This past Friday, Internet activist Jeremy Hammond stood in a federal courtroom and told Judge Loretta A. Preska why he released a trove of emails and other information uncovering the possibly illegal and certainly immoral collaboration of a major surveillance corporation called Stratfor with our government.
He also stressed what followers of his case already knew: that his activities were encouraged, organized and facilitated by an FBI informant turned operative. In short, his partner in these “violations of United States law” was the government of the United States.
He acknowledged that the Judge could sentence him to 10 years in jail but he never apologized for his actions or questioned their validity as political activism. And, in a statement remarkable for his courage and political principle (after 20 months in jail on this case), he established himself as one of the heroes of the struggle over for freedom and justice.
In a world in which people often seek to defend themselves in court by questioning whether they did what they are accused of, Hammond defended himself by saying that he did what they said he did and more — and that he was right to do it.
“The acts of civil disobedience and direct action that I am being sentenced for today are in line with the principles of community and equality that have guided my life,” he told the court. “I hacked into dozens of high profile corporations and government institutions, understanding very clearly that what I was doing was against the law, and that my actions could land me back in federal prison. But I felt that I had an obligation to use my skills to expose and confront injustice–and to bring the truth to light.”
Expecting justice from Judge Preska was probably a stretch. She had previously refused to recuse herself from the trial after it was learned that her husband was one of the targets of Hammond’s Stratfor hacks. But when she hit him with the maximum jail sentence, a decade, and then churlishly hit him with three extra years of probation upon release during which he can’t use encryption on the Internet — which essential forbids him from living a modern life — she put the exclamation point on the statement this case makes about our government. While conducting surveillance on all its citizens (and using drones and agents and wars to trample on the human rights of people world-wide), it also uses elaborate stings and agent strategies to lure Internet activists into gathering information it wants but can’t legally obtain and then puts them in jail to shut them up.
It is, without question, a chilling story.
At the age of 29, Hammond is already a seasoned, experienced and “struggle-weathered” political activist. He was an anti-war activist in High School at 18 when he launched the legendary website HackThisSite, “a free, safe and legal training ground for hackers to test and expand their hacking skills” that remains one of the most popular and respected hacking education on-line communities.
His history during the last decade is sprinkled with a series of arrests during protests against the Iraq war, the trampling of gay rights, the erosion of democratic rights and the disruptive activities of extreme right-wing groups. He’s been beaten and arrested on more than a half dozen occasions for these actions.
In fact, in 2007, Hammond was imprisoned for hacking into the website of the right-wing group Protest Warrior, known for attacking anti-war demonstrations. The hack captured all kinds of information and brought the website down. Some of that info included credit card numbers for contributors to Protest Warrior and, although no card was ever used or charged to as a result, the government charged Hammond with what amounts to card theft and jailed him to two years.
When he was released he returned to protest but, he told the court, “The Obama administration continued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, escalated the use of drones, and failed to close Guantanamo Bay.” Believing more direct action was needed, he returned to hacking and began targeting police departments and law enforcement agencies “because of the racism and inequality with which the criminal law is enforced” and hitting military and police equipment manufacturers as well as surveillance and security contractors.
Then he met Sabu.
Hector Xavier Monsegur (known on-line as Sabu) was the most visible figure in LulzSec, a hacker collective known for several high-profile hacks of of government and corporate sites. Monsegur, who lived in the Jacob Riis Projects of New York’s Lower East Side, had a reputation among activists as a prankster who seemed to hack power sites more for enjoyment and rebellious “rush” than for principled politics. His statements and tweets were, in fact, never that political. It’s safe to say that many on-line activists were wary of Sabu and that was well-founded because Sabu was working for the FBI.
As Assistant U.S. Attorney James Pastore said at a secret bail hearing on Aug. 5, 2011 about a month after Sabu was arrested by the FBI, “Since literally the day he was arrested, the defendant has been cooperating with the government proactively.” Sabu wasn’t just a snitch (although he appears to have given the FBI every name, email and detail about hackers and activists he knew), he was an active provocateur, using his LulzSec “cover” to ensnare other Internet activists in criminal acts.
Using FBI servers, he coordinated hacker projects that would land Internet activists, including almost the entire LulzSec collective, in jail — the equivalent of committing crimes in the FBI’s offices. He targeted dozens of other activists and even tried to involve Nadim Kobeissi, the respected Canadian technologist and author of the secure communication software Cryptocat, but Kobeissi rebuffed those overtures and that ensnarement project was dropped.
In December, 2011, Sabu hit the jackpot. He obtained exploits (programs that allowed entrance into a server) to the credit card database of Statfor, a security and surveillance contractor that works for a literal who’s who of corporations. Under FBI supervision, Sabu logged onto a private chatroom run by the hacker collective AntiSec (of which Hammond was a member) and began distributing links and passwords to Statfor’s servers. Hammond got involved, spending a week attempting access to Stratfor’s email systems and then loading the information he and others gleaned onto servers owned and run by the FBI.
The resulting information, mostly released by Wikileaks, was stunning.
The emails showed that Stratfor had spied on movements in other countries, movements and organizations in the U.S. and individual activists. It targeted PETA, the political “prankster” organization the YesMen and activists involved in the campaign against Dow Chemical over the catastrophic Bhopal, India gas leaks. It conducted, in cooperation with the government, a remarkable campaign of intense surveillance and infiltration of the Occupy movement. “And,” as journalist Chris Hedges said in an interview with the Real News Network, “we also found from those email exchanges that there was a concerted attempt on the part of security officials, both inside the government and within the private security contracting agency, to link, falsely, nonviolent dissident groups with terrorist groups so that they could apply terrorism laws against these groups.”
According to his statement, after the Statfor hack, Hammond continued using Sabu’s information to hack corporate sites and several official government sites. He also supplied Sabu and other hackers with information similarly used. “I don’t know how other information I provided to (Sabu) may have been used,” Hammond says, “but I think the government’s collection and use of this data needs to be investigated.”
Part of his statement, stricken by the Judge after Prosecution objections but made available at the Pastebin site, reads like a spy novel:
“Sabu also supplied lists of targets…At his request, these websites were broken into, their emails and databases were uploaded to Sabu’s FBI server, and the password information and the location of root backdoors were supplied. These intrusions took place in January/February of 2012 and affected over 2000 domains, including numerous foreign government websites in Brazil, Turkey, Syria, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Nigeria, Iran, Slovenia, Greece, Pakistan, and others. A few of the compromised websites that I recollect include the official website of the Governor of Puerto Rico, the Internal Affairs Division of the Military Police of Brazil, the Official Website of the Crown Prince of Kuwait, the Tax Department of Turkey, the Iranian Academic Center for Education and Cultural Research, the Polish Embassy in the UK, and the Ministry of Electricity of Iraq.”
According to Hammond, Sabu also infiltrated a group of hackers that had access to hundreds of Syrian systems including government institutions, banks, and ISPs. “The FBI took advantage of hackers who wanted to help support the Syrian people against the Assad regime, who instead unwittingly provided the U.S. government access to Syrian systems, undoubtedly supplying useful intelligence to the military and their buildup for war.”
“All of this happened under the control and supervision of the FBI.” he adds. “…However, the full extent of the FBI’s abuses remains hidden. Because I pled guilty, I do not have access to many documents that might have been provided to me in advance of trial, such as Sabu’s communications with the FBI. In addition, the majority of the documents provided to me are under a ‘protective order’ which insulates this material from public scrutiny…I believe the documents will show that the government’s actions go way beyond catching hackers and stopping computer crimes.”
Sometimes the stunning nature of a story actually blinds us to its real meaning and this may be one such case. What shines here is, of course, that the U.S. government engaged in criminal behavior. One of its agents facilitated Hammond’s “crime” by giving him necessary information, then encouraging him to use it and supporting him as he did. The government itself helped Hammond load the huge amount of information by giving him access to government servers. The FBI then encouraged and facilitated Hammond’s continued hackactivism against many other sites including those of other governments — there’s no way of telling how much information on other governments it ended up with but, given recent NSA surveillance revelations, nothing would surprise.
If you did what the government did, you would be in jail. After doing what it did, the government is throwing someone else in jail. But the more important issue is why.
It’s clear that the U.S. government was using Hammond and other progressive activists to spy and gather data on other governments world-wide. Coupled with recent revelations about the NSA’ Muscular and Prism programs, these facts paint a picture of a government that conducts surveillance on the world through the Internet circumventing the normal channels of law and courts that are built to restrict this kind of activity.
While information providers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have demonstrated how the government uses information technology to spy on the world (and its own citizens), Hammond’s revelations show that it uses Internet activists to do the same and then, to shut them up, punishes them for doing it.
What’s more, Hammond’s case exposes the almost non-existent lines between intelligence agencies of this government and the network of contractors it hires to do some of its work. While the government can be slapped for ignoring the laws of privacy that it has consistently violated, these companies are immune to such criticism because they don’t operate under those laws.
Finally, though, it’s not what Hammond did but what he is and what he represents. Other well-known whistle-blowers are often people working for governments or involved in Internet data work who suddenly see the sins of the United States’ immoral and destruction policies — and then act on those light-bulb moments. But Jeremy Hammond is an activist first and foremost, a person whose activities have been as much “on the streets” as in front of a computer. In that sense, he is much more representative of the Internet activists who serve the progressive movement of this country and others throughout the world: people who believe in democracy and justice and then use their computer skills as a logical extension of those beliefs.
To a repressive government likes ours involved in a frenzied search for a way to maintain its control over a decaying and dismantling system, they are the greater danger. Whether through hack work like Hammond’s or through the facilitating of movement communications and organizing on-line, these are the people who manage, design and protect the tools of movement communication.
Jeremy Hammond’s arrest and conviction appear to be a chilling message to us but the most powerful message is the warming one he gave us in his court statement.
“I took responsibility for my actions, by pleading guilty, but when will the government be made to answer for its crimes?” he told the court. “The U.S. hypes the threat of hackers in order to justify the multi billion dollar cyber security industrial complex, but it is also responsible for the same conduct it aggressively prosecutes and claims to work to prevent. The hypocrisy of ‘law and order’ and the injustices caused by capitalism cannot be cured by institutional reform but through civil disobedience and direct action. Yes I broke the law, but I believe that sometimes laws must be broken in order to make room for change.”
A person who makes that statement facing ten years in jail is a “hero”…without qualification.
(Disclaimer: I am proud to serve on the May First/People Link Leadership Committee with attorney Gráinne O’Neill who is one of Jeremy Hammond’s lawyers.)