Brett Kimberlin versus right-wing bloggers

Updated: Why right-wing blogs are obsessed with a convicted felon famous for once claiming he sold Dan Quayle drugs

Published July 10, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

Brett Kimberlin    (Wikipedia)
Brett Kimberlin (Wikipedia)

[Updated below] So there is this guy named Brett Kimberlin. He is a true American weirdo from way back, and he's fairly brilliant at self-promotion and is involved in various liberal causes. He's also a convicted drug smuggler, perjurer and bomber. And, rather suddenly, he's become the most prominent villain of the right-wing blogosphere. Why? It's ... complicated.

To this day, he proclaims his innocence, but Brett Kimberlin was convicted in the early 1980s of setting off eight bombs in Speedway, Ind., one of which badly injured a Vietnam veteran, who later killed himself. (Kimberlin does not deny the marijuana trafficking, which his biographer writes was extensive and profitable.) In prison, he became a very skilled "jailhouse lawyer," filing numerous suits for others and on his own behalf, alleging (often correctly) that his case had been badly mishandled by prosecutors and police. Six witnesses for the prosecution, for example, had been hypnotized -- by local cops who'd taken a weekend seminar! -- prior to their testimony, which was sketchy enough that former Solicitor General Erwin Griswald agreed to carry Kimberlin's appeal, pro bono, to the Supreme Court. The court declined to hear it.

Kimberlin's life story would probably make a great (or awful!) movie, involving, as it does, political intrigue, bricks of marijuana being hurriedly tossed from planes, an unsolved murder (Julia Scyphers, whose daughter and granddaughter Kimberlin was living with at the time; Kimberlin was never suspected of pulling the trigger, but Indiana police tried very hard to find a connection between him and the killer), and a charming but likely untrustworthy protagonist. Journalist Mark Singer wrote an entire book about being seduced by Kimberlin's incredible stories (and protestations of innocence) while Kimberlin was in prison, and then discovering, later, how badly he'd been deceived. (Singer's two New Yorker stories on Kimberlin are well worth reading. The first, sympathetic piece from 1992 is here; the second one, from 1996, is here. Both require subscriptions.)

Kimberlin's second-most-famous act was to claim to have sold Dan Quayle small amounts of marijuana for years, a claim that is essentially impossible to prove or disprove. Journalists heard the tale in 1988 when Quayle ran for vice president. "60 Minutes" and NPR nearly bit. But then, mysteriously, Kimberlin was repeatedly placed in "the hole" by federal prison officials in advance of Election Day and was forbidden from speaking to reporters. This later helped him to become a minor liberal cause célèbre, and his story became grist for a series of controversial "Doonesbury" strips in the early 1990s. Released from prison (then jailed again, and released again, after some issue with his parole), Kimberlin, having paid his debt to society, threw himself into liberal activism, where he seems to have done fairly well for himself.

Kimberlin is a very productive (perhaps compulsive) lawsuit filer and, according to Mark Singer, a narcissist with a tendency toward megalomania. I suspect, after reading Singer's account of Kimberlin convincing himself that Quayle recognized him at a book signing, that he believes his own stories, even the outright false ones -- he told Singer a story of meeting an ex-girlfriend that she flatly contradicted, to use one minor example -- which, in turn, makes others more likely to trust and believe him. He sounds like an eminently reasonable man, on the phone.

Though I was slightly familiar with the story of how Dan Quayle had been accused of enjoying drugs (not just by Kimberlin, for the record, though no one credible has ever offered "proof"), I had never once heard of this Kimberlin guy (this was all a bit before my time) until dozens of right-wing blogs began obsessively writing about him. In their imaginings, he's an integral part of the progressive movement -- he is "Soros-funded"! -- though in reality he is a very persistent but essentially peripheral character. He has helped to push voting machine fraud stories into the headlines and offered a reward for proof of electoral malfeasance by the Bush campaign, but he has never been remotely prominent in liberal circles, online or off. While's he's partnered with Brad Friedman, proprietor of the reasonably well-known BradBlog, he tells me he doesn't ever blog, tweet or comment. (Of course, there's no easy way to be prove that any given anonymous tweeter or blogger is him or not.) He may wish, as Singer claimed in 1996, to become a rock star, but he has succeeded primarily at becoming a comic book villain for the right wing.

What precipitated this months-long right-wing mass freakout, which culminated in something called "Everybody Blog About Brett Kimberlin Day" some weeks back, and which has not showed much signs of slowing since then?

It is a tediously complicated story full of odd figures given over to sending lengthy, confusing emails accusing various other odd figures of harassment, fraud, lying and other assorted crimes. It is, in other words, precisely the sort of story no reporter wants to get involved in, because it's a headache and someone will probably end up threatening to sue you or something. (See what happened when Dave Weigel, who admits he "barely understood the story," just tweeted about it. In addition to Kimberlin, there are two other people whose roles in all this continue to baffle me. They are regularly accused of being his "associates.") Basically you have a large group of people who receive a great deal of joy from pretending to be the victims of unprovoked and terrible persecution, and they are united against an incredibly litigious narcissist -- possibly because he is attempting to block them from exposing his past through intimidation, or possibly because they're attempting to block him from exposing malfeasance by the activist right. Or maybe a little of both.

It is nigh impossible to find a coherent account of what actually happened, because many of the bloggers breathlessly recounting the tale are given to exceedingly overblown descriptions of the scale of the various injustices they've suffered. But, in short: Kimberlin frequently sues or threatens to sue people who write about him, or who "cyberstalk" him. He succeeded in getting a judge to prevent one guy from blogging about him, for a while, and this led to everyone deciding to blog about him extra hard. Meanwhile, some prominent bloggers were the victims of terrifying (and potentially dangerous) false 911 calls, which most of the bloggers claim -- without a shred of evidence -- to be related, somehow, to their brave decisions to blog about Kimberlin.

An Andrew Breitbart blogger reported back in 2010 on a couple of liberal activist groups -- one of which had received grants from the Tides Foundation (Soros!!) -- run by Kimberlin, then recounted his history as the convicted Speedway Bomber. Right-wing law blogger Patterico followed up. (Kimberlin's role in exposing election fraud was no secret: Time reported on him -- and his "paradoxical lack of credibility in the service of a credible cause" -- back in 2007. And many people involved in reporting on and studying electoral irregularities have used material that can be traced back to Kimberlin.) Kimberlin threatened to sue Patterico and "Liberty Chick," the Breitbart blogger, because he's been fighting his battles in the courts for almost 30 years. This led, predictably, to more coverage of Kimberlin on right-wing sites, and more threatened lawsuits.

Things escalated when Kimberlin began his battle with Aaron Walker, whose account of his dealings with Kimberlin is the major primary source of much of the current drama.

Walker's post is mainly a lengthy (oh god, so lengthy) account of two people repeatedly filing motions at each other, but to sum up: This Walker guy is a lawyer and minor (formerly pseudonymous) conservative blogger. He helped out a guy Kimberlin was suing -- a DailyKos comment troll, as best as I can tell -- with some legal advice. Kimberlin then subpoenaed Comcast and Google to get Walker's real name and tried to compel Walker to testify, in what Walker says was an attempt to get him to stop blogging about Kimberlin and his past. According to Kimberlin, he was merely seeking Walker's real name because he thought Walker had threatened his life, or had incited others to violence against him. Walker filed a motion accusing Kimberlin of harassment and making false testimony. Walker showed up, uninvited, at a hearing for Kimberlin's suit against the other DailyKos guy in order to ask that a document, introduced by Kimberlin, full of personal information about Walker (including his real name) be sealed.

So, after the hearing, Walker and Kimberlin had a confrontation outside the court. They argued, and, according to Walker (his account is in the massive post linked above), Kimberlin raised his iPad and Walker snatched it away from him. Then he gave it to a deputy. Kimberlin soon filed criminal charges against Walker, alleging assault, claiming to have been rather badly beaten up. "He took my iPad away from me, hit me in the eye, sent me to the emergency room," Kimberlin told me. Criminal charges were filed, then dropped by the state. Walker claims Kimberlin forged or falsified his hospital records.

Some unsatisfactory video evidence -- which, to my eyes, supports Walker's version of events, or at least I see no evidence that Kimberlin was struck in the eye -- was released to both parties. But a "peace order" still forbade Walker from threatening, harassing or personally contacting Kimberlin, and a confused old judge who didn't understand the Internet found that Walker's blog posts about Kimberlin constituted a violation of that order. Walker was briefly arrested for the violation; he was quickly released, but barred from blogging further about Kimberlin. This was all patently unconstitutional and weird. And thankfully, a smarter judge recognized that, and the "peace order" was thrown out. Walker then filed to have Kimberlin charged with perjury over his assault claims. The Maryland state attorney's office declined to pursue it and sent him a hilarious letter:

The above-captioned matter is the third citizen complaint involving you and Mr. Kimberlin. At my direction, the State dropped the charges in the other two. Very respectfully, it is my belief that your dispute with Mr. Kimberlin cannot be resolved in the criminal justice system.

(Kimberlin claims that Walker has now filed a suit against him in Virginia seeking a permanent injunction against Kimberlin that would bar him from ever mentioning Walker's name, which would be a neat bit of irony.) [Update: I muddled some of this description of the court battle. Please see the appended correction.]

In other words, it's an extensive legal fight between two self-important people I can almost guarantee you've never heard of, except that it's also the single most important First Amendment cause ever for a bunch of bloggers who will not be silenced by this Kimberlin guy!

The "other side" of all of this is that it's a proxy battle between the left-wing electoral fraud movement, represented by Kimberlin's "Velvet Revolution," and the right-wing voter fraud movement, represented by James O'Keefe's "Project Veritas." Kimberlin says the entire campaign, from the original Breitbart post to "Everyone Blog About Brett Kimberlin Day," has been "an attempt to intimidate me." They are, he says, attempting to Swift Boat him. The impetus, in this telling, for the original Breitbart post was some explosive material Kimberlin's group had wrangled, via subpoena, from James O'Keefe's group.

Then came the tales of "SWAT-ing," in which a caller reports that a horrific crime has taken place at the home of the target and then heavily armed policemen show up at the target's house. Patterico (IRL: Patrick Frey, a Los Angeles assistant D.A.) and CNN and RedState's Erick Erickson both wrote that they had been victims of SWAT-ing hoaxes. Frey got the worst of it. As described by Conor Friedersdorf:

Frey, a prosecutor by profession, was at home after midnight when someone started pounding on his front door. When he opened it, he found several police officers with guns drawn ordering him out of the house. "I had a cell phone in my hand," he writes. "Fortunately, they did not mistake it for a gun." They were at the house because someone had called 911, spoofed Frey's home phone number, impersonated him, and spoke as if he was confessing to having shot and killed his wife. Police arrived on scene poised to confront an armed killer. Frey was cuffed in front of his neighbors. His wife was awoken, taken outside, and frisked. His children were awoken by police going into their bedrooms to make sure that they were okay. It was a nightmare.

Erickson's story was similar: Someone claimed there had been a shooting (this time accidental) at his home, and sheriff's deputies showed up to investigate. Patterico and Erickson both somehow came to the conclusion that the calls were related to their writing about Kimberlin. Kimberlin (as you'd expect) categorically denies having anything to do with the attacks. "I'm not going to get involved with something illegal. I run two non-profits, I got a wife and two kids, and I don't do things illegal like that -- that would be the dumbest thing on Earth."

Then, charming neo-Confederate blogger Robert Stacy McCain wrote that ... well, he just publicly announced that he feared for his and his family's safety due to vague "security concerns" (he claims Kimberlin somehow contacted his wife at her unnamed workplace). So, for going on a month now, he's been publishing (extensively) from an "undisclosed location" (while fundraising for himself).

Kimberlin does, in a way, accept responsibility for McCain's flight, but he says Robert Stacy McCain is blogging from an "undisclosed location" not because he fears for his family's safety, but because he was living on a compound owned by his church, which was alarmed to learn of his extremist beliefs and writings. Here's the story from the site "Breitbart Unmasked," which is written by an unknown blogger, but which essentially supports Kimberlin's version of events:

According to my sources the church leaders claimed to Mr. Kimberlin after reading several Google entries about McCain’s racism and hatred, that this is NOT what the church was about in its teachings. The church leaders seemed shocked that they had someone of McCain’s background living at their compound and attacking an honest non-profit organization as well as other victims that McCain has attacked on his blog over a long period of time while living on church property: which I might add exposed the church to legal liability.

(I've asked McCain for comment and will update if and when he gets back to me.)

Similarly, while Walker says he's lost his job because of his bosses' fear of Kimberlin and his criminal past, Kimberlin says Walker lost his job because when his real name was revealed (in court, by Kimberlin), Walker was forced to reveal to his bosses that he was behind a website devoted to cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. "I never contacted his work or anything," Kimberlin says.

So in one version of events, Walker and McCain are victims of intimidation from a domestic terrorist. In the other version, they're victims of Kimberlin's exposure of their own extremist beliefs and writings. To my mind, they're both victims of their decisions to join a war against a target willing to fight back on slightly unconventional terms. I don't think, for example, McCain should've been kicked out of his home, whatever the impetus for his departure. His views are reprehensible, but he is not a violent or particularly dangerous man. I also don't think his or his family's lives have ever seriously been in any sort of danger, and his claims otherwise are risible and shameless. I don't think pseudonymous bloggers should live in fear of having their identities exposed by people they criticize, though that is obviously a risk that any pseudonymous blogger should be aware of before engaging in political combat.

The SWAT-ing accusations seem particularly irresponsible, as their connection to Kimberlin is incredibly flimsy. The first victim, Mike Stack, had not, as far as I can tell, written about Kimberlin at all. When Patterico was SWAT-ed, it had been months since he'd written about Kimberlin. Kimblerin claims he'd never heard of Erick Erickson and had no clue where he lived.

But most importantly, even if you don't believe a single word Kimberlin says, no one has ever presented any evidence, at all, that Kimberlin is behind the "SWAT-ing" -- at this point, they mainly insinuate it really hard. Or they claim that one of his allies is responsible. Or something. (Erick Erickson said he suspected it was a member of Kimberlin's "fan club.") Patterico accused two Kimberlin "associates" of being responsible, though he doesn't even have evidence that they're "associates."

Patterico hired a "forensic audio expert," to "prove" that Ron Brynaert, a former Raw Story editor who was excessively vulgar to Patterico on Twitter, is also the 911 caller. Brynaert denies it, and both he and Kimberlin downplay whatever relationship they have or have had. "I've talked to him seriously less than a handful of times in my life," Kimberlin said. "If you write a story about me, they're gonna say you and I are conspirators."

So why link him to the SWAT-ing?

There's a hint of that streak of grandiosity that Singer talked about when Kimberlin claims he's under attack because his group -- "working with some major news organizations" -- is about to uncover some shocking truths about James O'Keefe and his allies. Kimberlin explains that he's cooperating with police departments and the New Hampshire attorney general in criminal investigations of James O'Keefe, which is why he's being targeted. According to Kimberlin, the Breitbart salvo was the first shot in an attempt to intimidate Kimberlin into silence. "To me it really stinks of obstruction of justice. It's a real intimidation campaign against me, most of it's based on, just, lies. I've kept my composure about it, and when people do bad things, I go into court, and I get peace orders, and you know file charges and talk to the police and stuff like that."

"I'd never heard the word 'lawfare,'" he says. "They've accused me of lawfare for going into the courts and getting redress for grievances. They've turned that into a bad word." (It's true that Kimberlin has a long history of seeking redress against many of the people he thinks have wronged him in the courts, which can be intimidating and have a chilling effect on speech, but I think proper "lawfare" requires an asymmetry of power that isn't really the case when it's one skilled jailhouse lawyer against much of the conservative movement's better-known bloggers, including numerous attorneys.)

"They decided to make me their first kinda test case, figured I had baggage from 40 years ago. So they came out and said, OK, let's make an example out of Kimberlin, and this will show our power, and we'll be able to raise a lot of funds."

The "they" he's referring to is the National Bloggers Club. Kimberlin has a grand conspiratorial view of the right -- the Chamber of Commerce and the Kochs and O'Keefe and Crossroads GPS and the National Bloggers Club are an interconnected web in his telling, united to Swift Boat him -- but he may actually be, as he often is, partly correct, just as he was partly correct that he was, in 1988, the victim of a conspiracy to silence him. The campaign against him has become a very high-profile opportunity for the brand-new "Club," and the relentlessness with which Michelle Malkin and Patterico and a couple others have been covering the story -- Kimberlin micro-updates are a constant, almost daily presence on Memorandum, "Everyone Blog About Brett Kimberlin" day was heavily promoted by a number of big-name right-bloggers -- is indeed part of a strategy to either "smear" him, if you take his side, or publicize his misdeeds and past crimes.

This is how deeply vexing it is to try to write about any of this: It just keeps getting stupider. The Kimberlin/SWAT-ing/Stacy-McCain-leaving-home situation became a fundraiser organized this mysterious "club," founded this year with seed money from Santorum-backer Foster Friess and run (and co-founded) by some guy named Ali Akbar. It was then revealed that Ali Akbar is ... an ex-felon himself, convicted of credit card fraud in 2007. (And when a supporter of the anti-Kimberlin campaign called on Akbar to step down for hiding this fact, he was hounded by Akbar and his supporters -- including Michelle Malkin -- into shutting down his blog in one of those self-righteous "I'm being silenced!" huffs.)

So in one reality we have a standard-issue right-wing character assassination piece against a liberal activist few liberals had actually heard of -- think Van Jones, redux -- that has grown into a much larger campaign accusing him, without evidence, of serious crimes, all because of his long-forgotten past. In the other version, an untrustworthy huckster who's insinuated himself into a certain circle of liberal activism panics when conservatives highlight his disturbing criminal past and put his current position in jeopardy, and he responds with a campaign of shameless legal intimidation -- and, perhaps, certain allies of his go even further. Your tribal political sympathies -- or your opinion of the people involved on each side --  may determine on which side you fall, though no one involved seems capable of telling the whole truth.

Here's a hilarious song about Brett Kimberlin:

Update/Correction: I got the details and chronology of the legal contretemps between Walker and Kimberlin muddled.

Kimberlin filed two "peace orders" against Walker. The first followed their confrontation outside the courtroom on January 9, the day Walker showed up to a hearing for Kimberlin's suit against Seth Allen. This was appealed and then dismissed -- and then Walker filed to have Kimberlin charged with perjury, based on the video he obtained. Kimberlin filed for a second peace order in May, after Walker published his mammoth post on his confrontation with Kimberlin. This is the one that Walker was arrested for violating.

Walker says the "permanent injunction" he sought was filed in late January and was done merely to prevent Kimberlin from outing him.

Additionally, I think I misunderstood a statement by Kimberlin: The specific supposed threat against his life that he referred to in our conversation didn't come from Walker, but (again, according to Kimberlin) from Seth Allen, the gentlemen he was suing, for whom Walker offered the legal advice that led to their fight.

Speaking of, I should note that Mr. Allen wrote in to object to his characterization as a "Daily Kos troll," and Mr. McCain never responded to my email requesting comment, though he did write a bunch of blog posts about how I'm horrible.

Finally, Walker asked me to add this statement, which I do because even though the emails he sent me were very long, he was polite:

I do not think this is truly a right/left issue.  Seriously, is there any party in favor of attempting to frame a person for a crime just because they said something you don’t like?  I think McCain said something like this: Sociopath is not a party designation.  Of course Brett Kimberlin has glommed on to various liberal funders and causes, but his truest devotion is to himself.  You will find no shortage of people on the right who will argue that Kimberlin typifies all that is wrong with the left these days, but I am not one of them.  I think the worst you can say is that people like George Soros, Teresa Heinz-Kerry and Barbara Streisand were all too quick to believe in a story of redemption that is ultimately false, but that doesn’t make them bad people—just inappropriately optimistic about human nature.

I apologize for the errors.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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