Image via Nikki Loehr
Barrett Brown has been sitting in prison, without trial, for almost a year. In case you haven’t followed his case, the 31-year-old journalist is facing a century of prison time for sharing a link that contained – within an archive of 5 million emails – credit-card information stolen from a hack of a security company called Stratfor (Jeremy Hammond, the actual hacker, is going to prison for ten years), threatening the family of an FBI officer who raided his mother’s home and trying to hide his laptops from the Feds.
The flood of NSA leaks from Edward Snowden has placed extra attention on Barrett, who focused on investigating a partnership that many people are incredibly uncomfortable with – the connections between private security, surveillance, intelligence firms and the US government.
Barrett’s website, ProjectPM, used a small team of researchers to pore over leaked emails, news articles and public corporate information to figure out what this industry does exactly, and how they serve the White House. It’s partly because of Barrett that we know about things like persona management, a technology used by the US government and its contractors to disseminate information online using fake personas, also known as sock puppets.
He also helped the world learn about TrapWire, a surveillance program that’s built into security cameras all over the world and “more accurate than facial recognition technology.” When it was made public in the pre-Snowden era, most media outlets played it off as not being a big deal. We still don’t know exactly how powerful TrapWire is, but, because of the Strafor hack and Barrett’s research, at least we know it exists.
Anyone interested in getting involved with ProjectPM is invited with this call to action: “If you care that the surveillance state is expanding in capabilities and intent without being effectively opposed by the population of the West, you can assist in making this an actionable resource for journalists, activists and other interested parties,” which sums up the quest for information that is, in and of itself, on trial in Barrett’s case. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Guardian regarding the prosecution of Barrett Brown, “here we have the US government targeting someone they clearly loathe because of the work he is doing against their actions.”
Barrett is set to appear in court next month, but his defence attorneys are asking for an extension to sort through the prosecutors’ evidence. The defence insists they’re in the midst of having a forensics expert process the data. The US government’s evidence is stored on a 2 Terabyte hard drive and two DVDs, and the prosecutors are essentially arguing that a) all of that does not account for much information, despite the forensic processing that is still ongoing, and b) the defence has had enough time to get their shit together. But, beyond that, they’re trying to silence the media coverage surrounding Barrett Brown’s case.
Within the government’s “Opposition to Continuance”, written to oppose an extension of Barrett’s trial, is a lengthy section about his supposed media strategy. In this section, the government prosecutors have claimed Barrett’s defence team is defying the judge’s warning to not “try the case in the media”. It also states “the government has reason to believe that Brown’s attorney coordinates and/or approves the use of media”.
After that is a list of occasions where Barrett communicated with members of the media, myself included. For what it’s worth, I did not arrange that interview through Barrett’s attorneys, nor did his current attorneys represent him at the time of our conversation. The government is asking for a complete ban on media statements from Barrett and his representatives. It appears to be a desperate strategy to silence criticism and dissent in a case that already deeply threatens the nature of journalism and freedom of information.
Also alluded to in the government’s outline of journalists who have covered Barrett Brown are Glenn Greenwald and the late Michael Hastings, who was a friend of Barrett’s. As Hastings himself said: “Barrett Brown is a journalist, plain and simple. He’s also a colleague and friend, and one of the brilliant, if highly unconventional, American writers of his generation. I offer my support to Barrett and his family, and respectfully ask for his immediate release from custody.”
While the judge waits to decide whether or not Barrett’s trial date should be extended, and if a media gag order should be allowed (his defence rightfully points out this request comes without citing any particularly offensive or justice-obstructing statement Barrett has made thus far), we have decided to publish an original article from Barrett Brown himself, which you can read right over here. It compares the Watergate era to the WikiLeaks era, and does not deal with the specifics of Barrett’s trial.
Barrett Brown is an imprisoned author who deserves to be published while he navigates the harsh obstacles of today’s American justice system. The precedent that a guilty verdict – and a 100-year prison sentence – would set is troubling. But, as Barrett told me in March, he’s not “terribly worried” about the punishment he’s facing. While it’s hard to fully believe him, it’s certainly reassuring for someone like me who is in fact quite worried about what prison time, in this case, could mean for the future of investigative reporting, internet security and journalism at large.
If Barrett goes to prison for digging into the pitch-black world of online surveillance, it will make figuring out what America’s massive intelligence firms are doing with their powerful, secret surveillance tools even more difficult and dangerous than it already is. With Edward Snowden stuck in Russia and Bradley Manning facing well over a century of hard time, the world simply can’t afford to lose Barrett as well.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire