Barrett Brown, a 33-year-old American journalist and founder of Project PM, was sentenced to five years in prison in late January. But why is his story worth noting? And how is this an attack on journalism? Allison Pointer, ImportantCool’s US-based journalist, attended the hearing and here’s what she had to say.
The 22nd of January 2015, marked 37 days since the supposed sentencing date for journalist Barrett Brown. But it was then that his sentence was actually handed down, a court decision that will have catastrophic effects on the future of journalists in the US.
That day was almost like any other hearing I had been to. I went through the regular routine entering the courthouse: taking off my shoes, showing identification, and scanning my items; a sketchbook and a small bag of pencils to record. They’re the little things that I use to catch what is going on in the courtroom since cameras and other recording devices are prohibited.
The courtroom was full compared to the last sentencing and as I glanced across it, I noticed Chelsea Manning’s stenographer Alexa O’Brien and LavaBit founder Ladar Levison were in attendance.
Then Brown emerged, this time in a yellow jumpsuit. His hair had grown a bit and was as skinny as ever as he prepared to learn his fate.
But who is Barrett Brown? And is he a journalist or a hacker? Is the distinction clear?
While Brown has admitted to engaging with Anonymous, his credentials as a journalist can only be understood by what others have said about him as well as the publications he has bylines in.
Having written articles for Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and The Guardian, and published such books as A Flock of Dodos and Rootin for Putin, alongside TV appearances on MSNBC, Fox News, and Russia Today (RT), he has also been featured in documentaries such as We Are Legion and Terms and Conditions May Apply. He has also been described as a “modern day Hunter S. Thompson” for his satirical sense of humor in his writings for The Onion. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange even stated, “His public lampooning of the US security state and his defense of WikiLeaks and Anonymous did not win him friends in the US administration and soon enough the FBI was looking for any excuse to take him down.”
But if that’s not enough to warrant the title of journalist, Brown later founded Project PM, a crowd-sourced investigation wiki, dedicated to facilitating the analysis of the troves of hacked emails and other leaked information concerning the inner workings of the cyber-military-industrial complex. In this, he did a report on IT security company HBGary’s involvement in data mining and surveillance in Arab countries along with the company’s emails that were hacked by Anonymous. If that doesn’t suffice for investigative journalism, I don’t know what will. But on with the hearing.
The day started with Brown’s attorneys and Prosecutor Candice Heath debating an offense concerning hyperlinking, saying that he knew the risks of putting certain information online. Brown had allegedly transferred the link in question from one IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channel to another channel he controlled. It contained data stolen from the Texas-based company Stratfor Global Intelligence as well as credit card numbers, accounts, and identification information. This information was technically obtained without the account holders’ knowledge. However, they were already on the Internet prior to Brown posting the link on an IRC channel.
However, defense lawyer Marlo Cadeddu argued, “You can’t traffic something that’s already in the public domain.”
Also discussed was Brown’s character and state of mind. Defense attorney Robert Swift asked for leniency in the sentencing as he spoke about Brown’s mental illness and past drug use, which he said were caused by harassment Brown had been subjected to at the hands of the FBI. It was this harassment that, Swift argued, motivated Brown to make a video telling FBI Agent Robert Smith to stop attacking his family.
His mother was charged and convicted of obstructing justice for hiding her son’s notebooks from federal agents. The family says this is just one small part of a campaign against them.
The Honorable Judge Lindsay, however, focused his attention on the “threats” Brown made to Smith. In the video, from 10:45 until 11:05 Brown says, “So when I say that Agent Robert Smith’s life is over, I don’t say we kill him. But I’m going to ruin his life and his fucking kids.” The judge took these statements seriously, further dismissing Brown’s anger and frustration as a reason to defend himself and his family. He deemed these to be alleged provocations and found claims of mental illness to be irrelevant.
As the day progressed, it became ever stranger. RT reporter Andrew Blake came in dressed in a t-shirt on which the word “Truth” was printed. He was told to cover it up with his blazer by a police officer at the court who told him it was offensive. Free Barrett Brown founder Kevin Gallagher was also ejected from the courtroom for “making facial expressions” during the sentencing.
Judge Lindsay overruled the objections raised by the defense and sentenced Barrett Brown to 63 months (over 5 years) in prison, on charges including three counts in relation to threats against Agent Smith: Retaliation Against a Federal Law Enforcement Officer [18 U.S.C 115 (a)(1)(B) and (b)(4)] interfering with an officer’s duties, and retaliating against Agent RS on account of his performance of official duties. In addition Brown was sentenced on three counts of aiding and abetting and obstruction in relation to the concealment of evidence for hiding two laptops in his mother’s residence.
While handing down the 63 month sentence, the judge additionally ordered that Brown’s computer use be monitored, that he be prevented from having any access to any credit card information of any kind, and that he pay Stratfor and Combined Security $890,000 in restitution as well as any revenue generated by Brown’s articles about the case.
Brown then asked the judge, “That copy of the Declaration of Independence that they took from me as evidence? Do I get that back?”
Judge Lindsay’s responded that the government was still holding it. It had been obtained as evidence against Brown.
While many hail Brown as a hero, others have labeled him a “criminal” who participated in hacking and disseminating credit card information with Anonymous. In doing so, they side with the oppressor.
In his statement, Brown said, “The public has the right to know what they’re paying for.” After all, we’re supposed to be paying taxes for the sake of things that we, as citizens, need. However, taxpayers dollars in the US are being used for wars, dragnet surveillance in and outside of the country, as well as the propagation of corporate interests and the propping up of governments which have no inclination to the values we are supposed to embody, whether democracy, press freedom, etc. And yet, Brown’s case shows us the divide even on our turf.
Brown’s sentencing is a warning for all of us journalists, designed to prevent us from doing our jobs: reporting the bad behavior that governments are getting up to in our name. The spying, the data mining of millions of individuals without their consent, and so on.
But for every darkness, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. O’Brien yelled to the judge after the case was adjourned, “Congratulations, Justice Department, you just put one of the brightest minds in prison.” Others yelled, “Journalism is not a crime.”
After the hearing, I went downstairs to see Brown’s mom, who told me that Barrett feels okay in prison, that he’s a strong man and he can deal with it. Her face was full of optimism.
I felt the same way, although saddened that more journalists are perceived as criminals, rather than the other way around.
There is a reason why the US ranks 46th on the Press Freedom Index and the case of Barrett Brown illustrates it.