By Mark Wachtler
October 22, 2013. Dallas. (ONN) Everyone’s heard of Jeremy Hammond, Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz. But few Americans know who Barrett Brown is. That’s no accident. The Obama administration is desperate to keep the details of his criminal trial secret. And if AG Eric Holder’s prosecutors win their criminal case, America will no longer have a Free Press.
If this is the end of America's 'Free Press', then this is the fight that will decide it.
Brown has been sitting in a federal prison in Texas for over a year awaiting his trial. At first, America’s corporate-owned media outlets did what they always do – they parroted the government line that Brown was a vicious criminal and a danger to the public. But when the actual charges and potential 100-year prison sentence were finally announced, publications from Vanity Fair to the Huffington Post to the UK’s Guardian rushed to his defense. That shouldn’t be a surprise since Brown was a writer for all three of those outlets. Now, it’s clear that this isn’t just a government witch hunt against Barrett Brown. It’s a government witch hunt against freedom of the press.
While there are basically three sets of criminal charges against Barrett Brown, the ones that will get him the majority of his potential 100-plus year prison sentence are the ones terrifying reporters and journalists around the world. For that reason, this may be a war the Obama administration will never win – at least not in the court of public opinion. Before the trial has even started, the government’s case has been shredded by mainstream and independent news outlets alike.
Prosecutors admit that Brown is being charged for doing nothing more than writing a news article about one of the many data releases by WikiLeaks. And just like most reporters, he included a link to the Wikileaks web page that contained the information. After all, it was on the internet and in the public domain. For that, Barrett Brown faces 17 federal charges and a potential 105-year prison sentence.
That’s the official reason Brown is charged with 12 counts of identity theft, 3 counts of threatening an FBI agent and 2 counts of obstruction of justice. The real reason for the government’s overreach may be because Barrett Brown was a very vocal cheerleader for groups like WikiLeaks and Anonymous. Or, it could be because the specific data dump he reported on contained some of the most devastating revelations detailing just how Orwellian and tyrannical the US corporate government has become.
Stumbling upon America’s ‘shadow government’
The millions of stolen documents that WikiLeaks published and Brown reported on just happened to be the same files stolen by Jeremy Hammond from the secret spy corporation Stratfor. Rivaling only Edward Snowden’s theft of information from another secret spy corporation called Booz Allen Hamilton, Hammond’s discoveries revealed so many horrifying government ‘black ops’ programs that it appeared he had accidentally discovered America’s elusive ‘shadow government’.
What Barrett Brown then embarked on, which few if any journalists did, was to try and organize and understand the hundreds of millions of secret corporate and government documents being stolen by groups like Anonymous and published by sites like WikiLeaks. Brown gave his endeavor a name and called it Project PM.
As detailed by the New York Times, Northwestern University professor Peter Ludlow wrote for the Huffington Post explaining that Barrett Brown had stumbled into dangerous waters that no other journalist had ever ventured before. Ludlow wrote, “Project PM under Brown’s leadership began to slowly untangle the web of connections between the US government, corporations, lobbyists and a shadowy group of private military and infosecurity consultants.”
Attempting to respond to media outcry, the Justice Department released a statement explaining their criminal case against Barrett Brown and what he did wrong by providing a link in his news article to WikiLeaks, “By transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online, without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor.”
The NY Times piece takes issue with that explanation pointing out that they are guilty of the same offense, ‘Just last week, The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica collaborated on a significant article about the National Security Agency’s effort to defeat encryption technologies. The article was based on, and linked to, documents that were stolen by Edward J. Snowden.’
Threatening an FBI agent
While the majority of Barrett Brown’s charges stem from his article linking to WikiLeaks, he’s also facing charges for threatening an FBI agent. But as Brown has repeatedly pointed out, he didn’t do anything that the controversial FBI agent in question didn’t do to Brown first, including vague and generalized threats against him and his family members.
What makes Brown’s case so unique and colorful, just like the defendant himself, is the fact that he made his threats in a YouTube video that he posted online for the whole world to see. As if that weren’t enough, he was also live online in a video chat room when the FBI raided his home and arrested him, again, for the whole world to see. Read the Whiteout Press article, ‘FBI busts Anonymous Member live on Web Chat’ for more information.
This portion of the government’s case against Barrett Brown began when the FBI raided his mother’s home in March 2012 to arrest Barrett while was there. According to Brown, government agents weren’t satisfied with threatening and intimidating him, they threatened and intimidated his mom as well. Before they were done, Brown’s mother was charged with Conspiracy because they found her son’s laptop in her cabinet. Barrett was incensed and swore revenge on the one abusive and criminal FBI agent he held personally responsible for targeting his mom.
As detailed by a recent Vice.com report, the title of Barrett Brown’s YouTube video was, ‘Why I'm Going to Destroy FBI Agent Robert Smith’. Brown had just spent the past few months watching the FBI threaten and intimidate his mother without pause. Agents repeatedly threatened to put her away if she didn’t cooperate against her son. In the end, they charged her with conspiracy and insist she attempted to hide her son’s laptop computer from authorities. Desperate to put the whole nightmare behind her, Barrett’s mom just pled guilty and currently awaits sentencing.
Summing up his own thought-process, Brown says at one point in his YouTube video, “I know what’s legal. I know what’s been done to me... And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith, who is a criminal." Brown’s attorneys are expected to argue that their client never made any specific threats and the heated and emotional sentence, “I’m going to destroy so-and-so” is uttered by thousands of people every day, including athletes, businessmen and politicians.
Government gags the press
In a bizarre and unprecedented twist in Barrett Brown’s case last month, the judge imposed a gag order on both Brown and the press. Federal prosecutors argued that allowing Barrett to speak to reporters would prejudice the potential jury pool and corrupt the trial itself. In the hearing last month, prosecutors provided evidence that Barrett had been speaking by phone to reporters from all over the world, including one filmmaker.
As the Vice.com account confirms, the pretrial hearing never touched on the Conspiracy charges or the alleged threats to agent Smith. Instead, the entire hearing centered on stopping the release of information by Barrett Brown to the world’s news outlets. And that’s where the trial takes a strange and ominous turn. The only witness allowed to testify in the pretrial hearing was none other than FBI agent Robert Smith.
Agent Smith is the agent Brown threatened in his YouTube video. On the stand, Smith recalled one conversation after another between Brown and reporters that FBI wiretapping devices recorded. But at no time would the judge allow any of the recordings to be played for the court. Instead, the one agent with a personal grudge against Barrett Brown was allowed to use his own biased words to sum up how dangerous the government believes Brown is.
Obvious that the hearing was stacked against their client from the start, Brown’s attorney quickly argued for a compromise. After repeated secret discussions between the judge, prosecutors and the defense, it was agreed that a gag order would be imposed on America’s press and those involved with the trial. The American people will not be allowed to know anything about the hearing, evidence or testimony. The only victory Barrett Brown could claim is that the judge allowed him access to his support team at FreeBarrettBrown.org and the court is allowing him to continue writing articles so long as they have nothing to do with the trial or the charges.
The world’s Free Press – ready for a fight
Before Barrett Brown’s trial even begins, respected journalists and free speech advocates are already condemning the US government for what they call its attack on the country’s free press. As evidence, media outlets are repeatedly pointing out that Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing and leaking the Stratfor documents. For writing a news article that contained a link to Wikileaks where those documents were already available for the whole world to access, Brown is facing 45 years in prison – for that one charge alone.
In response, Vice.com published a statement from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, “It's ironic and disturbing that in a case where press freedom is at stake, the defendant and his lawyers have been barred from talking to the press. The prosecution asked for a gag order in part because they said articles about Brown's case contained inaccuracies, but pointed to no articles to prove their point. Seemingly, the problem was the articles were too accurate, and therefore making the prosecution's case look bad. The fact remains, Brown is being prosecuted for conduct that is central to journalism, and the charges related to linking should be thrown out immediately.”
The NY Times report quotes Jennifer Lynch, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “The big reason this matters is that he transferred a link, something all of us do every single day, and ended up being charged for it. I think that this administration is trying to prosecute the release of information in any way it can.”
Gregg Housh, an independent journalist, free speech advocate and friend of Barrett Brown, reminds his readers, “It is important to remember that the majority of the 105 years he faces are the result of linking to a file. He did not and has not hacked anything, and the link he posted has been posted by many, many other news organizations.”
A report from Rolling Stone Magazine also chimed in on the side of Barrett Brown with its scathing article titled, ‘Barrett Brown faces 105 Years on Jail – but no one can figure out what Law he broke’. In it, Brown’s attorney Ahmed Ghappour explains, “What is most concerning about Barrett's case is the disconnect between his conduct and the charged crime. He copy-pasted a publicly available link containing publicly available data that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist. The charges require twisting the relevant statutes beyond recognition and have serious implications for journalists as well as academics.”
The account also quotes Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders saying, “Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty. The sentence that he is facing is absurd and dangerous."
The real story
Echoing this author’s suspicion, Brown’s friend Gregg Housh has his own theory about why the federal government is breaking all the rules to destroy Barrett Brown. The Rolling Stone story explains, ‘Then there is the theory, advanced by Gregg Housh, that Brown and Hammond were targeted out of frustration with a blown sting against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. After looking into the Stratfor hack, Housh believes that the FBI allowed the hack to proceed not in order to arrest Hammond but Assange. "The idea was to have Sabu sell the stolen Stratfor material to Assange," says Housh, "This would give them a concrete charge that he had knowingly bought stolen material to distribute on WikiLeaks."’
What the federal government doesn’t like to admit is that the FBI was running Anonymous when the group broke into the Stratfor computers and then dumped the entire contents onto the internet for the whole world to view. Hector Monsegur, aka Sabu, was the undisputed leader of Anonymous and had been busted months before by federal authorities. Before, during and after the Stratfor theft, he was in daily communication with his handlers at the FBI.
The Rolling Stone article quotes Housh explaining, "Hammond had no idea what he'd done [by dumping the Stratfor files on the open internet instead of giving them to Wikileaks]. The FBI were a day away from having evidence against Assange, and Hammond screwed it up for them. That's why they went after him so hard."
The government says that Barrett Brown is a terrorist and a thief. His supporters say he is a journalist that didn’t do anything different than what tens of thousands of other journalists do every day – he included a link to the publically available website that provided his articles’ source material. If he’s convicted, journalists won’t be the only ones going to prison. Everyone posts, pastes and emails web page links.
For more information, visit FreeBarrettBrown.org.
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