Federal prosecutors last week dropped several of the most significant charges facing Internet activist and journalist Barrett Brown — charges that could have drawn a jail sentence of 105 years.
The dropped charges, essentially “fraud” and “theft”, involved Brown’s publishing a website link to a trove of documents (from WikiLeaks) detailing the activities of defense and surveillance contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence. That highly controversial charge — accusing Brown of something most Internet activists (and many users) do all the time — sparked an avalanche of protest by journalists of every stripe, including mainstream publications.
Understandably, those who felt threatened by these draconian government actions were more than pleased by the decision to drop the charges and it was hailed as a victory for free speech and a free Internet.
But several charges against Brown remain, including conspiracy to publish personal information, “obstruction of justice” and threatening an FBI agent. These charges, after the theft charges were dropped, become even more absurd and vindictive than they originally were. But they are still very serious: if convicted, Brown could face 70 years in prison. So the question now becomes why the government is pushing these charges after it decided to drop the others?
The answer may provide an insight into the way our government is seeking to silence journalists and freeze on-line activists. Based on the charges dropped and those retained, the Brown case has gone from an attack on a powerful Internet investigative technique called “crowd-sourcing” to an attack on the Internet’s real power: crowd response.
The story, explored in a previous article on this website, shows how frightened our government is of the Internet.
In 2011, Brown — a respected journalist and author perhaps best known as a member of and spokesperson for the Internet activism network Anonymous — began examining a selection of about five million documents Wikileaks published involving Stratfor Global Intelligence. The published information included the names, addresses and credit card numbers of people with whom Stratfor was involved, but that was a small fraction of the information. Most of the documents and emails captured showed a very close and possibly illegal relationship between Stratfor, several other security contractors and government agencies (including the NSA). That information seemed to indicate that Stratfor was acting and being treated as a quasi-agency of the government.
That would mean that some of the surveillance the NSA conducts would be immune from the normal legal restrictions and rules that are supposed to control federal agencies and Brown and other on-line activists from the on-line organization Project PM began working to unravel the material and report on the scandal. To do that, they used an Internet technique called “crowd-sourcing” in which a person posts some information (usually too much for one person to analyze alone) and invites a group of people to collaborate on the analysis. Brown launched the crowd sourcing by posting a link to Wikileaks’ Stratfor documents in a chat room Project PM was using.
Prosecutors immediately started hitting Brown with indictments focusing primarily not on the information the government might logically seek to protect but on the spreading of illegally obtained credit card information. They charged him with a dozen counts of “identity theft”, a stunningly absurd charge against a person using a technology that lives on links whose content, in the end, the linker can’t really control. To dramatize the nightmarish consequences of that charge: if you link to a website that, at some point, begins posting illegal content you don’t approve of and have no intention of spreading, you could still be charged with spreading that very content…even if your link to it has disappeared. If that’s the law, countless people have broken it at least once.
Crowd-sourcing is enormously powerful and successful and it can only truly be done on the Internet. Nowhere else can you bring together hundreds of experts from all over the world to work on research without leaving their homes. Unsurprisingly, it has become one of the primary tools used to expose government and corporate skullduggery, and so when the government attacked it so aggressively, the outcry was deafening. From blogs and progressive websites to publications like the New York Times, journalists denounced the charge and the denunciations became thunderous.
“After his arrest,” WhiteOut Press wrote, “A host of powerful news outlets eventually came forward insisting that they did the same thing Barrett Brown did and if he was going to be prosecuted, then they should be too. The publications included the NY Times, the Guardian and ProPublica.”
So the federal prosecutors dropped those charges but retained three others. With the dropped charges gone, the remaining charges appear even more absurd and vindictive.
The first remaining indictment count charges Brown with “conspiracy to publish personal information” because of the link he published. Prosecutors also charge him with “obstructing an investigation” because he wouldn’t turn over his computers and hard-drive files to investigators. And finally they charge him with threatening a federal agent because, after the FBI visited Brown’s mother’s home for a session of official bullying and then indicted her for hiding his computers in her kitchen cabinet, Brown posted a Youtube video about the case’s lead agent. In the three-part video, the activist says that he might treat the agent’s family as the agent treated his mother. “If it’s legal for him to do it,” Brown claims, “it’s legal for me to do it.”
That’s the remaining case. He posted a link for five million documents, a fraction of which had credit card and address information on people. He refused to turn over information related to charges the federal government has now dropped. And he posted a video rant about how angry he was that these people terrorized his mother. For that, they can put Barrett Brown in jail for 70 years and for that he is sitting in a federal jail right now awaiting trial.
(Karen Lancaster, Brown’s mother, pleaded guilty last December to hiding two of his computers in her kitchen cabinet and was given six months probation and a $1,000 fine.)
The charges are ludicrous. In his exchanges with other Project PM activists, Brown expressed no interest in any personal information and, in fact, has repeatedly said publicly that he doesn’t approve of that kind of outing or card theft. He never touched one of those cards or used that information. He clearly was looking to expose Statfor and its relationship with the government — as he told colleagues that scores of times in chats and emails.
His refusal to turn over evidence that would prove charges that no longer exist is legally irrelevant now; the only remaining ” personal information” charge is related to the link and the link is public (not on Brown’s computers). And if the FBI threatened and disrespected your mother in a visit to her home on a case she has nothing to do with, what would be your reaction? Brown’s only “crime” was to react in an on-line video.
Are these acts illegal? In a strict sense, they may be and it’s always possible the prosecution can get a conviction against Barrett Brown on any of them. But they are things on-line and progressive activists do all the time without much consequence.
The fact is that, in the course of my 48 years of activism, I’ve done every single thing Brown is accused of. As an official of May First/People Link, I have refused to turn over servers to the FBI when it came to our office two years ago and that’s the kind of refusal I’ve responded with many times in my life.
In 1976, an FBI agent came to my door and when I refused to speak with him without my lawyer and told him I was closing the door, he said: “If you close that door on my foot, you’re really going to need a lawyer.” And I replied, “If you leave your foot there, you’re going to need a doctor.” And I started to slam the door. That’s a threat although I doubt the agent even reported it.
As for linking to material with people’s personal information, I’ve probably done that so many times I can’t count them. I can’t count them because I usually don’t know whether there is personal information on a site I’m linking to.
I’m not asking to be arrested; I just wonder why he has been. The key is probably the role Brown has played and the moment we are in. There is no logical or defensible explanation for the government’s continuing to bring these charges and it’s highly unlikely that they will actually fully prosecute them. Ours is a government that has raised to an art form the use of pre-trial incarceration to punish some people and scare many more. The names of people who are jailed and not yet tried is now larger than it’s ever been and the use of that tactic in places like Guantanamo prison has been well documented.
Barrett Brown isn’t being punished for crimes. He is being punished for activism: for being the Anonymous “spokesperson”, for making those types of videos, for reporting and write extensively on government surveillance and illegal repressive activities , for using crowd-sourcing techniques and, probably most of all, for being so heavily supported when his indictments were returned.
In a sense, Brown’s most serious “crime” is that he has served as a magnet for various communities affected by and concerned with the enormous police state apparatus that has been generated. Not only have they congealed around Brown’s case but they have shined light on the murky realities he was covering. In the process, the case has shone a stronger light on others like Jeremy Hammond’s, Chelsea Manning’s and, of course, Edward Snowden’s.
As Bob Marley put it, the bottom of the bucket is “falling out”.
That, at this point, is what the government doesn’t want to happen and so it doesn’t want you to explore as these activists and researchers have. The message is clear: if you start exploring these relationships and programs, all of which are immoral and some of which are probably illegal, you are going to be treated like Barrett Brown. One gets the feeling they are too late in trying to fix the bucket.