“You scared?” asks the fugitive in the camouflage pants as he sidles up to our pre-arranged meeting point in a small Canadian park. He wears sunglasses to hide his eyes and a broad-brimmed hat to hide his face. He scans the park perimeter for police. “Cuz I’m scared enough for both of us.”
It’s a dramatic introduction, but Christopher “Commander X” Doyon leads a dramatic life these days. He jumped bail and fled the US after the FBI arrested him in 2011 for bringing down a county government website—the only Anonymous-affiliated activist yet to take such a step. When I meet him months after his flight, he remains jumpy about getting caught. But Doyon has a story he wants to tell, and after he removes his hat, sunglasses, and backpack, he soon warms to the telling of it. It’s the story of how, in Doyon’s words, “the USA has become so tyrannical that a human rights/information activist would feel compelled to flee into exile and seek sanctuary in another country.”
Meet Commander X
In the early 1980s, when Doyon was in his early 20s, he had moved down the coast from rural Maine to Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, it was a “tripping fucking city to live in” where Doyon dropped plenty of acid, smoked plenty of weed, and found a political movement agitating against apartheid in South Africa. The mix of Grateful Dead culture and a righteous indignation intoxicated Doyon, who was soon recruited into a small group called the People’s Liberation Front (PLF), which he describes as “one of the ost secret organizations in the world.” The PLF was led by an older man with slate grey hair who favored aviator sunglasses and bomber jackets and who went by the name “Commander Adama.” Adama had already recruited five or six young people to join his quest for justice, and Doyon soon decided to help the cause. The group traveled from protest to protest performing technical services—printing flyers, deploying backpack FM radios for communications, surveillance.
When Adama later asked his recruits to relocate with him to California, Doyon and three others followed. They spent the next few years traveling around the Northwest in a van, helping groups like the Animal Liberation Front release animals. “We would sneak up basically in the middle of the night on mink farms and free all these little animals,” Doyon tells me, though his memory of those days is fading a bit. “And I believe we burned a couple [of buildings] to the ground. They weren’t mink farms that we burned… the fuck did we burn? I think it was a lumberyard, or… fuck. I can’t remember now. There were a couple places that we set fires.”
The PLF stayed in the background and, because groups that live in the darkness generally prefer not to use real names, Doyon needed his own nom de guerre. He quite consciously set out to pick a something “impressive.” For two weeks he jotted names on scraps of paper but found nothing he liked. The came the breakthrough: what about a single character? Most letters felt ridiculous (“Who wants to be G?” Doyon says), but X seemed promising. Doyon jumped online and spent the next four days scouring BBSes for anyone else using X as a handle. No one had it, so Doyon took it.
Commander Adama created the PLF as a hierarchical organization, the opposite of Anonymous, with a Supreme Commander at the top and the rank and file—which never numbered more than 12—taking orders. From 1985 to 1995, Doyon was known simply as X. In 1995, as the group moved from supporting direct action to information disclosure and the Internet, Doyon was offered rank within the PLF. He became “Commander X” and helped the organization emerge from its secrecy to become a self-described “cyber militia” that welcomed members from all over the world. In 2007, the group allied itself with Anonymous; Doyon soon became so active that, when HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr attempted to ID the leaders of Anonymous in early 2011, he named Commander X as one of the top three.
Rather than bringing down Commander X, however, Barr’s work gave him the additional strength of notoriety. The Anons who hung out in the group’s IRC channels now all knew who he was, and the Commander X persona became increasingly central to his identity. Within Anonymous, critics carped that Commander X should stay a bit more anonymous, rather than popping up all the time to give interviews such as the one in which he told journalist Dan Tynan that “Commander X is a cartoon character that inspires thousands.”
But Doyon refused to retreat back into the shadows because, he says, the Commander X persona was simply too inspiring to others. Not that being such a figure is easy, though.
“All the costs are personal and all the benefits are helping people,” he says. “It’s a huge fucking burden on my ass.”
But his pace began to slow. By mid-September, he could run no more. Increasingly ill, he made it down to Mountain View but became too sick to relocate again. A week into his illness, Doyon began to see more Crown Vics—the cop car of choice—and he feared his FBI pursuers had tracked him to the area. His fever rose. He lay in his camp for several days straight, logging into the free public Wi-Fi network that Google built and maintains throughout Mountain View. His judgment impaired by illness, Doyon ventured back into town on September 21. He called Jay Leiderman, a lawyer from downstate Ventura who agreed to represent Doyon pro bono, and warned him an arrest might be near. Leiderman agreed to fly up to Mountain View and meet Doyon the next day at his favorite coffee shop in town.
He called Jay Leiderman, a lawyer from downstate Ventura who agreed to represent Doyon pro bono, and warned him an arrest might be near
That afternoon, Doyon had an IRC chat with another hacker known as Locke. Locke, a student, offered to wire Doyon some cash through Western Union. Doyon provided him with the address of the coffee shop. It wasn’t a wise move for a man on the run, but Doyon was worn down by illness and fatigue and by the constant running. Fearing the feds might grab him soon, Doyon gave the “keys to the kingdom”—such as his Twitter account password—to his subordinates in the PLF that evening. He then says he used an encrypted, one-time only e-mail service to send a message to the FBI’s cybercrime division. “I am not armed,” it said.
After the hallucinatory night, Doyon roused himself again and returned to the coffee shop in time for his meeting with Leiderman. At 9:00am, from the second floor of the shop, Doyon looked out the window and saw a pair of Crown Vics in the street below. “This is it,” he thought, a sudden shock of sweat running down his back. “They’re here for me.”
Jay Leiderman’s phone rang as he pulled up to the Mountain View coffee shop in a rental car. His secretary was on the line saying that Doyon had just been arrested by the FBI and would soon be arraigned at federal court in San Jose. Leiderman hopped back into the car. He hadn’t come prepared for a federal court appearance and only had jeans and sneakers. He made his way to San Jose by noon and learned that his client wasn’t scheduled to appear before a judge until 1:30pm He asked the security guys running the metal detector at the courthouse entrance where he could get a suit quickly. They recommended a Vietnamese tailor down the street.
“I’m usually an Armani guy if I can be, but I went from jeans into the one of the nicest $99 suits I had seen, plus a tie, pocket square, and socks,” says Leiderman. “I got the shoes and belt at a Ross [Dress for Less store] in between the tailor and the courthouse. The guys that worked security were impressed.”
Leiderman had involved himself with Anonymous after watching the Lulzsec crew wreak mayhem that summer. “Oh shit, someone here is going to really need a lawyer,” he began thinking. He “floated a tweet out there” during the early summer, offering pro bono work to “righteous hacktivists.” He heard from many Anons, including Commander X—whose name he recognized from Ars Technica’s reporting on the HBGary story—and had to pick one. He chose Doyon.
Now he was in San Jose, in a new suit and shoes, defending Doyon over a 30-minute DDoS attack. Leiderman made the 1:30pm court appearance, at which Doyon entered a plea of “not guilty.” A week later, Doyon was out of jail on a $35,000 signature bond in the name of labor lawyer Ed Frey, who had protested Santa Cruz’s no-sleeping policy with Doyon and had a long history of such battles. Should Doyon not show up for a court date, Frey would suddenly owe a huge amount of money.
Doyon’s bail was not unrestricted, however, and those restrictions would eventually lead him to take up a fugitive’s life once more. The court forbade Doyon from using Twitter. Or Facebook. Or IRC. Or from communicating with other Anons. Or the PLF. In other words, the very activities that occupied most of Doyon’s time were off limits.
“I’m not saying we’re in a police state,” Leiderman says when talking about the restrictions, “but it sure looks like it when you evaluate the system of pretrial release. His human contact is not really human contact—he does his life’s work through IRC.”
Leiderman worked on Doyon’s case for the next few months as it jerked along through the justice system and soon believed that Doyon could beat the rap. The CFAA, the law under which Doyon was charged, has long been criticized as fatally overbroad; Leiderman shares those concerns. “It’s both on its face an overreaching law and it’s being used in an overreaching way,” he says.
But Leiderman was convinced he could limbo under the CFAA’s low bar to prosecution by knocking $1,300 off the $6,300 damage claim from Santa Cruz County. Much of the damage appeared to be charges for non-overtime employee salaries—salaries already paid by the state, rather than new expenses. Such a win could also make a larger argument of Leiderman’s: DDoS attacks cause little damage and should be treated as political protest.
In Leiderman’s view, the DDoS was “absolute speech under the First Amendment.”
“They didn’t harm Santa Cruz’s computers, they didn’t go in and rape their servers,” Leiderman says of Doyon and crew. In his view, the DDoS was “absolute speech under the First Amendment.”
He soon began to worry he wouldn’t have a chance to make the argument, however. Anonymous tips warned him that Doyon—fed up with not being able to operate online as he liked—was thinking about fleeing to Canada. Doyon stopped answering Leiderman’s calls and e-mails. When Leiderman showed up to court in San Jose for a status hearing on February 2, 2012, his client did not appear.
“So, returning to Mr. Doyon,” said the government’s lawyer, according to a court transcript, “his appearance has not been waived. He is not present here. And so I’m inquiring as to whether there’s a reason for that.”
Leiderman knew nothing. The judge issued a bench warrant for Doyon’s arrest but agreed to hold it for two weeks.
On February 16, everyone reconvened in the same San Jose courtroom. Doyon was still missing. “It appears as though the defendant has fled,” said the prosecutor. The judge looked around the courtroom and said he saw no sign that Doyon was going to appear. The prosecutor noted they actually had good reason to believe Doyon would not appear—on February 11, Doyon had issued a press release titled “Commander X escapes into exile.”
Doyon was gone, Ed Frey owed the court $35,000, and Jay Leiderman’s “DDoS as free speech” test case just lost its client.
“A charming feeling as an attorney,” was how Leiderman described the moment to me. “Dateless on prom night.”
This is more sedate than the initial version of events. As for the claim that he was “this close to fucking dead” when arrested, I asked Jay Leiderman how Doyon looked when the two met that day. Doyon was thin and ragged, with a few bruises and discomfort from the handcuffs, but “he lives a rough life, so he’s often in rough shape,” Leiderman says. “He was overall pretty much the same.”
It becomes clear as we talk that Doyon has a storyteller’s sense of the dramatic and a penchant for the Big Statement. PLF operations, for instance, tend to be grandiose. “Operation Freedom Star,” launched earlier this year, created the “PLF Space Command,” and sought a million dollars in donations to buy up an old satellite in order to provide broadband access to underserved parts of the globe. “Op Syria” aimed to “launch a major new offensive against the forces of tyranny and evil”; its status is currently listed as “success.” 2011’s “Operation USA” was said to be the beginning of “the Transnational Global Cyber Insurgency. Welcome to the second American Revolution!”
The pattern carries over into conversations with journalists. In May, Doyon famously told a Montreal journalist, “Right now we have access to every classified database in the US government. It’s a matter of when we leak the contents of those databases, not if… There’s a really good argument at this point that we might well be the most powerful organization on Earth.”
“Honestly, in 2011, nobody cared about Doyon at all. Anons thought he was a pretentious theatrical idiot.”
When I press him on this, the explanation is far more reasonable: Anonymous has received several terabytes of leaked data that appears to originate from US government databases, but it remains unclear whether this is of any real value. Doyon also insists that many of the geeks guarding these databases for the US government have come to Anonymous and pledged their support. “The simple fact is that by becoming one of the world’s worst tyrannies, the USA government has lost the loyalty and trust of many of the very people tasked with keeping their secrets safe,” Doyon says. After an obscure soldier like Bradley Manning could leak huge troves of US diplomatic cables, this statement isn’t as outlandish at it might have once appeared. On the other hand, the promised major leaks haven’t materialized
Why pay such a price? For Doyon, the answer is simple: activism is his life’s work and trumps all else. “I would hope people would see me as someone who
He is Supreme Commander of the PLF, scourge of tyrants, a voice for Anonymous, a man behind a mask, a cyber knight tilting his lance on behalf of the downtrodden—or he is a hyperbolic homeless hacker in love with the overwrought tones of his own press releases, a quote machine for journalists, a grown man playing at grand titles and in love with secret societies.
But in either case, he remains Commander X.