Over a year ago I responded to a Wired article about Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht. I wrote that it was not journalism, but rather a vehicle to sell a movie concept. Apparently I was right. Fox liked the pitch and the article is now the basis of a movie in the works. It is full of misinformation, laughably false government narrative and reliance on questionable sources. But hey, no problem if it fills seats, right?
Ross started to read the article but stopped in self-defense, saying "They are making me a villain." Well, every movie has to have one, right?
Now the big "news" is that the Coen brothers are writing the script based on the "article," although I'm told by a reliable source they already wrote it a year ago. No director has signed on yet. I’m not here to judge the brothers’ talents. However, if they have based their script on the flawed article, the result will be a fictionalized, sensationalized government narrative. Judging from recent publicity, it will feature a “murderous kingpin.” It remains to be seen if the film will make it clear that no murders occurred, no charges of this were brought to trial and Ross was never convicted of murder-for-hire. Somehow I suspect that Fox might not think that's as sexy.
So now we face not only Big Government and Big Media, but Big Hollywood too. A daunting triumvirate indeed.
Below is my assessment of the Wired article, written in May, 2015, now updated. Just the depiction of how FBI agent Christopher Tarbell "found" the Silk Road server -- a claim mocked and discredited by experts worldwide -- should be enough to demonstrate the bias and distortion of the piece.
The recent Wired two-parter, The Rise & Fall of Silk Road by Joshuah Bearman, reads like a movie treatment because that’s what it is. It is optioned by Fox. It was created in participation with a major movie studio and lays the groundwork for a screenplay and film. Bearman even pitches: “Silk Road is the dark mirror of The Social Network.” After all, maybe the studio will bet on its being that big a hit and greenlight the project!
Hey, it has all the elements: crime, sex, a hero, a villain – or as the cover trumpets: “Hit men! Drugs! Bitcoin!” And it serves up some plum roles. Who will play the brilliant, heroic FBI agent; the Eagle Scout turned “savage kingpin”; the sexy girlfriend? As a preview, the piece is illustrated with a demonic looking Ross; a semi-nude girlfriend; and a glam agent grabbing the laptop.
If you want to pitch a movie, fine. Just don’t call it journalism.
“Finding” the Server
Ex-FBI agent Christopher Tarbell is the hero of Bearman’s story. He was the lead investigator; head of the arrest team; and signer of the Criminal Complaint. (Oddly he was also absent from the trial, thus not submitting to cross examination.)
Most notably Tarbell claimed, under oath, to have “found” the Silk Road server by simply stumbling upon the IP address. Faithfully following the government narrative, that is how Bearman tells it too. According to him, Tarbell and his colleague were just gazing at lists of numbers on the monitor when – wow, what luck! – they just happened to notice the “true IP address of the Silk Road server.”
The problem is that this is a lie, and perjury too, according to the technical/security community. In response to Tarbell’s explanation, highly respected experts worldwide dismissed it as “impossible;” “inconsistent with reality;” “gibberish;” and a lie. Nicholas Weaver, of the International Computer Science Institute, says in the documentary Deep Web that Tarbell played “fast and loose with the truth.” He explains that the logs provided to the defense show that Tarbell’s story doesn’t even mesh with the FBI’s own evidence.
Tarbell could disprove these accusations, but darn it, he didn’t save his work! The dog ate my evidence! (Doesn’t the FBI have a back-up system?) He provided no forensic data, captured packet logs or screenshots to validate his claims. But no problem. When he has Joshuah Bearman, Wired and, of course, Fox, who needs proof?
Making a Murderer
Bearman bases much of his portrayal of Ross on unconvicted, unproven allegations of murder-for-hire and freely uses hyperbolic adjectives like “savage,” and “ruthless” to demonize him. But hey, all the better for the movie, right?
He does point out that Ross was not charged at trial with any attempted murder, so obviously was not convicted of it. He then offers the strained explanation that the prosecution dropped it because it was “likely an elaborate catfish-as-blackmail scheme that snookered Ross out of a lot of money,” even though they really think he did it. So the same prosecutors who piled on hacking, money laundering and selling fake IDs gave Ross a pass on murder-for-hire? Or is there more to this story?
As for the Maryland Indictment, now over three years old and counting, the admittedly corrupt Carl Mark Force was at the core of the Maryland investigation and inextricably involved in the murder-for-hire "evidence," which consists of an internet chat. Many experts have told me there is no way to know who was actually chatting, or even if Force wrote the entire thing.
Corrupt agent Force was the lead Maryland undercover investigator of Silk Road. For two years he worked on the site under multiple aliases. Bearman interviewed Force at length, “spent a lot of time with him,” according to his reddit AMA. This implies that he relied on Force’s version of events. Force is now in prison (with Shaun Bridges, who was working for the NSA while investigating Silk Road) for extensive corruption and theft of over a million dollars. These agents exploited their high level administrative access in order to steal from, and potentially tamper with, the Silk Road site. They had the ability to change anything in the database and could even act as DPR.
Yet Bearman apparently thinks Carl Force, who operated under various identities in order to steal and extort, is a reliable source of truthful information.
In his reddit AMA, Bearman says he believes the trial was fair. Again lining up with the government narrative, he brushes off the preclusion of the corruption evidence “because Force’s case was at odds with the FBI investigation and part of a different indictment.” Yet it has come out post-trial that revealing this exculpatory evidence was not “at odds” with the investigation, as the agents already knew they were being investigated. And the record shows that Force was not part of a separate case, but that the investigations were coordinated and combined. The U.S. Marshall's report even lists Force as the arresting officer. And we're supposed to believe he wasn't involved?
Bearman also says the prosecution’s Bitcoin witness demonstrated that Ross is guilty. Yet he fails to mention that the defense’s Bitcoin witness was not permitted to take the stand, to point out what many experts called flawed testimony. This was challenged in the appeal as well as outside of court by Bitcoin experts like Roger Ver, who tweeted: “The prosecutors in the Silk Road trial have no clue how Bitcoin works, or are intentionally lying about it.”
This “untold story” not only relies on the word of corrupt government agents, but also on government documents, unproven allegations, and a government informant, Curtis Green. Green and ex-FBI agent Tarbell have sold their life rights for a high price. I wonder if other sources were compensated in some way, or if they complied in hopes of profiting from the movie. Did this influence their version of events? I don’t know, but when Hollywood links with journalism one must wonder.
The two civilians in the piece are an ex-girlfriend, Julia, and an ex-housemate, Alex. (Bearman calls Alex Ross’ “pal,” but Ross says he barely knew him). Unlike Ross’ other friends, these two have already capitalized on their association with him: Alex by writing about it; and Julia by selling Ross’ photo to Rolling Stone.
I declined to interview with Bearman, but he spoke for me anyway saying, “Throughout the trial she maintained that the jury would set Ross free.” Yet I never once said that. I was hopeful, of course, especially before the defense was shut down on day 4, but never once "maintained" it.
It is telling that no friends or family members – or other girlfriends – agreed to speak to Bearman (and it wasn’t for a lack of trying). This was out of loyalty and the desire to protect Ross.
Ross cannot defend himself or his reputation. He is helpless to stop the feeding frenzy; the sensationalizing, fictionalizing and profiting from his life. He’s just trying to survive each day, living in a cage. As for this article, his best self-protection is to not read it. “They are making me a villain,” he said. “I started to, but I’m not going to read it.” His fellow inmate, in a gesture of solidarity, threw his copy of Wired in the trash.