Egyptian authorities barreled through the hotel room door of three Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo last December, arresting the trio for spreading what they deemed were lies.
Detained and held without formal charges for more than a month, the United States government publicly condemned their arrest, urging the captors to release the journalists and allow them to report on the country’s upheaval without fear of reprisal.
“These figures, regardless of affiliation, should be protected and permitted to do their jobs freely in Egypt,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing in February.
Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed were later charged with spreading false news and assisting the Muslim Brotherhood, the political organization that rose to power following the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who has largely been silenced following a military power grab and is now branded a terrorist organization—meaning a journalist’s interaction with members of the group could be considered a pseudo-terrorist act.
Greste, an Australian reporter for Al Jazeera, Fahmy, the network’s Cairo bureau chief, and Mohammed, a producer for Al Jazeera English, remain behind bars.
Sadly, they’re not alone.
As of April 1, 161 journalists were imprisoned across the globe by dictatorships, repressive regimes, and even one bastion of democratic principles, according to Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit group that monitors press freedoms.
China holds the dubious distinction of having the most journalists currently jailed with 30, followed by Eritrea (28), Iran (20), Syria (19), Turkey (11), Uzbekistan (9), and 24 other countries in the single digits, including the United States—yet many are unaware.
Sitting in a Dallas jail awaiting his court hearing after reportedly reaching a plea deal April 3 that could potentially drop his potential sentence to a maximum of five years, down from more than a century, is Barrett Brown, a North Dallas-born journalist, prolific writer and satirist. His adversarial form of reporting and dogged pursuit of the truth, especially involving the shadowy private security and surveillance firms that act as proxies for the U.S. government, gained him notoriety among like-minded activists, journalists and concerned citizens increasingly anxious about the ever-growing surveillance state. Brown, to his liking or not, became the public face of the hacking collective Anonymous—though he has denied ever being its official spokesperson.
Brown, a University of Texas dropout from a military family, has been incredibly outspoken about Anonymous’ attacks, given the veil of secrecy surrounding the hacking confederate. He has touted Anonymous’ intrusion of state websites, including Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, and the hacking collective’s defense of WikiLeaks after several financial institutions suspended business with the nonprofit document dumpsite following a series of high-profile leaks. At one point, Brown even called on hackers and non-hackers alike to join the movement to help break down walls built by tyrannical regimes and shady corporations.
In a post titled “Yes, you should join Anonymous,” Brown sought to debunk several misconceptions about the Internet activists, including whether only hackers make up Anonymous (the answer, he said, was no), and if its operations were limited to only hacking.
“Very few Anonymous participants are actually hackers themselves, and very little of our work actually involves hacking,” he explained. “Increasingly, Anonymous is in the business of fighting tyranny and advocating liberty by other means, almost all of which involve information.”
Brown, in defense of Anonymous, admitted that the collective does, in fact, break the law. But he prefaced that by sarcastically asking: “Have you ever lied to the American people about the reasons for the war to which you plan on sending that same young fellow, and spent so much time publicly attacking those who question your competence that you just plain forgot to write up a viable plan by which to conduct the war itself, thereby causing the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people?”
His conclusion: “Three of those things will get you arrested, and the fourth will get you re-elected.”
Less than a year later, the FBI came knocking at his—and his mother’s—door.
While Greste, Fahmy, and Mohammed’s arrest have deservedly led to a global outcry for their freedoms, even sparking the Twitter hashtag, #FreeAJStaff, the plight of an American journalist, indicted by his own government, has barely been told, aside from some coverage in several alternative news organizations, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
Instead, several high-profile journalists, including famed former Times foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, the beneficiary of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency (NSA) leaks documenting mass surveillance, and celebrated linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky, among others, have publicly stated their support for Brown.
A number of press organizations and civil rights groups concerned that Brown’s prosecution could chill free speech have also condemned the case—admonishing federal authorities in Dallas for charging the journalist for essentially sharing a link of already publicly available information, albeit hacked material (which the government hasn’t claimed he took part in obtaining) that contained more than 5,000 stolen credit card account numbers and other identifying information and authentication features, according to court documents.
The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas alleged that Brown transferred (copy and pasted) the hyperlink from an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to another chat service he operated through his website Project PM, a wiki blogger site he created to crowd-source documents—which allows people from across the globe to access documents and assist with his reporting. Much of what he and others analyzed was obtained illegally by Anonymous and posted on WikiLeaks, which quickly became the scourge of many governments, including the United States, since it started publishing top-secret documents in the latter part of the last decade. It is widely known that a grand jury was empaneled several years ago with regards to WikiLeaks, and which, according to the judge in pre-court martial hearings of Chelsea Manning, has the same journalistic standing as The New York Times.
Up until early March, Brown was facing more than 100 years in prison for trafficking stolen authentication features, access device fraud and identity theft—all related to his sharing of a link, plus other charges not associated with his computer activity. One day after Brown’s attorneys filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the controversial charges, prosecutors inexplicably dropped counts one and three through 12—reportedly lowering his potential prison time to approximately 65 years behind bars.
“The criminalization of Mr. Brown’s speech (by republishing the hyperlink) is an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment because it regulates pure political speech based on its content,” his lawyers wrote in the motion.
Brown, whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Huffington Post and Vanity Fair, among other media outlets, until April 3, remained accused of concealing two laptops and threatening an FBI agent and his family in a series of now infamous, and seemingly indefensible, YouTube rants; he faced 70 years in prison until his recently reported plea deal was reached.
That Brown was facing decades in a federal prison before his maximum sentence dropped considerably is the perfect example of the extent to which the government will go to protect information from getting out, says Kevin Gallagher, the founder and director of the movement, Free Barrett Brown:
“Barrett Brown’s situation constitutes a case-in-point for the threat of what could happen to a journalist who exposes information that the government doesn’t like,” Gallagher said. “Anyone who wants to see what the FBI can do to repress and silence critical journalists, need only study what happened to him.”
(The Press was unable to interview Brown’s attorneys—or even make contact with them—due to a court-imposed gag order initiated by the prosecution. Instead, we relied on interviews with several supporters, friends, press freedom groups and an analysis of court documents to shed light on Brown’s case.)
Outraged at the government, both for seizing his laptops, which contained information about his journalism and a future book, while not charging him until six months after the raid at his mother’s house had occurred, and for threats of obstruction of justice directed at his mom—which she eventually pleaded guilty to and was sentenced to probation for—Brown lashed out, albeit very publicly on the world’s most popular video sharing site, YouTube.
Caleb Pritchard, a childhood friend of his since the third grade, described Brown’s outburst as a “slow burn” over several months.
“It finally got to the point where Barrett just snapped,” Pritchard tells the Press, “but I think at first he was just trying to figure out what the fuck was going on.”
Sometimes displaying a menacing grin, taking sporadic drags of a cigarette and interrupting his own profanity-laced cringe-inducing rant by releasing several belches, Brown called FBI Special Agent Robert Smith a “chicken shit little faggot cock sucker,” and allegedly threatened to “look into his fucking kids.” Federal agents swooped in with an arrest warrant and took him into custody several hours after the tirades hit the Web.
Those videos, seen by hundreds of thousands, can still be viewed on YouTube and are cited several times in the government’s first indictment, filed in October 2012.
The FBI’s seizing of Brown’s laptops without charging him until his arrest on Sept. 12, 2012 is deeply concerning, say his supporters, who argue that by doing so the government was free to scrutinize his journalistic material—including sources, documents and research. Additionally, they continue, his facing more than 100 years in prison—before some of the charges were dropped—stinks of another troubling example of prosecutors overcharging defendants. That the hacker, 28-year-old Chicago-native Jeremy Hammond—who was actually charged with the computer attack related to Brown’s early link-sharing accusation—was sentenced to 10 years in prison, is proof enough, they say, of something far more sinister afoot.
The government’s critics also point to a list of items the federal authorities sought to seize during the raid, which consisted of “evidence, contraband, fruits, and instrumentalities of criminal violations,” according to the search warrant obtained by the late BuzzFeed/Rolling Stone muckraker Michael Hastings. FBI agents were seeking recordings from government contractors, including HB Gary, Infragard, and Endgame Systems, as well as information related to Anonymous, the hacking group Lulzec, pastebin.com, among other Internet entities. They were also looking for any computers or hard drives containing the aforementioned material.
Thus, federal authorities’ pursuit of Brown is exemplary of the extent to which the U.S. government is willing to go to chill free speech and journalism, his supporters say.
When lumped in with the revelations of mass surveillance and the unprecedented number of Espionage Act charges against whistleblowers by the Obama Administration; the seizing of Associated Press phone records as part of a leak probe into an AP story regarding a CIA investigation in Yemen that disrupted a bomb plot; labeling Fox News reporter James Rosen a co-conspirator in a case in which a U.S. State Department adviser, Stephen Kim, was later indicted for allegedly revealing information about a North Korean nuclear test; going to great lengths to subpoena Times reporter James Risen to testify about his sources in a book he wrote; the conviction of whistleblower Chelsea Manning; and possibly the most chilling of them all, Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which gives the government the authority to indefinitely detain people allegedly associated with terrorism; Brown’s case is exemplary of the disturbing—and evolving—portrait of a government obsessed with controlling the flow of information and endeavoring to decide for itself what the American public is granted permission to see, while at the same time cracking down on what appears to be the biggest threat to this cause: journalists, whistleblowers and dissenters.
Alexa O’Brien, the journalist who published crucial transcripts of the Manning court martial proceedings and created a searchable database that included documents of United States v. Pfc. (then) Bradley Manning, has a gloomy view of what she and many others consider the deterioration of freedom of information, or right to know, and the escalation of government intrusion.
“If the simplest aims of life are dissent, if the simplest act of Barrett Brown publishing information about what private security contractors are doing with taxpayer money, then if not wanting to murder unlawfully is dissent [referring to extra-legal drone assassinations], if being incapable of believing lies after you learned the fact—something that Barrett and any journalist or any member of the public can understand—then the system is a problem,” O’Brien tells the Press via Skype from Germany.
“The policies and the laws are a problem because it’s built for the ignorant and the uninformed, and it’s unsustainable,” she continues. “It stifles the very creativity that is so natural to human beings. We have to think about this with a broader view that has been presented to us: When the ideas in our head and the genes in our body become the property of private corporations…we need to expand our view of the commons and we need to look toward strengthening our fundamental rights, because right now we’re building a system that is counter to the very aims of life.”
Brown was increasingly becoming a threat to that system. Then he was arrested.
In December 2010, several of the world’s largest financial companies—Bank of America, Visa and MasterCard—as well as Internet payment provider PayPal, cut off all payments to WikiLeaks just as the U.S. government was ratcheting up its rhetoric against the whistleblower site founded by Julian Assange in 2006.
A series of leaks—the Collateral Murder video unveiled during an April 5, 2010 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., showing cockpit footage from two U.S. Apache helicopter attacks that killed two Reuters journalists and other men mistaken for insurgents; more than 75,000 secret U.S. military reports concerning the Afghan War released in the summer of 2010; and the largest-ever leak at the time, known as the Iraq Logs, in October 2010—sparked a massive outcry from U.S. government officials, who condemned the unsanctioned disclosures for damaging the country’s interests and putting “innocent lives at risk,” according to a statement released by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Cali.) office at the time.
“Mr. Assange claims to be a journalist and would no doubt rely on the First Amendment to defend his actions,” the statement read. “But he is no journalist: He is an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.”
Hers and other statements were enough for the financial institutions to cut off funding to WikiLeaks.
In response, Anonymous launched “Operation Payback/Avenge Assange,” which amounted to a series of coordinated Web-strikes targeting institutions that ditched WikiLeaks amid growing government outrage. They were out for revenge.
It was the first of a number of hacks catapulting Anonymous into the public consciousness, and the savvy computer hackers were just getting started.
Brown, in an interview with NBC News, described those and future attacks as “guerilla cyberwar,” adding, “It’s sort of an unconventional, asymmetrical act of warfare that we’re involved in. And we didn’t necessarily start it. I mean, this fire has been burning.”
Perhaps, Anonymous’ most notable hack, and one that led a group of Democratic representatives calling on their Republican counterparts to immediately conduct hearings into three federal defense and intelligence agency data security contractors, and one law firm, for “possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech,” was its targeting of private contractor HBGary.
Anonymous set its virtual scopes on the company after Aaron Barr, the then-CEO of its subsidiary, HBGary Federal, boasted to the Financial Times in February 2011 that he was close to exposing the leaders behind the confederation of computer hackers.
What followed was a precise, tactical assault on HBGary that resulted in the release of 70,000 emails and eventually led to Barr’s resignation.
Brown and others analyzed the emails and learned that HBGary was one-third of a consortium that also included Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies, collectively called Team Themis. The trio was recruited, according to the emails, by the law firm Hunton & Williams, which was working with two clients—Bank of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—to discredit WikiLeaks and its supporters, such as journalist Glenn Greenwald.
“I think we need to highlight people like Glenn Greenwald,” Barr wrote in an email leaked by Anonymous and posted on WikiLeaks. “Glenn was critical in the Amazon to OVH transition and helped Wikileaks provide access to information during the transition. It is this level of support we need to attack. These are established professionals [sic] that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals. Without the support of people like Glenn Wikileaks would fold.”
Barr, in another email, explains that one particular strategy would be to go after WikiLeaks’ financials, which Team Themis deemed one of the website’s major weaknesses.
“Obvious when attacking any adversary you attack their week [sic] points,” he wrote. “In this case their strength is their global following and volunteer staff. This allows them to have a very loose organization, probably little if any direction or coordination is actually passed it is just inferred as part of the cause. Julien pronounces and the minions follow. Larger infrastructure is fairly pointless to attack because they have so many other points so many other organizations that are willing to distribute the information and help them get new hosting services. Weak points. Financial. They are under increasing financial pressure because authorities are blocking their funding sources. Need to help enumerate these. Also need to get people to understand that if they support the organization we will come after them.”
The HBGary email correspondence also suggested discrediting U.S. Chamber of Commerce critics like U.S. Chamber Watch, Change to Win, the Center for American Progress and others, by supplying fake documents, hoping they’d take the bait and eventually call out the error. The ill-fated proposal also included creating a phony “insider persona and generate communications with CtW (Change to Win).”
These proposals, generated by government contractors, raised a few eyebrows in Washington, D.C., and among more than a dozen Democratic congressmen, who in a joint letter to government agencies speculated if any of the tactics were in violation of the law.
“The published correspondence appears to reveal a conspiracy to use subversive techniques to target Chamber critics,” the group of elected officials wrote. “The techniques may have been developed at U.S. government expense to target terrorists and other security threats.”
As is the norm in the nation’s capital, nothing came out of their request for hearings.
But Anonymous—and Brown’s work—wasn’t complete.
In June 2011, Brown wrote on his Project PM site that in the haul of HBGary emails he uncovered a “sophisticated campaign of mass surveillance and data mining against the Arab world, allowing the intelligence community to monitor the habits, conversations, and activity of millions of individuals at once,” known in U.S. intelligence quarters as Romas/COIN.
What Brown exposed on his Project PM site was massive surveillance, not by any U.S. government agency, which has generated quite the attention across the globe since the infamous (and still flowing) leaked NSA documents provided to Greenwald by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in May 2013, but instead developed and orchestrated by contractors that essentially work in the shadows, do not have to answer to the American public and are not subject to government oversight.
“The new revelation provides for a disturbing picture, particularly when viewed in a wider context,” Brown wrote. “Unprecedented surveillance capabilities are being produced by an industry that works in secret on applications that are nonetheless funded by the American public—and which in some cases are used against that very same public.”
It was around this time that Brown’s star began to shine the brightest.
He had gone from writing satirical pieces, such as “Christ Announces His Bid for President,” resigning from his post as “savior to over 1 billion Christians,” and political pieces, like “The Trouble with Charles Krauthammer,” which slammed the conservative pundit for flip-flopping on the importance of Obama’s identity prior to his first presidential bid, to swimming in troves of leaked documents that many in the media, especially the mainstream, weren’t reporting on.
That these leaks and sometimes the stories he published were not getting the attention Brown thought they deserved frustrated him, says Gallagher ofFree Barrett Brown, who became “intrigued” with Brown’s work around 2010 and eventually met him at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York City in the summer of 2012.
“I just felt that like his work was really important,” Gallagher tells the Press. The Project PM stuff was getting at corruption in the private intelligence contracting industry and that [is an] issue that no one is really focusing on. I mean all the Snowden leaks are about governmental state surveillance, people don’t discuss how it gets outsourced to private companies.”
“My sense was that Project PM was kind of where the actual important work was happening,” he adds, “and the majority of people in Anonymous were just trolling or having fun; but Project PM—he was actually trying to get shit done. He was trying to do stuff. He was trying to change the media.”
It’s unclear when exactly the government began looking into Brown’s affairs, but he and Anonymous in November 2011 attracted the attention of a potentially far more dangerous adversary: the violent Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas.
Anonymous successfully obtained the names of Los Zetas collaborators, according to Brown, who appeared to be in the beginning stages of working with others to assess the thousands of emails they obtained.
The perils of investigating the cartel, like many others in Mexico, became all-too real when a kidnapped Anonymous member was released with a foreboding note warning of potential murders of “ten civilians for every name published,” Brown posted on Paste Bin on Nov. 4, 2011. Apparently the threat had its intended effect. Brown noted that the names wouldn’t be published, but in an earlier post he dismissed those who suggested he refrain from naming potential criminals. “No individual living in the free world should refrain from working to fight injustice simply because there is a possibility of retaliation,” he wrote—vowing to go after other cartels.
Brown’s insistence to continue his work, despite the apparent legal or other life-altering ramifications, was nothing new. One friend, Nikki Loehr, who briefly dated Brown and who is on the shortlist of people he can correspond with through email from jail, says he never really understood the consequences of his actions, despite the possibility of far-reaching ramifications to himself and others around him.
His crusade, which really started in earnest in early 2010, reached its climax on Dec. 25, 2011, when Brown allegedly transmitted a link already published online from the just-released documents from Texas-based global intelligence firm Stratfor, which the government said also contained more than 5,000 credit card account numbers.
Instrumental in the hack was Jeremy Hammond, who went by several nicknames online: Anarchaos, sup_g, burn, yohoho, POW, tylerknowsthis and crediblethreat.
According to court documents, Hammond—who was rounded up in March 2012 along with five other alleged hackers aligned with Anonymous—along with his alleged co-conspirators, “mounted a cyber assault” on the intelligence firm’s website from December 2011 until the their arrest.
The digital heist, prosecutors said, netted approximately 60,000 credit card numbers belonging to Stratfor clients, including their names and addresses, plus security codes and expiration dates. Additionally, about 860,000 records—including usernames, encrypted passwords, email addresses—belonging to the firm’s clients were grabbed, court documents say. (The hackers, according to a statement posted by Stratfor CEO George Friedman several weeks later, also managed to deface the company’s website and “published a triumphant note” declaring that credit card info had been stolen.)
What prosecutors didn’t mention, however, was that the emails also reportedly shed light on Stratfor’s inner workings, including revelations that it provided confidential intelligence to corporations and government agencies. Ironically, the emails, according to a WikiLeaks press release, also revealed the existence of a sealed indictment against Assange: “Not for Pub—We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect,” stated a purported email from Fred Burton, Stratfor’s vice president for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security.
Interestingly, the government knew that hack was going on as it was happening.
According to court filings in Brown’s case, the government knew about “and, through their confidential informant were orchestrating” the hack, as early as Dec. 6, even though the entire episode lasted until Dec. 24.
Back in Dallas, Brown, also aware of the hack, was working at his computer when he allegedly transferred a hyperlink from one Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to another one affiliated with his crowdsourcing site.
Who knew on Christmas Day 2011 that three months later FBI agents would be executing a search warrant on his apartment and mother’s house partly due to him simply copying and pasting of a link.
No sleep till Brooklyn
It was in the third grade at Preston Hollow Elementary School in Dallas when Caleb Pritchard first got a glimpse of Barrett Brown’s humor.
Pritchard’s teacher had instructed the class to take out a biography from the library and write a report on the subject. So he walked through the aisles of the library and, for whatever reason, pulled out a book about Adolf Hitler. In short time, he had completed a written report and created an illustration of the Nazi leader. And then the project ended up being displayed along the walls of the school hallway.
“Apparently it was so bad and grotesque,” Pritchard says of his drawing, “[Brown] said: ‘Adolph Hitler? More like Rudolph Hitler.’”
“And we were fast friends from then on.”
By the time the two North Dallas kids met, Brown’s parents had already been divorced. Brown was living with his mother and grandmother at the time, and the family moved three times but stayed in the area.
The two classmates, who ironically attended the same elementary school as George W. Bush’s twin daughters, usually came to the same conclusions about life and society and also shared an affinity for satire. Brown was also big into video games and books—the latter of which mostly occupies his time in jail.
An admirer of MAD magazine, Brown and Pritchard would often rollerblade to the local Borders bookstore and pick up the latest issue of The Harvard Lampoon and “laugh our asses off,” Pritchard recalls.
By the time they reached Middle School, Brown had begun immersing himself in books about communism.
“[Brown] touted himself as a communist anarchist,” Pritchard says.
Then it was onto Ayn Rand, and eventually, libertarianism. His view of the world kept evolving.
“To me it just seems like a natural progression,” Pritchard says. “There’s a common core of anti-authoritarianism involved. One thing Barrett doesn’t like is authority.”
The pair ended up enrolling at University of Texas but Brown spent only a couple of semesters at the journalism school there before dropping out; he was then free to roam.
“Perhaps [he] doesn’t fit into the usual model of the typical student who’s ready just to sit there in a middle-class university and give some guy thousands of dollars in tuition to rubber stamp you and get the diploma and get out,” his buddy says.
“In a more sane world he would’ve been a lawyer if he could’ve sat through law school and gone through all the bureaucratic loopholes to get that degree,” he adds, “because the guy, he can analyze anything from any point of view and just zero-in on things that no one else would ever figure out. And completely out-argue anybody about anything. It’s fucking frustrating sometimes.”
Despite being raised in a military family, Brown apparently never felt the pull to serve, but he had all the trappings of a fearless soldier committed to a higher cause. His thin frame belied his mettle and zeal, say friends.
After briefly dipping his toe into the realm of higher education, Brown pursued his true passion—writing—and ended up taking whatever freelance work he could: blurbs for bars and restaurants for the local alternative weekly and even some satire columns.
It wasn’t until he left Dallas for a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn—where he started reading William Gibson and his cyberpunk musings—did Brown begin seeing the Internet in a whole new light, developing a deeper understanding of its full potential.
But that wasn’t all he was into.
By the time Pritchard had arrived in New York he discovered that his longtime friend had become hooked on heroin. Brown had “always been carefree about his indulgences,” Pritchard says, but he was mostly smoking pot, drinking alcohol and even experimenting with pills, so his new hobby didn’t come as a total shock.
“I’ve seen him do far things worse to his body before, so I’m not really going to worry about it,” Pritchard says, recalling his mindset at the time. “If anybody can be a junkie and be wacky about it, it’s this guy right here…If you know the guy, it’s not anything to be terribly concerned about unless you’re his mother or something.”
Pritchard trusted his friend, who had an addictive personality and was rarely seen without a cigarette.
Brown did, however, try several times to quit heroin cold turkey, says Pritchard—once, before joining his father across the globe for an African Safari—and would roll around in his bed as he battled withdrawal.
“It was a very masochistic display to look at this person and not jab a needle in his vein to make him not hurt as bad as he was because the addiction got to him,” his friend says.
Brown and Pritchard also lived with another roommate, but since neither of them earned a considerable income, they decided to rent out the apartment to some drug dealers who had just been kicked out of their safe house down the block. The pot dealers seemingly fit right in; smoking weed and playing X-Box until they bid ado at around 10 p.m. every night and returned to their wives.
“Typical New York experience, I figured,” says Pritchard with a hint of sarcasm.
With money running dry and their job prospects quickly disappearing thanks to the Great Recession, Brown and Pritchard decided to pack up in pursuit of a more stable life in their home state.
During the time Brown spent in Brooklyn and over the course of the next few years, he was dabbling in all sorts of projects. He published his first book, “Flock of Dodos,” in April 2007 and contributed to a number of outlets—including Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair—and even served as the communications director for Enlighten the Vote, a political action committee that worked to get Atheists elected to public office.
But it was in early 2010, when Anonymous infiltrated several Australian government websites in protest of Internet censorship, when Brown’s interests in the cyber-industrial complex took form.
In March 2010, Brown announced the creation of Project PM and he was well on his way to exposing through “civil disobedience” the shadowy—and burgeoning—relationship between private security contractors and the U.S. government.
Little did he know just how hard Uncle Sam would fight to keep those contractors’ secrets safe. He soon found out.
War on Dissent
Following his arrest, Brown received considerable backing from some of the most prominent press groups and journalists around the world. Many, astonished that the action of sharing a link could be criminalized, decried the charges against Brown and shouted that his prosecution was the latest salvo in the government’s war on information and whistleblowers.
“It’s good that they dropped it [most of the charges against Brown] but the precedent…without a court ruling on it they could go after someone else for doing something similar in the future,” says Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Whether they will or not I’m not sure, I’m hopeful that they won’t.”
He continues: “The thought that if you report on something and post a link that involve documents you’re not really supposed to have, which is a big part of journalism, especially investigative journalism; if you think that you can potentially get charged, just the threat of getting charged is enough to chill that journalistic practice. It sends a real scary message to those people who do this for a living.”
Under President Obama, who in his first days in office promised an open and transparent government, more people (eight in total) have been charged under the Espionage Act of 1917—a World War I-era law initially created to prosecute spies—than all other administrations combined.
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Obama wrote in a memorandum signed Jan. 21, 2009. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
Thirteen months later, NSA Senior Executive Thomas Drake was charged under the Espionage Act for unlawful retention of classified information after exposing the spy agency’s Trailblazer project, a domestic surveillance program, to a Baltimore Sun journalist. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor was sentenced to 240 hours of community service.
One month after that, FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz became the subject of the Obama Department of Justice’s second Espionage Act case for sharing classified information about FBI wiretaps to a blogger; he was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
More charges emerged against former military and government employees who sought to expose the truth. Before that year’s end, three more people were charged under the act, including Manning, who leaked 250,000 documents to WikiLeaks in addition to the Collateral Murder video. None of the people involved in killing the two innocent Reuters journalist were ever prosecuted. Yet Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison—though she wasn’t convicted on the Espionage Act charges.
Two other cases that emerged in 2010 provide further insight into this so-called “Information War.”
One year earlier, U.S. State Department adviser Stephen Kim allegedly met with Fox News reporter James Rosen and allegedly shared top-secret information with him regarding North Korea’s nuclear test plans in response to sanctions, which Rosen reported on the network’s website. The FBI reportedly obtained the reporter’s emails and went as far as to label him a potential co-conspirator, drawing tremendous outcry from press groups.
“U.S. government efforts to prosecute leakers by obtaining information from journalists has a chilling effect domestically and sends a terrible message to journalists around the world who are fighting to resist government intrusion,” nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Executive Director Joel Simon said last May when Rosen’s link to Kim was first reported.
A case of equally great concern among press groups involves former CIA analyst Jeffrey Sterling, who was indicted in December 2010 and is accused by the government of being the source of allegedly classified information the Times’ James Risen discloses in his book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” revealing “a failed attempt by the CIA to have a former Russian scientist provide flawed nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran,” according to court documents from Risen’s federal appeal’s court hearing.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District declined to hear his appeal. Risen is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Roger L. Gregory of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District wrote the dissenting opining and criticized his colleagues for reading “narrowly the law governing the protection of a reporter from revealing his sources, a decision that is, in my view, contrary to the will and wisdom of our Founders.”
“Democracy without information about the activities of the government is hardly a democracy,” Gregory added.
Appearing at a panel at the Times Center last month, Risen reportedly told the audience the Obama Administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”
These examples, and the ongoing Espionage Act charges brought against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, are emblematic of the current war on whistleblowers, press freedom groups and advocates say.
“Snowden may make people look twice at who is being prosecuted for espionage and try to look at what these cases are really about,” Jesselyn Radack, one of the lawyers representing Snowden, and the Washington-based Government Accountability Project’s National Security & Human Rights director, tells the Press.
“The only way people get informed is by newspapers,” she adds, “and in particular, by sources for newspapers, and when those dry up or get burned, then really democracy is threatened even further.”
When The Washington Post reported last month that a 6,300-page classified Senate Intelligence Report concluded that the CIA misled the government about its interrogation program, citing anonymous “current and former U.S. officials,” Radack blasted the government for essentially picking and choosing what it considers a leak.
The story “is a classic illustration of the government’s blatant double-standard on leaks. Since drowning detainees in ice water is an ‘authorized leak’ [referring to the alleged CIA torture technique never disclosed to the government] by ‘US officials,’ no one will be prosecuted for espionage,” she wrote in a statement to the Press. “In contrast, my client John Kiriakou is in jail for revealing that the CIA was engaged in waterboarding.”
Nonprofit Reporters without Borders, which since 2002 has released annual reports dubbed the “Press Freedom Index,” provides the clearest indication as to how 180 countries treat journalists. It recently dropped the United States in its rankings, from 32 to 46, due to the war on whistleblowers and Brown’s prosecution.
“In 2013, it’s clear now that the whistleblowers are the enemies of the U.S. And it’s really interesting, because rather than pursuing journalists,” they are instead going after their sources, Delphine Halgand, U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, tells the Press.
“Before Obama took office, only three whistleblowers have been charged,” she adds. “That really reminds us that leaks are really crucial, are the lifeblood of investigative journalists given that nearly all information related to national security is considered secret and classified, so that’s why we really see this war on whistleblowers [as] a clear strategy. This crackdown against whistleblowers is clearly designed to restrict all but officially approved versions of the events.”
“It’s kind of the idea,” she continues, “everything which is not presented in a press conference is a leak.”
That is why journalists who report on leaks say their work is more important now than ever. But the threat of prosecution is very real, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
Meanwhile, Brown remains behind bars, biding his time voraciously reading books and articles sent to him by friends, family and supporters. It’s unclear if Brown, who has been silenced ever since a court-imposed gag order in September, will ever again pursue his journalism when he’s eventually released. Regardless, many are thankful for his work.
“We live in an era about increased secrecy about what the government is doing both in terms of the surveillance practices, both domestically and within the NSA,” says the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Fakhoury. “And I think that we rely on investigative journalist to report on these things, and…if the government would be more transparent and open about what it was doing there wouldn’t be the need to hack into computer systems and report on these things in illicit ways.”
“They go hand-in-hand,” he adds. “More transparency will lead to the same end-result, but without the collateral consequences of credit card numbers getting leaked and all that. I’m not saying leaking hundreds of thousands of credit card numbers is appropriate, absolutely not, it’s just a matter of: How do we reconcile these two things? I understand the government has to keep some things under wraps, but when they do it excessively you’re going to peak people’s curiosity, and then this is how that curiosity gets dealt with.”