Barrett Brown, the American journalist best known for his dogged reporting on the clandestine U.S. intelligence community, is “remorseful” and regrets making a series of now-infamous YouTube rants brimming with anger and defiance that ultimately led to his arrest almost 20 months ago, Brown’s Texas-based lawyer told the Press in one of the few lengthy interviews he’s conducted since a gag order was lifted last month.
Brown, now jailed for 20 months, formally pleaded guilty this week to Internet threats, accessory after the fact in the unauthorized access of a protected computer, and interfering with the execution of a search warrant. Brown signed the plea agreement with federal prosecutors in Texas in March, but the document was held under seal until late April. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 8 1/2 years.
The potential prison time is exponentially less than the 100-plus years he faced prior to the government inexplicably dropping 11 counts related to his sharing of a publicly available hyperlink.
The charges stemmed from the hack of global intelligence contractor Stratfor, and were only dropped after Brown’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss. Those allegations in particular troubled several civil liberty and press freedom groups who were concerned that the charges could chill speech. In fact, several groups threatened to file an Amicus Brief before the counts were dismissed.
During his interview with the Press, Brown’s lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour, criticized prosecutors for what he deemed over-broad charges, questioned why the government filed three separate indictments instead of one, and explained that neither Brown nor anyone on his behalf developed a media strategy to manipulate the public through the press and social media, as prosecutors suggested in their request for a gag order.
Additionally, Ghappour revealed that Brown is already thinking about life after jail, noting that Brown intends to once again pursue journalism upon his eventual release—which may not come as a surprise to his most ardent supporters who considered Brown’s reporting, particularly on shady government contractors not beholden to the American public, a necessary public service.
“Absolutely, he can’t wait,” Ghappour told the Press. “And he may have already gotten an offer or two.”
But before Brown can explore those opportunities, there’s the matter of his August 18 sentencing. During the interview, Ghappour insisted that Brown would have already served sufficient time—nearly two years—by the time his sentencing date arrives, and claimed that Brown is repentant.
“He’s remorseful for the conduct and he accepts responsibility for it,” Ghappour said. “He did not cause an extreme amount of damage, nobody was hurt physically or financially by the YouTube video, which did not cause any substantial disruption for law enforcement.”
The YouTube videos represent just one facet of Brown’s legal struggles since his arrest, and prosecutors’ initial charges related to his lashing out on the world’s most popular video sharing service were far less controversial than the counts related to copying and pasting the link from one Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to another he ran on his website, Project PM. Prosecutors said in court documents that the link not only contained thousands of hacked documents, but also 5,000-plus stolen credit card account numbers from Stratfor clients.
Brown was never accused of the hack, which was perpetrated by the hacking collective Anonymous, though he was interested in reporting on its contents. The leaked documents revealed Stratfor’s close relationship with government agencies, among other interesting findings. The hacker Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crime.
“The reality is that Barrett had wanted to take responsibility for everything that he actually did,” Ghappour said. “The problem was that the December indictment (related to the hack) did not contain anything that he did. So when the government dropped the problematic charges we were very quick to accept responsibility.”
“They were certainly over-broad,” he added of the link-sharing charges.
Brown, who became the public face of Anonymous, but has denied ever being an official spokesperson for the collective, was not officially charged until six months after federal agents raided his unoccupied apartment as well as his mother’s home.
In pleading guilty to interfering with the execution of a search warrant, Brown admits in the case’s factual resume that he and his mother concealed two laptops containing his journalistic work and research for a forthcoming book. The court documents also note that the pair set up another laptop on a table to act as a decoy.
Ghappour said a purpose for hiding the laptops “was to protect his sources and work product.”
Outraged at the government for both seizing his laptops and for obstruction of justice threats directed at his mother, which she eventually pleaded guilty to, Brown publicly vented in a profanity-laced, and sometimes incoherent, three-part YouTube rant.
Brown called FBI Special Agent Robert Smith a “chicken shit little faggot cock sucker,” and allegedly threatened to “look into his fucking kids.”
Those and other troubling remarks—“That’s why Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say over, I don’t say I’m gonna go kill him, but I am gonna ruin his life…”—however, are not related to his pleading guilty for Internet threats because they were not considered physical threats.
Instead, the charge stems from another verbal outburst later in the video in which Brown suggested he would resort to violence if they entered his property.
“Any armed officials of the U.S. government, particularly the FBI, will be regarded as potential [Los] Zeta assassin squads and as the FBI and DPD know…I’m armed and I come from a military family, that I was taught to shoot by a Vietnam vet and by my father, a master hunter of all things…I will shoot all of them and kill them if they come and do anything because they are engaged in a criminal conspiracy and I have reason to fear for my life, not just from the Zetas but from the U.S. government.”
He added: “And frankly, it was pretty obvious that I was going to be dead before I was 40 or so, so I wouldn’t mind going out with two FBI sidearms like a fucking Egyptian pharaoh. Adios.”
Ghappour has up until recently been unable to publicly discuss his client’s case due to a government-proposed gag order that became effective in September 2013.
Prosecutors suggested in court documents filed at the time that Brown and others were soliciting the media “or media-types” to discuss his cases.
“Since May 1, 2013, the government has reason to believe that Brown’s attorney coordinates and/or approves the use of the media,” court documents state. “Most of the publicly about Brown thus far contain gross fabrications and substantially false recitations of facts and law which may harm both the government and the defense during jury selection.”
Prosecutors then listed nine examples to support the claim, adding:
“Brown has shown his intent to continue to manipulate the public through press and social media comments, in defiance of the admonishment by the United States Magistrate Judge.”
Ghappour said that was not the case, and that lawyers’ involvement was strictly legal.
“Our only ‘strategy’ was to make sure that Barrett’s statements were within the bounds of the law,” he said.
“But also that they were not harmful to him, that he was not harming himself by making any statements,” Ghappour added.
Many of Brown’s supporters adamantly believe that he was initially being investigated for his journalism—which largely focused on exposing U.S. government contractors that work in the shadows.
And charging him with sharing a hyperlink was especially troubling, civil liberty groups have said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group committed to defending Internet freedoms, among other groups, argued in an Amicus Brief that was never officially filed: “The First Amendment protects Mr. Brown’s publication of a publicly-available and lawfully-obtained web address linking to millions of pages of documents discussing suspect activities of the United States government intelligence contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence.”
“Mr. Brown,” it continued, “is a well-known and published journalist, and this publication was a necessary part of routine newsgathering and news reporting activities.”
Additionally, the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders, which publishes an annual report dubbed the “Press Freedom Index,” also came out in Brown’s defense, and cited his jailing, along with the so-called war on whistleblowers, as a reason why it dropped the United States in its rankings for 2013, from 32 to 46.
Brown will spend the next three months behind bars, as he has been doing since his September 2012 arrest. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
“Barrett is a brilliant but troubled young man,” said Ghappour, “who with the right community support is certain to be a productive member of society.”