DALLAS – In a manner befitting a man fluent in the murky language of security intelligence firms, hacktivists and government surveillance, Barrett Brown addressed a federal court in Dallas on Thursday with a statement that, had it been delivered by a more traditional defendant at a more traditional sentencing hearing, might have been a standard plea for leniency. But coming from Brown, it wasn’t exactly a plea. It was a declaration.
Dressed in a bright yellow prison-issued uniform, 33-year-old Brown began by describing his legal ordeal as “an unusual case touching upon unusual issues.” With characteristic irreverence, he then told U.S. District Judge Sam A. Lindsay, “your honor has a need to know what he is ruling on.” His statement would explain.
But first, Brown expressed regret. He regretted having recorded and posted videos in which he threatened an FBI agent who was investigating Brown, calling the videos “idiotic” and the product of a “manic state” brought on by a withdrawal from drugs used to control his heroin addiction. He admitted that he “stupidly” tried to hide laptop computers from FBI agents when they arrived at his mother’s home with a search warrant. He said he had crossed the line from journalist to collaborator when he contacted security firm, Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) with an offer to redact sensitive material from a major 2011 hack, diverting attention from hacker Jeremy Hammond. “I have never denied I was involved with Anonymous,” Brown said. “But that means different things at different times.”
But as he went on, Brown’s expressions of remorse were lined with sharp rebukes of the federal government and the private security firms targeted by the hacks. “If I criticize the government for breaking the law but then break the law myself in an effort to reveal their wrongdoing,” he said, “I should expect to be punished just as I’ve called for the criminals at government-linked firms, like HBGary and Palantir, to be punished.” Drawing a parallel between his criminal actions and law enforcement strategies, he went on, calmly and plainly, “When we start fighting crime by any means necessary we become guilty of the same hypocrisy as law enforcement agencies throughout history that break the rules to get the villains, and so become villains themselves.”
Brown was first arrested in September 2012 for activities related to major hacks against HBGary Federal – which revealed a coordinated campaign to target and smear advocates for WikiLeaks and critics of the Chamber of Commerce – and Stratfor, which provided a rare window into the world of defense contractors. Thursday’s sentencing hearing followed a plea deal reached in April 2014, in which Brown agreed to plead guilty to charges related to the threats, obstruction and accessory after the fact in the Stratfor hack. Following a flurry of last-minute motions and attorneys’ arguments, Judge Lindsay sentenced Brown to more than five years (63 months) in federal prison. Between time served and other considerations, he could be released within one to two years.
In addition to the prison sentence, Judge Lindsay ordered Brown to pay $890,250 in restitution to Stratfor and other affected companies. And in a punishment reflecting cyber crimes in the Internet age, after his release, Brown’s computer activity will be monitored under the watchful eye of the government, through software and hardware installed on his computer.
“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,” Brown said mischievously in a written statement following his sentencing. “For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system.”
“Wish me luck!” he added.
Although the stiffest penalty imposed on Brown, 48 months, was related to the threats against the FBI agent, it was Brown’s involvement in the Stratfor hack that attracted widespread attention among journalists and civil liberties groups. (These included The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald, who along with a number of his First Look Media colleagues, is a vocal supporter of Brown and has written critically about the prosecution.) Government attorneys initially charged Brown with multiple counts of fraud for providing a link to a cache of documents, which included stolen credit card numbers, that were released as part of the Stratfor hack. Defense attorneys and supporters argued that the charges, which would have amounted to a 100 year sentence, potentially criminalized a basic function of the Internet: hyperlinking. Although the charges were later dropped as part of the plea agreement, they remained a factor in the case and the sentencing.
Brown had posted the link soon after the hack, from an Anonymous Internet Relay chat to his online collective, Project PM. Through Project PM, Brown analyzed and reported on the thousands of pages of leaked documents obtained through hacks of Stratfor, HB Gary Federal among others. Federal prosecutor Candina Heath, using Brown’s online statements, cast Project PM as a criminal enterprise. In one chat, Brown described the collective as “created for the purpose of wiping out the fucking government and certain media institution.”
Indeed, defining Project PM and Brown himself became the focus of extensive arguments during Brown’s original sentencing hearing in December. Before the judge intervened and postponed the proceedings, prosecutors worked vigorously to cast Brown’s actions as that of a criminal masquerading as a journalist, while defense attorneys portrayed him as a zealous advocate for transparency and the right to information. Particularly damning was prosecutor Heath’s presentation of statements found on Brown’s computer, in which he described himself as a “former journalist” and “pseudo journalist.”
In delivering his ruling, Judge Lindsay concluded that Brown had “more than merely reported the hackers’ activities,” adding that he had collaborated and assisted with the hacker’s activities. Brown received a one-year sentence for the accessory charge related to the Stratfor hack.
Judge Lindsay also ruled in favor of the government’s argument for a sentencing enhancement stemming from Brown’s aforementioned posting of the link. Prosecutor Heath argued that linking to stolen material amounted to the trafficking of stolen goods. (Numerous charges, mainly to charities, were made using the stolen credit cards.) Defense attorneys had passionately argued, to no avail, that Brown had simply made available the direction to information that was already publicly available.
Outside the courtroom, a defense attorney for Brown expressed alarm at the ruling, although he acknowledged that it did not stand to greatly impact Brown’s sentence. “We are more upset about the potential precedent that it sets on a government that seeks to further and further expand criminality in an effort to control political activity,” said Charles Swift, a former naval officer who has represented Guantanamo detainees.
Defense attorney Ahmed Ghappour said Brown’s sentence far exceeded a just punishment. But, he added, “I have no doubt he will make it through this an even stronger man, keeping us informed – and smirking – in the meantime.
In a telephone call from jail after the hearing, Brown continued to elude simple definitions, calling himself a journalist, a satirist, a charlatan, among other things. However, his personal actions and conviction, he told The Intercept, represent part of an ongoing movement of activists and journalists.
“We need to restore a very rigorous tradition of civil disobedience until reasonable well-informed people are confident that the powerful are not above the law,” Brown said. To that end, and upon his release, he said, he expects to return to “the necessary effort of investigating misconduct” by the government and the corporations with which it does business.
Photo: Nikki Loehr