Many people may not have heard of Barrett Brown. He is a 33-year old journalist who has been hounded by the US government because he exposed its wrongdoings using documents that had been obtained by the hacktivist group Anonymous. He seemed to have informal links to Anonymous and was willing to publicly engage with reporters about what they were doing. As a result, he was sometimes referred to as their spokesperson though he and they denied it. In some ways, he was a precursor to Edward Snowden. Kevin M. Gallagher gives us the back story.
He spent the beginning of 2011 advocating for the effectiveness of Anonymous as a force that could bring transparency to institutions and governments through digital protest. He took the thousands of e-mails that were hacked by Anonymous, first from HBGary Federal, and later from Stratfor, and enlisted others to help search through them for revelations of journalistic import.
What was uncovered was startling: a disinformation campaign against WikiLeaks and its supporters, large-scale monitoring of social networks, a capability for one analyst to control multiple online sock-puppets, and surveillance systems that seemed far-fetched until you read the e-mails for yourself and grasp the magnitude of the “cyber-intelligence complex” involved.
But the government treats harshly on those who expose its wrongdoings. Brown brought the wrath of the US government down on him and as usual, the government adopted extremely harsh tactics. They initially charged him with offenses that could have led to prison sentences of over 100 years but later withdrew the more outrageous ones though he still faces up to ten years.
The government’s actions in this case have been extreme. Prosecutors in the Northern District of Texas have written that Brown, along with the activist group Anonymous, sought to overthrow the U.S. government. They tried to seize funds that were raised for his legal defense. They obtained a gag order against the defendant and his lawyers restricting what they could say about the case for several months. They sought to identify contributors to a website where Brown and others dissected leaks and researched shady links between intelligence contractors and governments. Perhaps most egregious of all, they pursued a case against Brown’s mother, who was forced to plead guilty to a misdemeanor related to a separate FBI raid on her home, resulting in six months probation and a $1,000 fine.
Brown was so infuriated by the way that he and his mother were abused that apparently he one day threatened an FBI officer and that was enough for them to throw the book at him and has already been in jail without bail for 2 ½ years and was due to be sentenced yesterday. But after a long hearing, the judge delayed sentencing until January 22, 2015. Michelle Garcia was at the hearing and described the scene, with Brown in an orange jump suit and wearing shackles.
I have never met Brown in person but was in communication with him for a period of time. He contacted me after I mentioned him favorably in a blog post back in 2010. He was interested in getting together a group of people to create a free-access news system that would be able to guide people through the vast morass of stuff on the internet to high quality and relevant news items. He said that when such groups start, only people who really care about news join it and link to good stories but as it gains in popularity, the quality goes down and before you know what, stories about the Kardashians rise to the top. He had an idea for creating a system that would maintain focus and quality even as the numbers increased and he convened a group of us to set up the system and I was happy to join in the planning.
But then he got targeted by the US government and ended up in the kind of hell that the US government creates for those whom it opposes and the program was suspended. They even tried to take over a money that had been collected for a defense fund, thus hobbling his ability to get adequate legal assistance. The way the government is treating Brown reminds me of the way they hounded Aaron Swartz, leading to his suicide.
In my dealings with Brown I found him to be very smart, funny, and energetic, a great writer and prolific with ideas. And he was anti-authoritarian, a rare trait in US journalism. I had not been aware until yesterday that he has been publishing a blog while in prison.
Barry Eisler writes more about Brown’s case and why we should care about him.
In 2009, Barrett founded Project PM, “dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence, and surveillance.” He was particularly instrumental in using documents obtained by the hacktivist collective Anonymous to expose secret collaboration between the government and various contractors. The covert factions Barrett’s work threatened are powerful, and fought back. Two years ago, Barrett was arrested and threatened with 100 years in prison—yes, you read that correctly—allegedly for threatening an FBI agent, concealing evidence, and linking to a website that contained stolen credit card numbers. The allegations themselves are sufficiently preposterous, and the threatened sentence sufficiently draconian, to make it clear that Barrett, like William Binney, Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg, Jeremy Hammond, Jon Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Jesselyn Radack, Edward Snowden, Aaron Swartz, Thomas Tamm, and many others, is in fact being persecuted as an example to anyone else who would dare challenge America’s Deep State.
Eventually, Barrett signed a plea deal on three of the lesser charges against him, the other charges were dropped, and the threatened sentence reduced from over a hundred to eight and a half years. His sentencing hearing has been repeatedly scheduled and then delayed, and is currently set for December 16.
The government’s initial charge against Brown was not that he stole material but that he merely linked to it, a prosecution that had a chilling effect on journalism but is par for the course with the Obama administration that thinks that its operations should be kept secret. They later dropped that charge and kept just those of threatening and obstruction of justice for hiding his laptop in a cabinet.
Jonathan Turley also discussed the case some time ago as another example of the Obama administration’s attacks on free speech.
People can donate to Brown’s defense here.