy had been set in motion by the DOJ itself, which had made the necessary introductions when Bank of America came to the agency looking for advice on how to go after WikiLeaks. There were no known consequences for anyone at the DOJ; a congressman’s calls for an official inquiry were shot down by Lamar Smith, the relevant committee chair, who proclaimed that the DOJ itself should handle any investigation. Whether the DOJ took Smith’s advice and investigated itself for secretly arranging a corporate black ops partnership is unknown. Rather, it was my head that was to roll, in retaliation for my efforts to keep the story alive in articles I continued to write for The Guardian as well as for my occasional successes in causing difficulties to Themis participants like Endgame and the intelligence contracting industry as a whole, which regularly hires ex-government officials at high salaries and thus has a working relationship with most federal agencies. And so when the FBI came for my laptops and left that search warrant listing the entirely legal journalism entity I’d been using to lead an investigation into the state-affiliated firms that the warrant also listed, I knew from the brazenness of this move that I’d eventually be arrested and charged. I didn’t know for what, exactly, but that was OK — the DOJ didn’t know yet either. Eventually they resorted to indicting me on charges related to another firm, Stratfor, that wasn’t even listed on my search warrant, which were so flimsy that they eventually had to be dropped in favor of a vague “accessory after the fact” count.
Anywho, after that first FBI raid I started reading those little guides on life in prison that one finds online and noticed several references to role-playing games. When I got to the jail unit at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Worth shortly after my arrest, then, I immediately started agitating in favor of a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons or whatever was available, to begin ASAP, with the wooden table in the little corner library to be requisitioned for our use. A huge black guy awaiting trial on complicated fraud charges happened to have the basic mechanics memorized; I drafted him to be the dungeon master. Soon enough I’d also managed to recruit a white meth dealer who was familiar enough with the game to help the rest of us create our characters, a large and bovine Hispanic gangland enforcer who wanted to try the game and was at any rate influential enough to help us secure control over the table, and a fey Southern white guy for atmosphere.
With unlimited paper and pencils provided by the federal government, we had everything we needed except for a set of variously sided dice. It turned out that this was generally handled by making a spinner out of cardboard, a paperclip, and the empty internal plastic tube from an ink pen. This latter item is impaled loosely on the paperclip, itself positioned in the center of the cardboard, on which has been drawn a diminishing series of concentric circles divided into 20, 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4 equal segments, respectively. As we attended to this chore at the wooden table, an inmate sitting nearby realized what we were making and proceeded to tell us about a cell mate he’d had during a previous bid who’d used something similar.
This fellow, he told us, had had some $500,000 in drug profits stashed away on the outside, and it was the prospect of someday being reunited with his money that kept him going. Then one day he learned that his brother had gotten addicted to crack and spent it all. Shattered, the inmate embarked upon an ultra-consumerist fantasy life whereby he pretended to still have the half-million, which he’d “spend” over time by picking things out of catalogues and deducting their prices from his total imaginary assets. He also cut out magazine pictures of attractive women to represent the four girlfriends he could have expected to rate on the outside (based, I suppose, on a calculation of one girlfriend per $125,000). This was where the spinner came in: To endow each girl-picture with a degree of agency he divided the circle into two sections, one signifying “Yes” and the other “No,” so he could ask each in its turn, “Are you going to give me a blowjob today?” The excitement would presumably lie in the uncertainty. When the guy at the table finished telling his tale, I was left in a reflective mood. I knew now that no matter what happened over the years to come, I had to stay alive; I had to survive to tell the world this crazy fucking story.
We began the campaign with our party having just entered a mysterious cavern that appeared to be inhabited. The gamemaster drew out a map for us as our crude little character tokens advanced down the dark, cliché-ridden passages. Coming upon a fountain in which jewels could be seen lying under the surface of the water, our Hispanic gangster/minotaur barbarian proposed to grab some. The team veteran and meth dealer/elven ranger stopped him, dipped in his flask, and, as our gamemaster informed us, watched as it sizzled and melted, the “water” having been acid.
“Whoa,” said the gangster/minotaur, awed at how close he’d just come to losing his forearm. He was beginning to understand that this wasn’t the relatively straightforward world of street-level dope dealing anymore; this was Dungeons and Dragons. Presumably the feds had never attempted to trick him into incinerating his own arm. But then some of these guys had been targeted by the ATF, so you never know.
The gangster/minotaur seemed not to have profited from this reminder of the perils of impulsiveness and greed. An unfortunate incident involving a trap door left our party divided, not unlike the ’68 Democrats. MinoGangster and the pale southern gay guy/human cleric, whom I’ll call Truman Capote, soon came upon a treasure chest that could be unlocked by solving a puzzle. Capote figured it out and opened the lid, revealing a pile of silver pieces and a wand, and then MinoGangster, whom I was beginning to suspect had been ratted out to the feds by his own partners, grabbed up all the contents.
“You better give that back,” hissed Capote.
“Nah, fuck nah.”
So Truman Capote declared that he was attacking MinoGangster with his mace, rolled a critical hit, and slew him right then and there. At the table, the gangster stared down sadly at his little game token as Capote flipped it over on its back to emphasize its deadness.
I’ve never been one for the fantasy genre, but then there exist all sorts of role playing games covering every imaginable setting. For instance, the one time I’d actually gotten to play, when I was 13, a friend’s older brother had led us in a campaign set in the original, gritty comic book version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe, except some decades hence after a global nuclear war had mutated many of the world’s animals, who themselves were now organized into an array of polities with names like Dolphin Free State and Prairie Dog Imperium. I played as a mutant roadrunner who wore a bandolier and dual-wielded a pair of cheap, inaccurate submachine guns. When a school full of children was seized and held for ransom by warthog motorcycle bandits, the Sacramento-based Americorp government wisely called upon our team to respond. At one point I ran into the gymnasium at 60 mph, firing wildly and otherwise creating a distraction while one of my friends, a porcupine with a great ax, snuck in through the other door and decapitated the pig chieftain. Afterward, when we received our reward money and sold off all the salvaged weapons, it turned out that we had enough to buy an old bus and install a roof-mounted minigun turret with 360-degree rotation, and I knew then what life could be. Later, recruiting players at various jails and prisons, I’d use this story as a means of generating excitement, spreading out my arms and trotting in a circle while making machine gun noises with my mouth so as to better convey the scene.
Having found Dungeons and Dragons too thematically constraining, I learned of another gaming system that could potentially accommodate my fast-expanding metaphysical ambitions (I was now facing decades’ worth of trumped-up charges, the prosecution was trying to seize money being raised for my defense, and the press still hadn’t figured out that there was something wrong here, so it seemed like a good idea to come up with about 20 years’ worth of activities). GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System designed back in the 1980s, provides game mechanics for use in any conceivable setting. You could create a bunch of characters based on the Nixon administration, for instance, assigning them stats in accordance with estimates of the abilities of their real-world counterparts — Kissinger gets high Intelligence and Charisma, Colson gets nothing — plus basic skills included in the GURPS book like Acrobatics and Thrown Weapons, which takes care of Howard Hunt right there. You can also create custom skills appropriate for your particular campaign (Textile Tariff Negotiations; Remembering That Everything You’re Saying Right Now Is Being Recorded on the Taping System That You Yourself Installed, Yes, Even the Anti-Semitic Stuff). Give the characters some basic equipment (crowbars, Cuban people) and you’re set; each player picks their favorite staffer, while as always the gamemaster takes on the roles of the hero’s ally characters like Pinochet as well as villains like Daniel Ellsberg.
My problem, as usual, was knowing where to stop. GURPS included rules for RPG staples like magic and psionic powers. Why not make Nixon a necromancer, or more of one, and maybe give G. Gordon Liddy the power to start fires with his mind whenever he thinks fondly of Hitler? And too many comparably awesome ideas were presenting themselves to me each day, such that I never was really able to decide whether to start designing my increasingly elaborate Nixon game or instead do something simpler where Teddy Roosevelt is hunting you for sport. Nor was it 100 percent certain I’d be able to find people willing to play a Nixon administration-based tabletop RPG at that particular federal detention center, even if I were willing to relax the rule about always speaking in your character’s voice, which I wasn’t. Then one day I was shipped to another jail in Mansfield, Texas, and wasn’t allowed to bring my GURPS book or anything else, and so I spent the next year reading history for 10 hours a day in an overcrowded and windowless room.
Eventually I made it back to a prison where I could depend on keeping books and papers for an extended period of time and was able to resume my experiments, which have lately culminated in a highly complex new hybrid medium in which I oversee some 70 fully realized characters as they pursue their blood-soaked vendettas against one another in accordance with the several handwritten pages of primitive, dice-based behavioral heuristics I have devised for them. Their entire world is limited to a map I’ve drawn on graph paper and taped to my wall, their stage confined to my cell’s steel wall-mounted desk on which I have created an elaborate city consisting of dozens and dozens of buildings, vehicles, vending machines, trees, dogs, rats, surveillance drones, and dwarves — a small world, yes, but one of extraordinary depth and intrigue. I make the pieces out of cardboard tea boxes, drawing and then coloring them with very sharp pencils, and I don’t mind saying that I’ve become very good at making itty-bitty tea box people over the last year or so. Indeed, I tend to spend the late evenings hunched over a metal locker, drinking tea and creating new and more elaborate and ever more delightful little city dwellers; it’s a civilized pastime that makes me feel like a cultured Chinese gentleman-scholar. At any rate, it’s certainly a lot more fun than I had on the outside trying to get the newspaper people to do their fucking jobs and follow up on things like Team Themis.
Which reminds me of one more funny story. Aside from HBGary Federal and Endgame Systems and an obscure junior partner firm called Berico, there was one other corporation that completed the Themis private black ops outfit, which, you’ll remember, was caught plotting illegal hacking and disinformation campaigns against journalists and NGOs with the connivance of the DOJ. That firm was Palantir, where at least a half-dozen employees were shown to be involved in Themis by email threads in which the plans were formulated — among them, the firm’s lead counsel, Matthew Long. Another email indicated that Palantir’s CEO was also made aware of Themis. Palantir’s most demonstrably active participant, Matthew Steckman, was put on leave pending an “investigation” into his conduct but he was quietly brought back on after the press lost interest. Today he’s head of business operations and works in D.C. No one was indicted in connection to Themis except for me, and then, later — when I refused to cooperate with law enforcement against other activists — my mother, who was charged with obstruction of justice for moving my laptops to a kitchen cabinet to hide them from the FBI agents who were congregating outside her house, waiting to execute a search warrant on behalf of the government agency that I’d angered with my investigations into the criminal conduct of its corporate partners.
The chairman and co-founder of Palantir is Peter Thiel — the same man who more recently funded the lawsuit that destroyed Gawker, a media outlet that had angered him, and who served as the final speaker at the Republican National Convention. His firm continues to work closely with the U.S. intelligence community.
“Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. … Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?”
— Richard Nixon, 1971
Drawing by Paul Davis. Fee donated to Barrett Brown’s legal defense fund.