Why the Trial of Barrett Brown Should Scare You

Barrett Brown (32) is an American freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, Vanity Fair and the Huffington Post. He is facing the prospect of a 105 year jail sentence.

In 2009, Brown set up Project PM which was “dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance”. Then in 2010 the actions of Wiki Leaks and the brutal treatment of Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning inspire Brown to dedicate himself to online activist and transparency projects.

It was through this that he came into contact with the ‘hacktivist’ collective Anonymous. Not as a hacker, but as someone who discussed and defended the group to the media, without actually being a member.

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Then in 2011 Anonymous hacked the computer systems of private intelligence firm HB Gary Federal and released thousands of incriminating emails such as the firm trying to persuade Bank of America to hire them to discredit Wiki Leaks supporters. This was followed by the 2012 leak of emails from Stratfor, another private security firm.

It was ultimately Brown’s investigations of these two firms that led to his harassment by the FBI. In March 2012 his apartment was broken into and searched for information pertaining to HB Gary and Stratfor, various documents were seized but they did not have a warrant for his arrest at this point. Ultimately the FBI found Brown at his mother’s house where they demanded his laptop, which he denied having. Over the months that followed, agents continued to harass Brown and threatened to arrest and indict his mother for “harbouring” Brown or helping him conceal documents.

Then in September, Brown posted a YouTube video in which he talked about how FBI agents had threatened to ruin his life. In the emotional video he threatened to “destroy” one of his harassers FBI agent Robert Smith, who had threatened his mother. There were no physical threats issued.

This allowed the FBI to arrest Brown on the charge of threatening a Federal agent. Once he was in custody they found other charges to hold him on such as trafficking in stolen goods for sharing a URL to the leaked emails with some of his colleagues, as well as the more ludicrous charge of credit card fraud as some of the emails contained credit card information which it was clear he had never used.

Brown has now spent a year in prison awaiting trial.

These are the facts that are widely known by those who support him but have been mostly ignored by mainstream media. Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, has been consistent in his support of Brown. Greenwald himself as faced harassment due to his work with whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Both prongs of prosecutorial abuse are clearly present in Brown’s case. There is no evidence that the link he posted to already published documents resulted in any unauthorized use of credit cards, and certainly never redounded in any way to his benefit. More important, this prosecution is driven by the same plainly improper purpose that drove the one directed at Aaron Swartz and so many others: the desire to exploit the power of criminal law to deter and severely punish anyone who meaningfully challenges the government’s power to control the flow of information on the internet and conceal its vital actions…What the US government counts on above all else is that the person it targets is unable to defend themselves against the government’s unlimited resources” – Glenn Greenwald

What should be highlighted here for everyone, not only journalists, is the implication that linking to stolen information could be deemed illegal, by extension making investigations into many kinds of clandestine activities also illegal.

The prospect of the American government giving itself the authority to control what the public should and should not know is not new.

However the idea that you can be charged simply for reading something available to the public online is incredibly worrying.

This particularly should worry any American readers but given recent revelations about the NSA have made it clear that the US government believe it has the right to monitor citizens of other countries as well this is a matter which affects everyone.

Think about your Facebook profiles, your Twitter feeds, your Tumblr dashboard and think of all the links you click on or share every week. This trial has the potential to create legal precedent to have you be legally responsible for information you find online.

Even outside of the bigger picture, the charges still do not make sense. How can the prosecution argue that Brown is legally culpable for the information he possessed and not the dozens of other journalists, from various media outlets such as the New York Times, who reported on the information, most of whom must have read the material as well?

Not only that but the US Department of Justice have now issued a gag order on Brown and his legal team, preventing them from talking to other journalists or “members of any television, radio, newspaper, magazine, internet (including, but not limited to, bloggers), or other media organization about this case”.

Brown’s lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour, has stated that this gag order is a violation of Brown’s 1st Amendment rights as a writer who has continued to work from behind bars on issues not pertaining to his own case or his prosecution.

Now not only can journalists be punished for critical writing about their government but once arrested cannot speak to other members of the press. The ways in which this threatens the right to freedom of expression are obvious and deeply concerning.

The General Secretary of Reporters Without Borders came out in defense of Brown saying:

Above all, Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty by looking into the Stratfor emails, an affair of public interest…Threatening a journalist with a possible century-long jail sentence is a scary prospect for journalists investigating the intelligence government contractor industry”.

From start to finish this has been a targeted attack on a journalist who did his job. The US attorney’s office have made claims they know do not hold weight in attempts to discredit, bankrupt and silence Brown. I would go so far as to say that Barrett Brown is a political prison of the US state.

To learn more detail about the trial or to donate to Brown’s legal fund go to Free Brown Brown dot org. The persecution of investigative journalists puts all civil liberties at risk and must not be ignored.

Orla-Jo

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