Locked Up

My Post Cyberpunk Indentured Servitude

Journalist Barrett Brown looks back in anger at the government’s trumped up charges against him as he starts a 63 month prison sentence.

01.31.15 11:45 AM ET

Not long ago I was a mild-mannered freelance journalist, activist, and satirist, contributing to outlets like the Guardian and Vanity Fair. But last Thursday I was sentenced to 63 months in federal prison in a case that Reporters Without Borders cited as a key factor in its reduction of America’s press freedom rankings from 33 to 46. As inconvenient as this is for me, the upside is that for the first time in the two and a half years since I was arrested, I am at last able to speak freely about what has been happening to me and why—and what it means for the press and the republic as a whole.

A portion of my sentence stems from an attempt I made to conceal from the government the identities of certain contacts of mine: pro-democracy activists living under Middle Eastern dictatorships such as Bahrain, with which the U.S. is known to share intelligence on such things. Another large chunk is due to an admittedly ill-conceived public threat I made—in the midst of opiate withdrawal and what court psychologists say was a manic state brought on by medication issues—to investigate and humiliate an F.B.I. agent, who had himself threatened to indict my mother in an attempt to get me to cooperate against individuals associated with the Anonymous movement (my mother was indeed charged). Though I clearly stated that my intent was not violent, the prosecution claimed that my “victim,” Dallas-based Special Agent Robert Smith, had reason to fear that I might physically harm him and even his children—in which case it is not immediately obvious why the prosecution felt the need to alter the end of the sentence in question when quoting it on the indictment. (My complete statement, (PDF) in which I make a point of noting that I was merely going to proceed along lines spelled out by the FBI-linked contractor C.E.O. Aaron Barr while he was investigating activists on behalf of his corporate clients, and that I was doing so perfunctorily, and merely in order to make a point about the F.B.I.’s traditional reluctance to investigate its allies, has been viewed on YouTube by well over 100,000 people, including the dozens of reporters who have covered the story; none of them seem to agree with the Department of Justice contention that a journalist’s threat to “look into” someone in an explicitly non-violent manner necessarily entails violence.) A separate declaration I made to the effect that I’d defend my family from any illegal armed raids by the government, while silly and bombastic, was not actually illegal under the threats statutes. To judge from similar comments made by Senator Joni Ernst, it would not even have necessarily precluded me from delivering the G.O.P.’s recent response to the State of the Union address.

But the charges that prompted the most international outrage were those alleging fraud. In late 2011, I copied and pasted a link to a publicly-available file, which chat transcripts introduced in court showed that I initially believed to contain the same leaked corporate emails I’d long been in the habit of reviewing for my Guardian articles. The file turned out to contain customer data, including credit card numbers. Although the government’s own forensics showed that I never opened the file, the D.O.J. contended (PDF) that I had thereby engaged in 11 counts of aggravated identity theft, punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 22 years in federal prison.

The feds were eventually forced to drop these precedent-setting charges, after which I agreed to plea to the spurious make-believe crimes described above, so as to avoid the perils of a Texas jury. (As the government itself warned in a 2013 public filing, (PDF) my status as an atheist would have seriously damaged my ability to get a fair trial here in Dallas—although one might wonder how a jury would know I’m an atheist unless the government made a point of bringing it up, as they did, say, in that 2013 public filing.)

I also had to plea to an Accessory After the Fact charge for having contacted the corporate espionage outfit Stratfor after some Anonymous-affiliated hackers stole several million of the firm’s emails and vowed to publish them online; I offered to arrange with the hackers to redact any of those communications that could potentially have endangered any foreign contacts if made public. For this, I will not only serve additional prison time, but have also been ordered to pay the company over $800,000—which is to say that I will spend the rest of my life in a strange state of post-cyberpunk indentured servitude to an amoral private intelligence firm that’s perhaps best known for having spied on Bhopal activists on behalf of Dow Chemical. That the prosecution did not quite manage to articulate how I did any damage to this particular company did not seem to dissuade U.S. District Judge Sam A. Lindsay in this matter. Likewise, His Honor did not express any visible interest in the fact that the F.B.I. itself has acknowledged having actually overseen the hack on Stratfor via its confidential informant, Hector “Sabu” Monsegur, who recently appeared in a national television interview with Charlie Rose to discuss his role in these matters.

Quite understandably, most media coverage of last week’s sentencing hearing has focused on the exciting twist ending. Despite having dropped the notorious “linking” charges, the government still managed to convince Judge Lindsay to hold me responsible for the act of copying and pasting a link—a link that was already public, and which led to a file which was already itself public, and to which other journalists had also linked without being prosecuted for it—by way of a sentencing mechanism known as “relevant conduct.” In doing so, Judge Lindsay stated that this would not actually cause any concern among journalists—an exquisitely bizarre claim insomuch as countless journalists have been expressing concern over this very matter since the charges were first brought in 2012, with Wired’s Quinn Norton even having testified at a prior hearing that she herself would have been subject to such prosecution not only in the Stratfor affair, but throughout much of her career reporting on online security. In the wake of last week’s sentencing, Norton announced she could no longer report on security breaches and advised her colleagues to refrain as well.

I will leave it to Judge Lindsay to explain to the concerned members of the press that they are not actually concerned; based on the commentary that’s now coming out of outlets ranging from the U.S. News & World Report to The Intercept and the Columbia Journalism Review, His Honor has a big job ahead of him. Instead, I will merely point out the other major scandal inherent to this case, one which has so far gone largely unreported—that in addition to having lost the “right to link” journalists have also now lost the “right to quote.” In trying to make the case that I was a violent threat to Agent Smith, the prosecution attributed to me the following statement: “Dead men can’t leak stuff … illegally shoot the son of a bitch.” I will admit that this is clearly an outright call for murder, and thus would certainly seem to warrant an F.B.I. investigation. The problem is that it wasn’t I who uttered this, but rather Fox News commentator Bob Beckel, who said it on national television in the course of a no-doubt productive discussion about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. I had merely quoted the statement on my Twitter feed—in disapproval, of course, as I happen to admire Assange, and he, himself, has put out a statement expressing astonishment that the U.S. government would attribute to me a call for his murder made by someone else on a major cable news network. Now, it would be one thing if this had simply been a misunderstanding on the part of the D.O.J., which, in all fairness, was clearly in a rush to flesh out its fabricated case against me. But when my attorneys pointed this out in a motion to dismiss the charge, the prosecutor, Candina Heath, actually stuck to her guns, arguing that, by quoting this, I had “promoted” the idea. Among many other things, this leaves open the question of why Bob Beckel has not been indicted. The answer is that, unlike me, Beckel did not spend much of 2011 investigating the full extent of the Team Themis conspiracy, in which F.B.I.-linked contracting firms prepared a covert and criminal scheme by which to launch cyber-attacks in a campaign of intimidation against activists and journalists deemed supportive of Wikileaks—a conspiracy that, as the press and even some members of Congress noted at the time that it was foiled and made public by Anonymous, had been put in motion by none other than the D.O.J. itself.

The dozen or so Americans who still have faith in the essential decency of the D.O.J., despite the assorted scandals of the last 15 years, might find it hard to believe that the charges against me were actually prompted by my efforts to bring attention to the agency’s own wrong-doing. It’s a fine thing, then, that the late journalist Michael Hastings saw fit to publish a copy of the original search warrants in my case, which list Themis firms HBGary Federal and Endgame Systems as subjects to be searched among my files, along with echelon2.org, the website on which my colleagues and I posted our research on the matter. Stratfor, the firm I allegedly cost almost a million dollars via a single phone call, is left unmentioned.

But what should worry Americans most is not that the various frightening aspects of this case can fill a rather wordy article. What should worry them is that this is not even that article. The great bulk of the government’s demonstrable lies, contradictions, and instances of perjury are still sealed and thus unavailable to the public. Other matters are just now coming to light, such as the revelation, two days before my sentencing, that the D.O.J. had withheld from my defense team sealed chat transcripts from the Jeremy Hammond hacking case which contradicted its key claim that I was a co-conspirator in the Stratfor hack. And there are still other aspects of all this, such as the F.B.I.’s seizure of my copy of the Declaration of Independence as evidence of my criminal activity, that I blush to even commit to print, lest I not be believed, even despite the F.B.I. itself having now confirmed it.

Suffice to say that I shall produce a far more comprehensive account of this whole affair later this year, even if I have few illusions that it will make much difference; a state that had reason to fear the press would not have acted as openly as it has, for as long as it has, and to such ends as it has. If anyone needs me in the meantime, I’ll be in prison.