American journalist and occasional Crikey contributor Barrett Brown has been jailed for a total of just over five years in a much-delayed judgment handed down in Dallas, Texas, overnight.
Brown had pleaded guilty to two felonies and a misdemenour. The felonies related to a threat made to an FBI agent in a YouTube video in 2012, and the charge of “accessory after the fact in the unauthorized access to a protected computer”, and the misdemeanour related to interference with a search warrant. A detailed description of the charges, and Brown’s behaviour that prompted them, is here; his allocution is here. His sentence is 63 months; he has already spent 28 months in a variety of state and federal jails in Texas and was recently moved out of Seagoville Federal Detention Center after threats from one of the in-house gangs. Brown has also been ordered to pay US$890,000 in “restitution”.
During the course of the trial, American government prosecutors abandoned a number of charges, including the remarkable and chilling attempt to prosecute Brown for simply sharing a link to emails hacked from the Stratfor private intelligence company.
Brown drew the attention of United States law enforcement, and a concerted campaign by well-connected private cybersecurity figures to prosecute him, because of his success with Project PM. Project PM used the remarkable revelations of emails hacked from the servers of cybersecurity firm HB Gary Federal as a springboard for an ongoing, crowdsourced investigation of the shadowy US cyber-industrial complex that linked the biggest US defence companies, surveillance advocates and the US government via a revolving door of personnel and billions in funding. At one stage, Brown’s prosecutors tried to go after contributors to Project PM, including Australian information activist and journalist Asher Wolf.
Many of the revelations of Project PM were shocking at the time but have since been dwarfed by the Edward Snowden revelations of industrial-scale mass surveillance by US, UK, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian spy agencies. But Brown’s work led the way in exposing both the connections of cybersecurity companies and their engagement in both mass surveillance and efforts to manipulate social media in the interests of the US government. His work had a heavy price; cybersecurity executives lobbied the government to pursue him in relation to the HB Gary Federal hack and when that failed, the Stratfor emails — which were stolen with the help of a hacker working for the FBI, and for a time stored on the FBI’s own servers — became the pretext for an aggressive pursuit of Brown and his sources by authorities, despite Brown having nothing to do with the hack.
Brown has put his time in prison to good use: his series of “Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail” articles features, remarkably, some of his best and funniest writing. And his response to the sentence was typical.
“Good news! The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex. For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrondgoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment. Wish me luck!”
Behind Brown’s tireless piss-taking and resilience, however, is the grim reality of a sentence that is another addition to the long list of examples of over-prosecution, harassment and harsh sentences directed at whistleblowers, activists and journalists in the US. This is what happens to those who have exposed what even now remains a little-known, but immensely powerful, industry.