In a case which dragged on for well over two years, journalist Barrett Brown was sentenced to five years and three months in prison by a court in Dallas. The judge accepted most if not all of the “sentencing enhancement” proposed by the government.
Brown pled guilty to three charges that stemmed from uploading YouTube videos containing a threat directed at the FBI, redacting sensitive emails procured by hackers and hiding laptops in a kitchen cabinet.
The journalist, who has been in jail for more than two years, asked the judge to give him a “time-served sentence of thirty months” so as not to reward “reckless conduct on the part of the government” that occurred during his case. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence him to eight and a half years in prison.
When considering time served, Brown will serve about two more years in prison.
Brown declared at sentencing, “I sincerely regret some of the things that I have done. I don’t think anyone doubts that I regret quite a bit about my life including some of the things that brought me here today.”
“The videos were idiotic, and although I made them in a manic state brought on by sudden withdrawal from Paxil and Suboxone, and while distraught over the threats to prosecute my mother, that’s still me in those YouTube clips talking nonsense about how the FBI would never take me alive.”
Brown addressed his decision to “stupidly” try and hide laptops “from the FBI during a lawful investigation.”
His mother helped him and she was prosecuted, fined and sentenced to six months of probation in November 2013.
On his involvement in the redaction of “sensitive emails after the Stratfor hack,” he argued to the judge that he did not want to be a “hypocrite.”
“If I criticize the government for breaking the law but then break the law myself in an effort to reveal their wrongdoing, 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,” Brown added. “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.”
After HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr claimed to have uncovered the “leadership” of Anonymous, a press release, which Brown supported, conceded “defeat.” The next day hackers in Anonymous targeted Barr, HBGary Federal and its parent company, HBGary. Company emails were released and exposed a plan to attack WikiLeaks and key supporters, such as journalist Glenn Greenwald. A plan to spy on opponents of the United States Chamber of Commerce was uncovered as well.
Although potentially risky, which Brown acknowledged, he believed the judge could tolerate criticisms of the government’s handling of his case, even as he expressed regrets about his misconduct.
Brown, the co-founder of a think tank called Project PM, which has previously engaged in journalism projects, raised the issue of the “dozens of people around the world who have contributed” and have been declared by the government, “some of them journalists, to be criminals,” who engaged in a “conspiracy.”
“The government sought from this court a subpoena by which to obtain the identities of all of our contributors,” Brown recalled. “Your Honor denied that motion and I am very grateful to Your Honor for having done so. Unfortunately the government thereafter went around Your Honor and sought to obtain these records by other means.”
“So now the dozens of people who have given their time and expertise to what has been hailed by journalists and advocacy groups as a crucial journalistic enterprise are now at risk of being indicted under the same sort of spurious charges that I was facing not long ago, when the government exposed me to decades of prison time for copying and pasting a link to a publicly available file that other journalists were also linking to without being prosecuted.”
Brown argued, “The fact that the government has still asked you to punish me for that link is proof, if any more were needed, that those of us who advocate against secrecy are to be pursued without regard for the rule of law, or even common decency.”
Initially, Brown faced a potential prison sentence that could have been decades-long after the Justice Department indicted him on multiple counts of identity theft and credit card fraud simply for sharing a link. That transformed the case into one, which could have been much more damaging to press freedom had the government not dropped the charges in March 2014.
Brown maintained that he was cognizant of the implications of his case. He considered the “public’s right to link to source materials without being subject to the misuse of statutes” when considering what plea deal he would be willing to accept from the government.
“Last year, when the government offered me a plea bargain whereby I would plead to just one of the eleven fraud charges related to the linking, and told me it was final, I turned it down.”
“To have accepted that plea, with a two-year sentence, would have been convenient. Your Honor will note that I actually did eventually plea to an accessory charge carrying potentially more prison time—but it would have been wrong. Even aside from the obvious fact that I did not commit fraud, 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.”
“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 additionally argued.
Brown described one egregious act by the government, where they essentially accused former CNN reporter Amber Lyon of ordering Brown to “attack the Kingdom of Bahrain.” The government claimed laptops contained evidence related to this and so obstruction of justice charges, stemming from hiding the laptops from FBI agents, could not be dismissed.
“Amber Lyon is a journalist and former CNN reporter, who I do know and respect, but I can assure Your Honor that I am not in the habit of attacking Gulf state monarchies on her behalf,” Brown asserted. “But I think it’s unjust of them to use this court to throw out that sort of claim about Miss Lyon in a public filing as they did if they’re not prepared to back it up. And they’re not prepared to back it up.
“But that won’t stop the Kingdom of Bahrain from repeating this groundless assertion and perhaps even using it to keep Miss Lyon out of the country — because she has indeed reported on the Bahraini monarchy’s violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in that country, and she has done so from that country. And if she ever returns to that country to continue that important work, she’ll now be subject to arrest on the grounds that the United States Department of Justice itself has explicitly accused her of orchestrating an attack on that country’s government.”
The government has refused to call Brown a journalist, even though he has been employed as one and had a number of articles published by magazines and newspapers. He condemned the government for asserting he was not a journalist so he could not “claim the First Amendment protections guaranteed to those engaged in information-gathering activities.”
“It would be one thing if the government were putting forth some sort of standard by which journalists could be defined. They have not put forth such a standard. Their assertion rests on the fact that despite having referred to myself as a journalist hundreds of times, I at one point rejected that term, much in the same way that someone running for office might reject the term ‘politician.'”
“This is not the rule of law, Your Honor, it is the rule of Law Enforcement, and it is very dangerous,” Brown said, as he reflected on government’s refusal to refer to him as a journalist.
The government’s prosecution of Brown flagrantly unfolded without regard to the damage it might do to press freedom. Prosecutors cared not one bit about the chilling effect it could potentially have nor it did it care if it made scurrilous claims about journalists associated with Brown to advance their case. And the result was a glaring overzealous demonstration of the lengths the government will go to make an example out of an individual, who government officials perceive as a threat to power.
*Full sentencing statement can be found here: PDF
Creative Commons-Licensed Photo from Free Barrett Brown