c.2013 New York Times News Service
Barrett Brown makes for a pretty complicated victim. A Dallas-based journalist obsessed with the government’s ties to private security firms, Brown has been in jail for a year, facing charges that carry a combined penalty of more than 100 years in prison.
Professionally, his career embodies many of the conflicts and contradictions of journalism in the digital era. He has written for The Guardian, Vanity Fair and The Huffington Post, but as with so many of his peers, the line between his journalism and his activism is nonexistent. He has served in the past as a spokesman of sorts for Anonymous, the hacker collective, although some members of the group did not always appreciate his work on its behalf.
In 2007, he co-wrote a well-received book, “Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny,” and over time, he has developed an expertise in the growing alliance between large security firms and the government, arguing that the relationship came at a high cost to privacy.
From all accounts, including his own, Brown, now 32, is a real piece of work. He was known to call some of his subjects on the phone and harass them. He has been public about his struggles with heroin and tends to see conspiracies everywhere he turns. Oh, and he also threatened an FBI agent and his family by name, on a video, and put it on YouTube, so there’s that.
But that’s not the primary reason Brown is facing the rest of his life in prison. In 2010, he formed an online collective named Project PM with a mission of investigating documents unearthed by Anonymous and others. If Anonymous and groups like it were the wrecking crew, Brown and his allies were the people who assembled the pieces of the rubble into meaningful insights.
Project PM first looked at the documents spilled by the hack of HBGary Federal, a security firm, in February 2011 and uncovered a remarkable campaign of coordinated disinformation against advocacy groups, which Brown wrote about in The Guardian, among other places.
Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern and a fan of Brown’s work, wrote in The Huffington Post that, “Project PM under Brown’s leadership began to slowly untangle the web of connections between the U.S. government, corporations, lobbyists, and a shadowy group of private military and infosecurity consultants.”
In December 2011, approximately 5 million emails from Stratfor Global Intelligence, an intelligence contractor, were hacked by Anonymous and posted on WikiLeaks. The files contained revelations about close and perhaps inappropriate ties between government security agencies and private contractors. In a chat room for Project PM, Brown posted a link to it.
Among the millions of Stratfor files were data containing credit cards and security codes, part of the vast trove of internal company documents. The credit card data was of no interest or use to Brown, but it was of great interest to the government. In December 2012 he was charged with 12 counts related to identity theft. Overall, he faces 17 charges — including three related to the purported threat of the FBI officer and two obstruction of justice counts — that carry a possible sentence of 105 years, and he awaits trial in a jail in Mansfield, Texas.
According to one of the indictments, by linking to the files, Brown “provided access to data stolen from company Stratfor Global Intelligence to include in excess of 5,000 credit card account numbers, the card holders’ identification information, and the authentication features for the credit cards.”
Because Brown has been closely aligned with Anonymous and various other online groups, some of whom view sowing mayhem as very much a part of their work, his version of journalism is tougher to pin down and, sometimes, tougher to defend.
But keep in mind that no one has accused Brown of playing a role in the actual stealing of the data, only of posting a link to the trove of documents.
Journalists from other news organizations link to stolen information frequently. Just last week, The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica collaborated on a significant article about the National Security Agency’s effort to defeat encryption technologies. The article was based on, and linked to, documents that were stolen by Edward J. Snowden, a private contractor working for the government who this summer leaked millions of pages of documents to the reporter Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian along with Barton Gellman of The Washington Post.
By trying to criminalize linking, the federal authorities in the Northern District of Texas — Brown lives in Dallas — are suggesting that to share information online is the same as possessing it or even stealing it. In the news release announcing the indictment, the U.S. attorney’s office explained, “By transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online, without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor and the cardholders.”
And the magnitude of the charges is confounding. Jeremy Hammond, a Chicago man who pleaded guilty to participating in the actual hacking of Stratfor in the first place, is facing a sentence of 10 years.
Last week, Brown and his lawyers agreed to an order that allows him to continue to work on articles, but not say anything about his case that is not in the public record.
Speaking by phone Thursday, Charles Swift, one of his lawyers, spoke carefully.
“Mr. Brown is presumed innocent of the charges against him and in support of the presumption, the defense anticipates challenging both the legal assumptions and the facts that underlie the charges against him,” he said.
Others who are not subject to the order say the aggressive set of charges suggests the government is trying to send a message beyond the specifics of the case.
“The big reason this matters is that he transferred a link, something all of us do every single day, and ended up being charged for it,” said Jennifer Lynch, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that presses for Internet freedom and privacy. “I think that this administration is trying to prosecute the release of information in any way it can.”
There are other wrinkles in the case. When the FBI tried to serve a warrant on Brown in March 2012, he was at his mother’s house. The FBI said that his mother tried to conceal his laptop and it charged her with obstruction of justice. (She pleaded guilty in March of this year and is awaiting sentencing.)
The action against his mother enraged Brown and in September 2012 he made a rambling series of posts to YouTube in which he said he was in withdrawal from heroin addiction. He proceeded to threaten an FBI agent involved in the arrest, saying, “I don’t say I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his (expletive) kids ... How do you like them apples?”
The feds did not like them apples. After he was arrested, a judge ruled he was “a danger to the safety of the community and a risk of flight.” In the video, Brown looks more like a strung-out heroin addict than a threat to anyone, but threats are threats, especially when made against the FBI.
“The YouTube video was a mistake, a big one,” said Gregg Housh, a friend of Brown’s who first introduced him to the activities of Anonymous. “But it is important to remember that the majority of the 105 years he faces are the result of linking to a file. He did not and has not hacked anything, and the link he posted has been posted by many, many other news organizations.”
At a time of high government secrecy with increasing amounts of information deemed classified, other routes to the truth have emerged, many of them digital. News organizations in receipt of leaked documents are increasingly confronting tough decisions about what to publish, and are defending their practices in court and in the court of public opinion, not to mention before an administration determined to aggressively prosecute leakers.
In public statements since his arrest, Brown has acknowledged that he made some bad choices. But punishment needs to fit the crime and in this instance, much of what has Brown staring at a century behind bars seems on the right side of the law, beginning with the First Amendment of the Constitution.