A trial that has troubled press freedom groups and civl liberty activists for more than two years finally came to a conclusion Thursday when a federal court judge in Texas sentenced journalist Barrett Brown to 63 months in prison—exponentially less than the 100 years he faced prior to several controversial charges being dropped.
Brown, a prolific writer, journalist, and political satirist, who was once linked to the hacking collective Anonymous, was facing a maximum federal prison sentence of 8 1/2 years following a guilty plea last year. Prior to his sentencing, Brown had been jailed for more than two years.
Up until March 2014, Brown was facing more than 100 years in prison for trafficking stolen authentication features, access device fraud, and identity theft. The government inexplicably dropped those counts—11 altogether—one day after Brown’s defense team filed a motion to dismiss the charges. The charges were all linked to his sharing a link that contained hacked material from government defense contractor Stratfor. Federal prosecutors said the link not only contained private documents but more than 5,000 credit card numbers that belonged to Stratfor’s clients.
Press freedom groups were particularly appalled that the government would charge someone with sharing information from an already publicly available link, albeit containing stolen material. Several groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, threatened to file an Amicus Brief, but held back because the charges were eventually dropped.
“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,” they wrote.
Brown was never accused of the hack, but he did become the public face of Anonymous, though he has denied ever being its official spokesperson.
Jeremy Hammond, the hacker who actually committed the digital heist, is currently serving a 10-year sentence.
In March 2014, Brown pleaded guilty to Internet threats, accessory after the fact in the unauthorized access of a protected computer, and interfering with the execution of a search warrant. The plea agreement was held under seal until late April.
When his long-awaited sentencing did come, his supporters had hoped he’d be sentenced to time served. Instead, he was hit with a five-year term in a federal prison. He’ll also have to pay $890,000-plus in restitution and fines, according to the Guardian. Brown reportedly will get credit for the 31 months he’s already served. He also faces two years of supervised release.
Following Brown’s sentencing on Thursday, he released a sarcastic—his supporters expect nothing less—statement through Long Island-based Sparrow Project in which he promised to investigate the federal prison system ostensibly on assignment for the US government.
“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,” Brown’s statement reads. “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.”
“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!”
In a statement provided to the court Friday, Brown apologized for his actions and expressed regret, but also criticized the prosecution for painting a false narrative.
“Even aside from the obvious fact that I did not commit fraud,” Brown said, “and thus couldn’t sign on to any such thing, to do so would have also constituted a dangerous precedent, and it would have endangered my colleagues each of whom could now have been depicted as a former associate of a convicted fraudster. And it would have given the government, and particularly the FBI, one more tool by which to persecute journalists and activists whose views they find to be dangerous or undesirable.”
Brown, the founder of the crowdsourcing think thank Project PM, was not officially charged until six months after federal agents raided his apartment as well as his mother’s home.
Brown admitted in March to concealing two laptops containing his journalistic work and research for a forthcoming book. Brown and his mother displayed a different laptop on a table as a decoy, according to court documents.
He also pleaded guilty for Internet threats made in a now-infamous, three-part YouTube series that’s laced with profanity and bravado.
Brown’s supporters have accused the government of prosecuting him for his journalism. Brown, whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, and several other outlets, doggedly investigated government contractors that are not beholden to the American public. Brown was particularly interested in reporting on the documents that appeared on the Internet following the hack of Stratfor.
In an interview with the Press in May, one of Brown’s attorneys, Ahmed Ghappour, said the 33-year-old plans on continuing his work when he’s eventually released.
“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.”